Farmers And The Health Care Debate


by Ben Lilliston | September 1, 2009 • Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs out there, with a fatality rate nine times higher than the average job. Farm families, including children, are also at risk for injuries and death. So, the stakes are particularly high for farmers in the current debate over national health care.

In an August analysis, the USDA’s Economic Research Service breaks down the health risks to farmers: “Farmers face risks from working with machinery and animals as well as from potential exposures to high concentrations of hazardous substances associated with agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. As a result, farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure.”

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

As far as health insurance, farmers are on their own. The challenge of finding affordable insurance is why many farmers themselves, or members of their family, take off-farm jobs. Among non-elderly whose primary occupation is farming, the USDA found that one in five (and 5 percent of seniors) did not have health insurance; not surprisingly one in five farmers struggle with medical debt, according to the Access Project.

The current health care debate rivals the farm bill in its complexity—but one of the key issues is whether a public option from the government will be included. A public option would compete with private insurers and could provide particular benefits for individuals who are not part of an employer plan—like farmers. The Center for Rural Affairs makes a strong case for why a public option plan is good for rural communities overall.

With so much at stake for farmers, where do the two biggest U.S. farm groups come down on health care? The American Farm Bureau Federation is against a public option. The National Farmers Union is for it. Does the Farm Bureau’s position reflect its heavy investments in the private insurance industry (among other industries) laid out in a 2000 report by Defenders of Wildlife?

The failings of the our health care system affect all farmers—big and small, conventional and organic. Maybe we need a new variation on a popular bumper sticker: “No healthy farmers, no food.”