Review of The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice. Dvera I. Saxton, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 233 pp.

Reviewed Book

The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice. Dvera I. Saxton, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 233 pp.

The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice. Dvera I. Saxton, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021, 233pp.

Nolan Kline

University of North Texas Health Science Center

In The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice, Dvera Saxton shows how farmwork is “a harm industry”: a destructive form of labor that hurts people and the natural environment. Saxton describes how harmful circumstances that structure migrant farm workers’ poor health are built into California’s industrial agricultural business model, revealing health and environmental concerns associated with exploitative agricultural labor. She also calls on all readers to engage in the kind of critical medical anthropological activism that inspired her to do the fieldwork resulting in this book. Building on a robust scholarly literature in medical anthropology and activist anthropology, Saxton positions herself as not just an anthropologist, but an activist whose research is inseparable from her own personal and professional values.

Saxton’s intellectual endeavors and motivation to respond to structural inequalities that shape poor health were fashioned at an early age. She reflects on how her upbringing, family relationships, and positionality as a white woman are sources of privilege that influence her reception into Latinx farmworker communities where she works and inform her intentions to be held accountable to readers and other scholars. This type of reflection and call for accountability is particularly important as anthropologists continue to teach the necessary work of decolonizing the discipline while being attentive to how fieldwork itself can reinforce troubling colonial power dynamics.

The book is organized into seven chapters, including an introduction and conclusion. Early chapters summarize activist anthropology and critical medical anthropology’s activist inclinations, a key goal of Saxton’s own activist endeavor as she aims to challenge common and incorrect narratives about immigrants in the United States. Saxton analyzes how politics can dehumanize immigrants and perpetuate racism that justifies restricted rights. She also explains how the exploitative nature of contemporary agricultural work is predicated on a deep history of racialized myths that justify exploitative labor in farming. Farmwork, like other low wage jobs, is stigmatized as it perpetuates poverty, and in the United States there is a cultural and political aversion to people in poverty, who are seen cultural and economic drains. Exploitation of low wage workers, including farmworkers, results in continued massive profit streams for large corporations such as Chiquita, Driscoll’s, Starbucks, and Walmart. Saxton weaves together critiques of capitalism and histories of racial inequality in labor that structure poor health for many workers in the United States, including farmworkers.

To address misconceptions about strawberry farming, Saxton examines strawberries as a superfood, processed ingredient, and erotic symbol associated with romance. Saxton explores the history of strawberries and contemporary agricultural efforts to prioritize high yields of crops that are a uniform shape, consistency, and color. These efforts require extensive use of fumigants and intensive natural resource extraction. Saxton describes fumigation processes that involve injecting soil with gas or liquid fumigants that kill pathogens and other organisms while exposing community members to toxic pollutants. Farmworkers play a role in every step of the process around fumigation, including removing plastic wrapping that poorly contains fumigants without protective equipment. Once fumigated, strawberries are picked by farmworkers who face grueling tasks of filling flats with strawberries and working quickly to meet a day’s quota.

In telling the history of strawberries and their agricultural production in the United States, Saxton also describes a history of California’s venture capitalists and the violent removal of indigenous and Mexican people to transform large tracts of land into commercial agricultural sites. As she notes, strawberries and other crops have a history tied to the legacy of manifest destiny and its concomitant problems. This troubling history may demoralize readers, but Saxton points out that there are numerous dilemmas in any system of food production and procurement. She asserts that discussing these dilemmas demystifies the process of food production and consumption.

Saxton’s analysis of toxicity includes not just pesticides, but social, economic, ecological, and political harms and relationships. Drawing from theories of syndemics and chronicities, she describes a situation of “toxic layering”: multiple visible and invisible harms that aggregate to produce poor health. Saxton points to failures in governmental action, noting, for example, how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency almost exclusively relies on pesticide companies to provide toxicity data, and that the Trump administration worked hard to combat efforts to allow farmworkers access to information about carcinogenic chemicals and potential exposure to toxic chemicals. This concept is a particularly useful analytic that can be used in future medical anthropological research.

Adding to the book’s focus of activist anthropology as a method, Saxton describes how relationship building between anthropologists and community members provides valuable moments for ethnographic data collection and friendship. She asserts how the friendships themselves are a type of activism that push back against the extractive and exploitative nature of fieldwork, research, and knowledge production. Drawing from Whitney Duncan’s (2018) work on “accompaniment” during a post-Trump presidency, Saxton explains the complex relationships ethnographers can forge with communities that are marked by friendship and solidarity. For Saxton, accompaniment sometimes looks like a combination of being a friend, social worker, and confidant. Overall, Saxton explains how accompaniment and other forms of engagement are kinds of political care and commitments to be present in the well-being of researched communities. These points will surely resonate with readers who have found themselves creating close bonds with individuals during fieldwork and felt deep commitments as a result of those bonds. 

Closeness and activist engagement can create emotional challenges. Saxton recounts a moment where she entered a public screaming match with a state policymaker, later sobbing on a curb while processing her emotions. Such emotions, she explains, are part of how she sees activist anthropology as a commitment to making the struggle of a vulnerable community your own. Saxton borrows from social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger’s ecosocial theory (2001) and medical anthropologist Adrienne Pine’s (2013) concept of somatic solidarities to describe forms of activism among teachers, unions, and students. Saxton points out how teachers’ and students’ participation in resistance efforts around the agricultural industry and pesticides extend from a place of care. In doing so, she raises questions about anthropologists as care workers through activist oriented ethnography. These themes are echoed in the book’s conclusion, which features reflections on being an activist researcher following the election of Donald Trump, with particular attention to policies the Trump administration championed that harmed immigrant populations.

Overall, the book is well written, timely, and engaging. It is perfectly suited for introductory anthropology courses and is sure to engage undergraduate students new to the discipline and interested in matters such as food justice, immigration, politics, and environmental justice. It is especially well suited for courses in medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, engaged or activist anthropology, and would be an excellent feature for courses on food and agricultural politics. The book would be a fine companion to other ethnographies on immigration and farmworker health and is a compelling read for all anthropologists interested in merging anthropological work with activist pursuits and environmental politics. The Devil’s Fruit serves as an important primer to critical medical anthropology’s history of activist engagement and political action.

References Cited

Duncan, W. 2018. Accompañamiento/Accompaniment. Society for Cultural Anthropology, January 31.ñamiento-accompaniment.

Krieger, N. 2001. Theories for Social Epidemiology in the 21st Century: An Ecosocial Perspective. International Journal of Epidemiology 30: 668–77.

Pine, A. 2013. Revolution as a Care Plan: Ethnography, Nursing and Somatic Solidarity in Honduras. Social Science & Medicine 99: 143–52.