NEWS: CDC retracts finding that farmers have the highest suicide rate in the country

migrants workers on an organic farm

Photos by USDA / Collage by New Food Economy

migrants workers on an organic farm

Photos by USDA / Collage by New Food Economy

It's a narrative that was widely reported based on incorrect data. Policy efforts followed. But CDC has confirmed it was wrong.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that a widely cited result on farmer suicides was wrong. Over the past several months, numerous writers and reporters have relied on the finding, originally from a 2016 CDC report, to argue that farmers have the highest suicide rate in the country. That report found that workers in the “farming, fishing, and forestry,” job category killed themselves at over four times the national average, far and away the highest in the study.

But on Friday, Courtney Lenard, a public relations official, confirmed to us in an email that CDC had misclassified farmers as farming, fishing, and forestry, or “Triple-F,” workers. This error inflated the suicide rate for Triple-F workers and made any conclusions about farmer suicides impossible to determine. The revised rate for Triple-F workers is now third among occupational groups in the study, while CDC has yet to release a suicide rate for farmers.

Read the CDC email retracting its erroneous report stating that farmers face the highest suicide rate in full here.
We showed, in an article published last Thursday, that the study never justified the way reporters have covered it. The headline result was that farmers had the highest suicide rate, even though farmers do not belong in the Triple-F category, a federal occupational category that is almost entirely composed of agricultural workers. Working under the assumption that CDC had erroneously classified farmers with agricultural workers, we demonstrated that the agency divided the number of farmer and Triple-F worker suicides by Triple-F workers only, which doubled the rate researchers should have reported.

Although the study suggested it was agricultural workers, not farmers, who had a high suicide rate, the media focused relentlessly on farmers. As politicians began to write the 2018 Farm Bill, they referenced the high rate of farmer suicide, assertions that rested on CDC’s research. The original draft of the Senate farm bill included language that would have restricted, if not excluded, agricultural workers from access to a program designed to boost mental health services to all agriculture-related occupations. The Senate has since amended the bill to include agricultural workers, but legislators could still remove that expansive language or even kill the program.

None of this is to say that farmers do not have a high suicide rate. Lenard wrote us that CDC misclassified 90 farmers into the Triple-F category: if we divide them by our estimate of the total number of farmers (using the same survey as CDC did) we get a rate that could be as high as fourth in the study.

But that rate would still fall below the rate for Triple-F workers. While we cannot know how many of the suicides classified as Triple-F were agricultural workers, the fact that they comprise between 80 and 90 percent of the category is highly suggestive. And since there is little research on agricultural worker suicides—or farmer suicides for that matter—these results should spur further research.

Agricultural workers are 80 percent Hispanic and have household incomes around $23,000 a year. Their employers, farmers, are almost entirely white and have household incomes around $79,000 per year. When a study came out that ostensibly had nothing to do with farmers and everything to do with farm workers, journalists chose to omit the latter group from their reporting almost entirely. Politicians may now do the same in the farm bill. Researchers make mistakes, as do reporters and politicians. But what is much less certain is whether they will do right by some of the most exploited workers in the country.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 11:12 a.m., EST on June 28, to reflect that the Senate had adjusted language to include agricultural workers in its farm bill language on mental health support. You can find that text on page 656 of the farm bill.

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Nathan Rosenberg is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, where his research focuses on inequality, agriculture, and the environment. He also teaches agricultural law at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Bryce Wilson Stucki is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has published essays in the Journal of Food Law and Policy, The American Prospect, and The Nation.