‘The toxic poster child of Europe’: the UK’s controversial pesticide policies

A tractor spraying some pesticides
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A new study has revealed that, post-Brexit, the UK government is allowing the use of dozens of pesticides that are banned in the EU. This raises further questions about UK policy decisions upon leaving the bloc. Moreover, there are numerous potential risks to health associated with the pesticides in question.

Post-Brexit UK pesticide policy: falling standards

According to a study by the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), there are presently 36 pesticides authorised for use in the UK that are prohibited in EU nations. The list is available as a spreadsheet download here.

Among the 36 approved pesticides, 13 are categorized as highly hazardous. This group includes four pesticides that pose a high toxicity risk to bees, one that contaminates water, and another that is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. The UK will continue to employ these 13 hazardous pesticides for an additional two-to-five years compared to EU nations.

PAN UK’s policy officer Nick Mole said:

The UK is becoming the toxic poster child of Europe. The government has repeatedly promised that our environmental standards won’t slip post-Brexit. And yet here we are, less than four years later, and already we’re seeing our standards fall far behind those of the EU.

With UK bees and other pollinators in decline, and our waters never more polluted, now is the time to be taking steps to protect nature. Instead, the government is choosing to expose British wildlife to an ever-more toxic soup of chemicals.

Far-reaching consequences

Additionally, PAN UK’s study unveiled an increasing concern for human health. It noted that of the 36 pesticides which the UK has permitted:

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  • Twelve are classed as carcinogens. These are “capable of causing different types of cancer, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma”.
  • Nine are endocrine disruptors (EDCs). These “interfere with hormone systems and can cause birth defects, developmental disorders, and reproductive problems such as infertility”.
  • Eight are developmental or reproductive toxins. They can have “adverse effects on sexual function and fertility in both adults and children”. They can “reduce the number and functionality of sperm and cause miscarriages”.
  • Two are cholinesterase inhibitors. These “reduce the ability of nerve cells to pass information to each other”. They can also impair the respiratory system – causing “confusion, headaches, and weakness”.
  • One is classified as acutely toxic. This means that “adverse health effects can result either from a single exposure or from multiple ones in a short period of time (usually 24 hours)”.

One of the primary reasons for the disparity in standards originates from a decision made by the UK government. It granted an automatic three-year extension to all pesticides with licenses set to expire before December 2023. This indicated limited governmental capacity for re-approving pesticides.

As PAN UK noted:

The majority – 30 – of the chemicals in question were allowed for use in the EU when the UK left on 31st January 2020, but have since been removed from the EU market. The remaining six chemicals have been approved by the UK government, but not in the EU, since Brexit.

Previously, the UK had a policy of granting a maximum 15-year license to pesticides before requiring re-approval, acknowledging the substantial risks these chemicals pose to both human health and the environment.

Potentially “devastating” effects

Mole noted that:

The UK government promised to drive a reduction in pesticide use back in 2018 and yet we’re still waiting for them to take action”, added Mole.

He explained that these measures will also affect trade deals between the UK and EU:

The Emerging gap between the UK and EU pesticide standards is incredibly concerning for our human health and environmental protections, but also for the future of UK agriculture as our standards fall further and further behind those of our largest trading partner.

UK food exports containing pesticides that EU growers aren’t allowed to use, are likely to be rejected. Given that the EU still accounts for around 60% of UK agricultural exports, the impact on farmers could be devastating.

PAN UK urged the UK government to, at the very least, maintain alignment with EU pesticide norms. The group also said it must prevent any further deterioration of existing UK standards.

Additionally, PAN UK advocates for the immediate implementation of long-overdue measures. These include:

  • Pesticide reduction targets.
  • The halting of pesticide use in urban areas.
  • Enhancing state support for farmers in order to reduce their reliance on agrochemicals.

The UK pesticide policies will have far-reaching effects, impacting not just the health of individuals and the environment, but also our farmers and our trade agreements with the EU, our largest trading partner.

Featured image via pxfuel

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