Since the end of the Second World War when the chemistry that pesticides are based upon was first developed as a weapon of war, the adoption of the use of pesticides in our agriculture has happened on an industrial scale.
Their use, overuse and misuse has been creating problems for biodiversity, the environment and the people of the UK ever since and it is clear that not enough is being done to stop the negative outcomes.
The UK agriculture sector is increasingly being expected to not only produce food but also provide environmental and social benefits. For this to happen successfully there needs to be a paradigm shift in our approach to pesticide use. With the UK choosing to rescind its membership of the European Union, there is now a great opportunity to bring in a number of much needed reforms to make the agricultural sector more sustainable. However, that same opportunity also ushers in an era of uncertainty and risk that could see many of the positive pieces of EU legislation on pesticides rolled back or reversed.
Why is the Pesticide Action Network UK concerned about the issue of pesticides in agriculture? It is often stated by government officials, and others, that the UK has one of the strictest and most efficient pesticide regulatory systems in the world and that there is no need to worry about their use for growing our food. But is that the reality? Data from those same government officials and a wide range of other sources, including independent academic studies, clearly shows that there is serious cause for concern and that all is not well in the British countryside.
In the first instance, the use of pesticides is not declining, despite some reports to the contrary. It is true that the overall weight of pesticides used has fallen, but this does not tell the whole story and is an ineffective method for measuring pesticide use reduction. Since the 1950s, pesticides have become more sophisticated, lower in weight, but also far more toxic. As an example, a recently developed class of insecticide, neonicotinoids, are by weight up to 10,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT, the insecticide made famous by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring. While DDT has long been banned for use in agriculture, the use of neonicotinoids has increased dramatically.
In the years from 2000 to 2013 the total area treated with neonicotinoids in the UK rose from 346,813 hectares to 1,369,171 hectares, a substantial increase. This however, has not led to a decrease in the use of other substances that neonicotinoids were supposed to replace, such as pyrethroids: their use has remained almost constant over the same time period. So, far from reducing the pesticide load on the environment, the chemical stress has actually increased in recent years.
The increased use of neonicotinoids has come with its own set of problems, declining bee and pollinator populations. This is not just a problem in the UK but worryingly, a global trend. While these declines are not solely the responsibility of neonicotinoids their use, combined with other factors including the intensification of agriculture in general and habitat loss, is having a catastrophic effect on pollinator populations.
There have also been increases in the use of other pesticides, including the controversial herbicide glyphosate, which has recently been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation. Not only does the current rate of glyphosate use have the potential to harm human health, the increase in use of herbicides in general is reducing plant diversity in agricultural areas. This, coupled with intensive monoculture agriculture, is resulting in virtual biodiversity deserts as wild plant diversity is reduced.
Similarly, populations of all bird species in the UK have been on a decreasing trend since 1970. In particular, species of farmland bird have seen the steepest decline. This alarming collapse has seen a reduction of some key species including the Yellowhammer, corn bunting and turtledoves.
And that is not the end of the poisoning story. Pesticides find their way into our water bodies, which can result in contaminated drinking water; this, despite a focus on trying to stop contamination of water by pesticides. A telling quote from the managing director of Welsh Water, Ian Christie, sums the situation up nicely: ‘Our routine raw water monitoring programme has detected increasing traces of pesticides in areas we have never seen them before. While these levels are too low to pose a risk to those drinking the water, they are enough to breach the rigorous drinking water standards so we want to work with land managers to take action to address this issue together.’
So what is the answer? It is really quite simple, the UK needs to:
- Introduce targets to reduce the use of pesticides with a focus on phasing out those that are most hazardous to human or environmental health
- Support farmers to adopt more agro-ecological farming techniques
- Support and promote the development of organic agriculture including developing markets for organic produce
- Develop a system of incentives for paying farmers to switch away from pesticides and to deliver real environmental benefits in the areas that they farm.
Above all, we require a change in the way we all think about pesticides. Government needs to work towards reducing and stopping the use of pesticides and to assist farmers in making changes. Retailers need to encourage and support their growers and suppliers to reduce and stop pesticide use. The public has to demand and also buy products that are grown in a more sustainable way.
All of this can happen, it is not difficult, but we need politicians with vision who are prepared to drive this forward. We urgently need to halt the alarming consequences of our over reliance on toxic chemicals to grow our food.
Photo by jetsandzeppelins