Tackling the problems caused by pesticides

Mar 19, 2024

By Sam Claydon, Pesticide Action Network UK

Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) was founded almost forty years ago with a mission to end the harms to human health and the environment caused by pesticides. In fact, PAN UK is the only UK charity that focusses solely on tackling the problems caused by pesticides in agriculture, urban areas, homes and gardens and promotes safe and sustainable alternatives.

The role pesticides play in our lives is often vastly underestimated. They are present in most of our food, used widely in the countryside and even in our towns and cities. In fact, exposure is impossible to avoid. It has been estimated that less than 0.1% of pesticides reach their target organisms, leaving the remainder to contaminate our environment.
While part of PAN UK’s focus is on projects overseas, such as training smallholder farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and promoting policies that strengthen international pesticide-reduction commitments, we have a team working hard on local campaigns that aim to better protect UK residents and wildlife.
As a small organisation with limited funds, strategy is key in terms of figuring out where we can have the most impact. As a result, we currently focus on three main areas of work: ending the use of pesticides in urban spaces; tackling pesticides in supermarket supply chains; and advocating for change in pesticide policy at a national level.

Pesticide-Free Towns

Our grassroots Pesticide-Free Towns Campaign aims to end the amenity use of pesticides by councils in parks, playgrounds, verges, cemeteries, housing estates and other urban spaces in towns and cities across the country. Other than residues in food, the most common way for the majority of people in the UK to be exposed to pesticides is through spending time in urban, public areas.

Pesticide sprayer in Lewisham [photo credit: Iris Borgers]

The majority of pesticides used in our towns and cities are herbicides (weedkillers). Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the world, has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a ‘probable human carcinogen’. It is used by councils to control plant growth and there is no requirement to inform the public that spraying is taking place. This means that children and pets can unknowingly walk and play on ground that has recently been doused in harmful chemicals. In addition, pesticides have a devastating impact on urban biodiversity. They run off into water courses and kill the plants relied upon by insects, birds and other wildlife.

While there is a need to keep pavements and paths accessible for all, there are many non-chemical alternatives that can be used instead of pesticides. There is an urgent need to shift focus away from the ‘neat and tidy’ approach, instead turning our urban spaces into safe, thriving habitats for people and pets and encouraging biodiversity back onto our streets. France banned the use of pesticides in urban areas in 2019 and has functioned very well without them ever since, proving that it can be done.    

By supporting local campaigners and working closely with progressive councillors, a total of 49 UK councils are now entirely pesticide-free, with 55 making significant progress towards ending their pesticide use. Ultimately, we are aiming for the UK to follow France’s lead and introduce a nationwide ban on urban pesticide use.

Supermarket supply chains

Supermarkets are at the top of the ‘food chain’ in terms of pesticide use. Not only do the majority of their suppliers use pesticides at all levels of food production, from preparing the land for sowing (herbicides), managing pests and weeds during crop growth (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, plant growth regulators), desiccation of certain crops pre-harvest (herbicides) and for transport and storage (fungicides), many of them also sell pesticide products for personal home and garden use as well as for use on pets to manage ticks and fleas.  

PAN UK is working behind-the-scenes with the UK’s top ten supermarkets and their technical staff. We are spurring them on to restrict some of the most hazardous pesticides in their supply chains, chemicals which include carcinogens, hormone disruptors, bee-toxins and water contaminants. We also encourage the public to put pressure on supermarket CEOs, urging them to reduce their use of bee-toxic pesticides, take pesticide products for use in home gardens off their shelves, and to reduce pesticides in their supply chains overall. Every few years PAN UK ranks the top ten supermarkets on their progress, the next ranking is due out later this year. This work has been very positive so far with many of these powerful corporations making significant changes that not only have direct impacts on their customers, but also on farmworkers, wildlife and the environment. We will continue to provide them with guidance and will keep up the pressure, but support from the public is very valuable in this area. A number of supermarkets have told us that it is feedback from their customers that spurs them to make change.

The Dirty Dozen

While PAN UK encourages supermarkets to publish their own pesticide residue testing data in order to provide customers with greater transparency, we also publish our own ‘Dirty Dozen’ which is based on analysis of residue testing data produced by the UK Government. The guide lists the fruit and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with multiple pesticides (known as ‘pesticide cocktails’) so that shoppers can choose to avoid them or buy the organic alternative instead.

Analysis of the data has thrown up some interesting facts. For example, grapes often rank near the top of the Dirty Dozen each year. Testing in 2022 examined grapes from thirteen countries, including South Africa, Brazil, India and Spain. In total, 94 of the 112 samples tested were found to contain residues of more than one pesticide. Forty-seven different pesticide active substances were detected across all samples, including thirty-one fungicides, fourteen insecticides and one herbicide. Nine of these pesticides are not approved for use in the UK due to concerns about impacts on human health or the environment, eighteen are classified as Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), eleven are carcinogenic and eight are endocrine disruptors (interfere with hormone systems). Our analysis also goes beyond fruit and veg to show, for example, that pesticide residues in wine has trebled since 2016.

National-level work to detoxify UK agriculture

PAN UK has long advocated for the UK Government to implement or improve policies that reduce the use of pesticides in UK agriculture, but this work has escalated since Brexit as we pay close attention to changes in regulations and new trade negotiations that may result in a loss of hard-won progress made in the past.

We have already seen that the UK is falling behind the EU in removing chemicals from the market that post a risk to human health and the environment. Analysis has revealed that there are now 36 pesticides that can be used in the UK but are not currently allowed in EU countries. Of those, thirteen are considered Highly Hazardous Pesticides, including four that are highly toxic to bees, one that contaminates water and one that is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Twelve are classified as carcinogens, nine as endocrine disruptors and eight are developmental or reproductive toxins. 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.

PAN UK is calling for the UK government to not fall behind EU pesticide standards and ideally go further in protecting human health and the environment.

Find out more about PAN UK’s work at www.pan-uk.org or follow us on social media. If you’d like to support our work with a donation we thank you for any support you can give and promise to use your donation in the best way possible.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Sam Claydon for writing this powerful article for us and to everyone at PAN UK for all of their hard work, campaigning for safe and sustainable alternatives to the chemicals being used on so many farms and public places today.

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