The UK urgently needs to adopt a new system for meaningfully monitoring pesticide use. Without accurate data, it’s impossible to ensure that our regulatory system is fit-for-purpose and able to protect human health and environment from the toxic effects of pesticides.
Pesticide use in the UK is rising, according to an analysis of government data - and contrary to the claims of pro-pesticide lobby groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and Crop Protection Association (CPA).
These organisations frequently claim that the amount of pesticides used in the UK has halved since 1990 when defending pesticide use, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) has claimed.
But the statistic is meaningless, since it refers to the weight of the pesticides used and ignores the strength of toxicity, which is significantly higher than that used in the 1990s, the campaign group has argued.
PAN UK has scrutinised data from the environment department (Defra), which is hosted on the website of Fera Science. A briefing of its findings states that modern neonicotinoids - which remain the second most widely used insecticide in the UK in terms of land treated, are more than 10,000 times more potent than DDT - the pesticide banned globally in 2001 due to concerns about harm to the environment and human health.
Between 1990 and 2016, the area of land treated with all pesticides rose by 63 percent while the area treated with fungicides increased by 69 percent and herbicides by 60 percent, it said.
The number of times crops are treated has also risen, it found. In 1990, a hectare of agricultural land was treated with pesticides an average of 2.5 times in a growing season. But by 2016, this had almost doubled to 4.2 times a season. Similarly, a hectare of potatoes went from being sprayed an average of 12.4 times in 1990, to 32 times in 2016, it found.
PAN UK’s research also revealed that farmers tended to add new chemicals to their arsenal, rather than use them to replace older ones.
For example, neonicotinoids were designed in part to replace pyrethroid insecticides due to concerns over their impact on the environment. But the research found that farmers are now using both.
The campaign group wants the government to move to a more holistic way of measuring pesticide use, such as treatment frequency index (FTI), and number of doses (NODU). Both of these are used in a number of European countries, including France and Denmark, it points out.
Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at PAN UK, said: "The UK urgently needs to adopt a new system for meaningfully monitoring pesticide use.
"Without accurate data, it’s impossible to ensure that our regulatory system is fit-for-purpose and able to protect human health and environment from the toxic effects of pesticides."
However, the CPA stood by its claims on pesticide use. Sarah Mukherjee, the association’s chief executive, said: “Advances in product development, formulation and application ensure that modern pesticides are safer and more precisely targeted, meaning farmers need to use less active ingredient.”
She went on to claim that “cutting edge” research and development by plant science companies had brought this about while the area being treated has almost doubled.
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“On average it takes 11 years of research and development, costing over £200m, to bring a crop protection product to market. It is this process, backed by effective and independent regulatory scrutiny at both UK and EU level, that ensures the public can have absolute confidence in the safety of our products for human health and the environment,” she added.
This view was supported by Dr Chris Hartfield, the senior regulatory affairs adviser at the NFU, who said that pesticides had to pass strict regulations before their use was allowed, including providing evidence that they pose no unacceptable risk to people, animals or the environment.
Meanwhile, the CHEM Trust - a chemicals campaign group - has published a report outlining how the industry is replacing hormone disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA) with similar chemicals that could also be harmful.
BPA is a chemical used in till receipts, polycarbonate water bottles and food can linings. It mimics the female hormone, increasing the risk of breast cancer, impairs sperm counts, impacts on diabetes and obesity, and hyperactivity in children.
Many manufacturers have replaced BPA with bisphenol S, but researchers are now finding that these are also potential hormone disruptors.
The risk assessment committee of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) states that BPS “may have a toxicological profile similar to BPA”. Use of these similar chemicals have not yet been controlled by regulators.
CHEM Trust has written to ECHA, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Commission’s health commissioner to ask them to restrict use of similar chemicals unless industry has good data to show that the chemical they wish to use does not have the same properties as those of the chemical being restricted.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.