Is the new UK Agriculture Bill a triumph or a travesty?

Michael Gove and his dog, Snowy

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, at home with his pet dog Snowy.

The Telegraph
Pesticides remain the 'elephant in the room' for Michael Gove, the environment secretary, and DEFRA. But until the issue is properly addressed the environmental crisis and fears for human health will only continue, argues GEORGINA DOWNS

Pesticides remain the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in agricultural areas, as well as damaging human health. 

The long awaited Agriculture Bill finally made its first appearance this week when it was introduced before Parliament. This is the UK Government’s plan on what UK farming will look like post Brexit.

There is no reference to the protection of human health or public health in the Agriculture Bill as regards to farmers, the main users of pesticides - despite the DEFRA Consultation that preceded the publication of the Agriculture Bill being called Health and Harmony.

In fact, it seems that the only notable references to the health of 'people' are in relation to the functions of public authorities.

Human health

There is no specific mention of pesticides except in three places when defining persons “closely connected” with an agri-food supply chain as including those supplying pesticides.

Further, there does not appear to be any specific mention of agro-chemicals or chemicals at all.

There is only a vague reference in a couple of places to "preventing, reducing or protecting from environmental hazards" - but with no definition of those hazards and so as said nothing specifically on either pesticides or human health and certainly nothing in relation to protecting human health from pesticides!

Therefore, there is no recognition or even any specific reference in the Agriculture Bill - or Mr Gove's statements - to the continued risks associated with the continued use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals on crop fields across the UK.

Pesticides remain the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in agricultural areas, as well as damaging human health. 

Agricultural pesticides

This means that much of the perceived benefits of the proposed new Agriculture Bill that Michael Gove and DEFRA are advocating simply will not materialise.

The widespread use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in our existing farming system appears to be the Government’s ‘elephant in the room’ because of DEFRA's reluctance to mention it - let alone focus on it.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of land use in the UK, and has a major influence on our environment. Considering that currently only around 3% of farmland in the UK is organic, then the vast majority of the 70% of land that is used in the UK for agriculture will be land that is regularly sprayed under the existing chemical intensive conventional farming system.

Latest Government statistics show that regarding just pesticides alone (ie. not including chemical fertilisers and all the other agro chemicals used in conventional farming), in 2014 the total area treated with pesticides on agricultural and horticultural crops was 80,107,993 hectares, with the total weight applied 17,757,242 kg.

The reality of crop spraying in the countryside is that it involves cocktails of pesticides, as agricultural pesticides are rarely used individually but commonly sprayed in mixtures - quite often a mixture will consist of 4 or 5 different products.

Pesticides remain the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in agricultural areas, as well as damaging human health. 

Rural citizens

There are approx. 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for UK agricultural use and each product formulation in itself can contain a number of active ingredients, as well as other hazardous chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants, co-formulants (and many of which can have adverse effects on human health in their own right, even before considering any potential synergistic effects in a chemical mixture).

Therefore if the Government continues to permit the release of innumerable cocktails of pesticides and other harmful chemicals over the majority of UK land then how will farming change in a post Brexit landscape? The answer is simple. It won’t.

The pollution and contamination of our health and the environment must be stopped at the highest level, which means if such harmful farming practices are no longer permitted by the Government then farmers would have to adapt and find alternative methods that do not put public health and the environment at the risk of harm.

It is concrete and definitive action that is needed to clean up UK agriculture. This is very long overdue, especially regarding the protection of human health and lives.

For over 7 decades rural residents and communities have not been protected from the risks that pesticides pose to us and our families, and there have been no mandatory measures in the UK specifically for the protection of rural citizens.


While operators generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment, respirators, and will be in filtered cabs – rural residents and communities have absolutely no protection at all. In any event residents would obviously not be expected to wear such equipment on their own property and land!

There are many thousands of known cases of adverse health impacts reported by rural residents across the UK, but which the Government has continued to blatantly ignore. Obviously with millions of rural residents exposed in crop sprayed areas there will undoubtedly be many more unreported cases.

A few examples of the truly harrowing experiences from other affected rural residents can be seen within my ongoing petition which calls on the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to urgently secure the protection of rural residents and communities by banning all crop spraying and use of any pesticides near residents’ homes, schools, and children’s playgrounds.

The campaign petition has also been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, Ben Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas MP, among others.

A number of recent major international reports have detailed the damage to human health from existing industrial and chemical-intensive conventional food and farming systems.

For example:

  • The United Nations report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food in March 2017 that found that chronic exposure to agricultural pesticides has been associated with several diseases and conditions including cancer, developmental disorders, and sterility, and that those living near crop fields are particularly vulnerable to exposure from these chemicals;
  • The IPES-FOOD report that outlines the unacceptable harm caused by the current chemical farming systems; exposes just some of the astronomical health costs externalized by the current system; and finds an urgent and “overwhelming case for action.” The report found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers – are linked to industrial food and farming practices, including chemical-intensive agriculture;
  • The Lancet Commission on pollution and health report on the global deaths and chronic diseases from outdoor air pollution, and which included from the use of pesticides. In fact the lead author was reported as saying that his biggest concern is the impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world.


Wiped out

The 2017 UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded that moving away from pesticide-reliant industrial agriculture to non-chemical farming methods should now be a political priority in all countries globally.

The new post Brexit UK Agriculture Bill and policy provides a real opportunity for the UK to adopt such a non-chemical farming policy in order to no longer use toxic chemicals in the production of our food.

This would then protect not only the health of rural residents and communities, as well as other members of the public, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, other species, and biodiversity.

So here's hoping that Parliamentarians will amend the Agriculture Bill to reflect the health and environmental protections that are so urgently needed.

The origins of traditional farming methods did not include dependence on chemical inputs for mass production. Such poisons should never have had any place in the air we breathe, food we eat, and environment we live in.

Therefore it is a complete paradigm shift that is needed to move away from the use of pesticides in farming/agriculture altogether. Such a move is absolutely integral to the health and existence of all those living in the British countryside, as well as other species that are being wiped out from the continued use of such toxic chemicals.

This Author

Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She runs the UK Pesticides Campaign, which specifically represents rural residents affected by pesticides sprayed in the locality of residents’ homes, as well as schools, playgrounds, among other areas.

More from this author