But we’re walking into trade negotiations with countries who we know want to water down our pesticides regulations. When we have such a loose domestic framework, it’s a very dangerous position.
EU law regulates the use of pesticides by approving active ingredients in products and the maximum level of residues of pesticides in food. It also audits how well governments implement the rules, and can take action if they are not compliant.
But as the UK leaves the EU, it will lose this system. Changes to pesticide regulations were approved in UK Parliament last week.
Campaigners are concerned that the government’s proposal that decisions will instead be made by the secretary of state or ministers, rather than a range of institutions including the European Commission and Parliament, will make it easier for the pesticides industry to influence decisions. The government’s proposals do not require the decision maker to obtain scientific advice, except “where it considers it appropriate to do so”.
The staffing and budget of the government’s advisory committee on pesticides has yet to be set, as have the roles and processes of the various UK bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, Natural England and the Food Standards Agency, who will be involved in authorising substances under the new regime.
The amendments were the fourth set covering pesticides this year. They were needed to remedy a mistake made in a previous amendment that had removed a ban on pesticides containing Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which the World Health Organisation has linked to altered reproductive function and neurodevelopmental delays in children.
The mistake was only detected by student lawyers doing voluntary work for PAN UK, says Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at the organisation.
Speaking at a debate on the amendments in Parliament, environment minister George Eustice said that all existing methodologies for assessing pesticides at an EU level would be replicated, including the precautionary approach, under which the onus is on industry to prove that there is no danger to human or environmental health from its products.
He added: “We will continue to have scientific assessments, that science will continue to lead all our decisions on pesticides in future and that we have some of the best technical expertise in this field.”
But Cohen said that he had not addressed the question. “Our concern was not around technical expertise, it is around the consolidation of power and the loss of levels of scrutiny.
"The pesticides industry is incredibly aggressive in terms of lobbying. And although the UK has expertise, in the EU we’ve tended to push for weakening regs on pesticides.”
So much of the detail has been left to future guidelines that it is not possible to know the overall impact the changes will have on pesticide safety, which was worrying when the UK would soon be negotiating new trade deals following Brexit, she said. The government has repeatedly said that UK will not water down environmental regulations in trade deals.
“But we’re walking into trade negotiations with countries who we know want to water down our pesticides regulations. When we have such a loose domestic framework, it’s a very dangerous position for UK citizens and the environment to find ourselves in,” she said.
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.