Poison in the Fields: Agriculture as Chemical Warfare

When people hear the words “chemical warfare” the first, and possibly sole thought, will be the threats to civilians from the use of chemical weapons – whether in war torn countries or from a terrorist attack.

They would therefore not usually associate the use of such chemicals in any supposedly democratic society as permitted by their own Government

Yet highly poisonous chemicals – that were originally designed as weapons of war – have been allowed for many decades, under successive Government policies, to be sprayed on crop fields all over the UK, and with literally no protection at all for the many millions of rural citizens living or attending schools in the locality of such chemically treated areas. (In fact, there is actually no protection for rural residents and communities in the majority of other countries around the world either!)

Thousands of poisoned residents

This chemical warfare in the countryside – or as it is more commonly known ‘conventional farming’ – has resulted in thousands of residents suffering devastating, even fatal, consequences on their health and lives.

This can be seen in the truly horrific testimonies from affected residents in an 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 petition has been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, Ben Goldsmith, and politicians Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones, among others.

Public health scandal

It has now been well over 16 years since I first identified the astonishing and catastrophic failure to protect rural residents from the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops in the locality of where we live and breathe.

Yet despite a number of significant campaign victories and achievements in that time both in the UK and in Europe (including, amongst others, stronger requirements for the protection of residents in EU laws; ensuring residents are now legally defined as a “vulnerable group” recognised as having high pesticide exposure over the long term”; ensuring that new exposure and risk assessment specifications for residents and bystanders are included in, most importantly, EU Commission Regulation (EU) No 284/2013), the widespread poisoning of residents still continues unabated

The fact that the chemical poisoning of innocent rural communities was ever permitted in the first place – let alone to continue for over three quarters of a century with no action – is without a doubt one of the biggest public health scandals of any time.

Originally developed as ‘nerve gas’

A brief glimpse into the history of agricultural pesticides shows the true and deliberate toxic purpose of these chemicals. In 1937 the first organophosphate compounds were synthesized by a group of German chemists. These very potent compounds were originally developed as ‘nerve gas’ chemical warfare agents for potential use during World War II.

After the war, in search of new outlets, these highly toxic compounds were then remanufactured as agricultural insecticides, and organophosphate (OP) pesticides continue to be used today in the UK and in many other countries around the world.

Another type of pesticides – herbicides – were developed after WWII in order to increase food production and create possible warfare agents. In 1946, the first commercially available chlorine-based herbicides were marketed to kill broadleaf plants. Since then various different herbicides have also continued to be extensively utilized in agriculture globally, including the well known organophosphate based herbicide glyphosate.

Other pesticide groups are also known to be neurotoxic to humans – such as carbamates and pyrethroids – which are also widely used on crops.

The poison fields

The agricultural sector is by far and away the largest user, as approx. 80% of pesticides used in the UK each year is related to agricultural use.

Insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are the main types of pesticides used in agriculture. Latest Government statistics show that in relation to 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 being 17,757,242 kg.1

There are approximately 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for agricultural use in the UK2 and each product formulation in itself can contain a number of active ingredients, as well as other hazardous chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants and 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 mixture/cocktail).

The reality of this widespread pesticide use on crops across the country has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed in any country around the world.

Even a key scientific advisor to the Government, Professor Ian Boyd, has now issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach used around the world for pesticides sprayed on crops – albeit the failings are still not detailed strongly or extensively enough by any means.

Professor Boyd’s article published in the journal Science says regulatory systems worldwide have ignored the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes”, and so the assumption by regulators globally that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change.

The existing chemical conventional farming system has been an untested, unregulated, and unlawful experiment with human health and the environment for which untold damage has already taken place.

A catalogue of adverse health impacts

It is beyond dispute that pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute, and chronic – including irreversible – adverse effects on human health.

The dangers of pesticides can clearly be seen on the manufacturers product data sheets themselves that carry various warnings such as “Very toxic by inhalation,” “Do not breathe spray; fumes; vapour,” “Risk of serious damage to eyes,” “Harmful, possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation,” “May cause cancer by inhalation,” and even “May be fatal if inhaled.”

The majority of acute adverse health effects that are recorded annually in the UK Government’s very own monitoring system are for residents rather than operators, which is not surprising considering operators and workers generally have protection when using pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment, respirators, filtered cabs etc. – and residents have no protection at all. In any event rural residents would obviously not be expected to wear such equipment on their own property and land!

Some of the acute adverse health effects recorded includes: chemical burns (including to the eyes and skin); rashes and blistering; throat irritation (eg. sore and painful throats); damaged vocal chords; difficulty swallowing; chest discomfort; sinus pain; respiratory irritation; breathing problems; shortness of breath; asthma attacks; headaches, dizziness, nausea; vomiting; stomach pains; flu-type illnesses; and aching joints.

These are the same types of acute effects reported by residents – as well as children attending schools near sprayed fields – to my campaign since the outset in 2001.

Irreversible – and fatal – impacts

Regarding chronic health impacts, reputable scientific studies and reviews have concluded that long-term exposure to pesticides can disturb the function of different systems in the body, including nervous, endocrine, immune, reproductive, renal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.

Cornell University’s teaching module ‘Toxicity of Pesticides’ clearly states that, “Pesticides can: cause deformities in unborn offspring (teratogenic effects), cause cancer (carcinogenic effects), cause mutations (mutagenic effects), poison the nervous system (neurotoxicity), or block the natural defenses of the immune system (immunotoxicity).”

It goes on to warn that “Irreversible effects are permanent and cannot be changed once they have occurred. Injury to the nervous system is usually irreversible since its cells cannot divide and be replaced. Irreversible effects include birth defects, mutations, and cancer.”

The most common chronic long-term effects, illnesses and diseases reported to my campaign from residents living in the locality of crop sprayed fields include neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neurone Disease, and neurological damage, as well as various cancers, especially those of the breast and brain, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, amongst other chronic conditions.

The health and societal costs of such chronic health impacts are colossal.

Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to all those suffering such chronic conditions – including loss of lives – and the impacts on all those around them cannot be calculated in financial terms.

Turning a blind eye

I recently wrote to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, along with the Health Secretary and then Environment Secretary and other related Ministers, regarding the residents pesticides scandal and included a number of selected examples – from the thousands – of other poisoned residents.3

The email I received from No. 10 in response to the letter was merely to say it had been passed on to DEFRA. The Department of Health replied to say that it was not their remit – despite all the devastating acute and chronic human health impacts – and again that it was for DEFRA Ministers to respond to the contents.

Yet the response I received from the office of the Farming Minister George Eustice said DEFRA would not respond to any of the points in my letter, and as a result simply blatantly ignored all the horrific reports from the many poisoned residents cited within that letter.

These responses again indicated that the Government is intent on turning a blind eye to this scandal. Yet as we have seen in recent months with the Grenfell Tower tragedy – in which Grenfell residents had repeatedly warned of the dangers but were effectively ignored – that the Government dismisses health and safety risks raised by those directly affected at its peril.

Hypocrisy and double standards

It is also highly notable that there is a clear case of double standards here

Earlier this year the Prime Minister rightly condemned the chemical poisoning of innocent civilians in Syria. So it smacks of sheer hypocrisy that her Government continues to permit the chemical poisoning of innocent people – including babies and young children – in this country.

In relation to any chemical terrorist attack there is no way any politician would start saying “well just because they were exposed it won’t necessarily cause harm” or “it depends on the dose they were exposed to” which are just two examples of the types of comments made by those trying to deny the damage inflicted on residents from toxic crop sprays.

It is a criminal offence to knowingly expose someone to poison so there should never have been any exemption on that in relation to agriculture.

The first duty of any Government is supposed to be to protect its citizens, especially those most vulnerable. Yet the relentless and extraordinary attempts by successive Governments’ to protect the vested and self-serving interests of the multi-billion pound pesticides industry and not the health of rural residents can only be described as a national disgrace.

Listen to those directly affected!

It has been reported that the new DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, is in listening mode, and he certainly has been busy in the last few months meeting with and listening to farmers, landowners, NGOs, business and industry interests including the National Farmers Union, amongst others.

Yet he has not met and listened to the most important voices to be heard – that being residents and communities who are the ones directly affected from the agricultural activities in the areas where we live and breathe.

The utter contempt that has been shown to date to all the rural families who have reported their own harrowing experiences and adverse impacts from the cocktails of poisons sprayed in their localities is abhorrent.

Residents appear to have been an inconvenience to successive Governments’ that have not wanted to be faced with a public health scandal that they were the very ones that created in the first place, and have repeatedly failed – over many decades – to take any action on.

It is therefore vital that the Prime Minister, Theresa May – who has the ultimate responsibility for the policy decisions of the UK Government – hears the facts and evidence of the impacts on residents first hand to see the enormity of this appalling policy failure that has destroyed countless human lives, and which will inevitably affect many more if the necessary urgent action to protect rural residents and communities is still not taken.

Double injustice

After all it was Theresa May herself who, when Home Secretary, said in a statement to the House of Commons regarding the injustice, hostility and false narratives the Hillsborough families had faced that “No-one should have to fight for year after year and decade after decade for the truth” and thatthe authorities that should have been trusted have laid blame and tried to protect themselves instead of acting in the public interest.”

It is now very long overdue for other such scandals, establishment cover ups, and widespread injustices, to be fully recognised and acted on.

Many residents are waiting for the day we get a Hillsborough-style apology and official recognition from the Government for the ‘double injustice’ we have endured from: firstly being poisoned by a Government policy; and then having to fight for years for recognition of the damage caused and the necessary protection to prevent others suffering the same

Industry “dangerously misleading” lies on the need for pesticides

As recently highlighted in a new United Nations report the agro-chemical lobby (whose main priority is to keep the sales pipeline flowing at all costs) have always continued to falsely maintain that damage will be caused to agriculture and food production if pesticides are not used.

The UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food stated at paragraph 91 that, “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it.”

This is just one of the many examples of the deliberate lies and misinformation spread by representatives of the pesticides industry and its supporters and which has always been swallowed hook, line and sinker by successive Governments – not only in the UK but around the world.

In fact, rather than there not being enough food there is actually a huge amount of food wasted every year. One previous report from the UK found that as much as half of all worldwide food produced ends up as waste, which is a whopping 2 billion tonnes every year!4

The recent aforementioned UN report was also heavily critical of the global pesticide companies, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of Governments around the world which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

The UN report concluded that moving away from pesticide-reliant industrial agriculture to non-chemical farming methods should now be a political priority in all countries globally.

End the use of poisons in UK food production

The new post Brexit UK agricultural bill provides a real opportunity for the UK to adopt such a non-chemical farming policy in order to no longer rely on toxic chemicals in the production of our food. This would then protect not only the health of residents and other members of the public, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, other species, and biodiversity.

It would also obviously be more in line with the objectives for sustainable food and farming, as the usage of complex chemicals designed to kill plants, insects or other forms of life, cannot be classified as sustainable.

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.

The chemical warfare in the countryside under the guise of ‘conventional farming’ has to stop for the protection of all rural citizens now, and for future generations.

Enough is enough! 

Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 33 years and 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, amongst other areas. 

Georgina can be seen raising the residents scandal in TRT World’s new discussion programme “Roundtable” that will be broadcast shortly.

To sign the petition to the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, to ban all crop spraying of poisonous pesticides near residents homes, schools, and playgrounds see here.


  1. As informed by the Government’s Pesticide Usage Survey Group.
  2. According to the regulators, the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), in pers comm in November 2012.
  3. There are many comments under the petition at: https://www.change.org/p/the-prime-minister-rt-hon-theresa-may-mp-ban-all-crop-spraying-of-poisonous-pesticides-near-our-homes-schools-and-playgrounds which has been signed by thousands of residents affected by agricultural pesticides across the UK. Therefore it is not possible to highlight them all here. However, a few selected examples of some of the harrowing experiences from other rural residents, and which the Government is currently completely ignoring, include the following:-

Scott Manning from Buckhurst Hill: “My entire family have been made seriously ill / had to move house / had to remove our child from school / been ignored by local government / been ignored by parliament / learned to realise the HSE are a pathetic, useless organisation / learned that – so far – capitalism dictates that profits are more important than the future of civilisation, etc, etc..”

Patricia Stebbing from Eyemouth: “I live right next to a sprayed field and have had two different cancers. I cannot understand why these farmers get off with spraying poison next to my home. My oncologists agree there is a danger but nothing is done with them by any Government.”

Linda Byrne from Haxey: “I live next to many farming fields. I have cervical cancer, my female dog has stomach cancer. My male dog has bowel cancer. My next door neighbour died of chest cancer. My next door neighbour died on various cancers. 4 doors away they have their 3rd case of bladder cancer. 2 doors away breast cancer. How much evidence is needed. But I don’t think rural lives matter!”

Jessica Hothersall from Worlingham: “Having suffered chemical burns from ankle to thigh, and nearly choked to death on spray fumes at 5am through an open bedroom window, I know this stuff is toxic, and you have no right to expose my children to this poison just because big corporations want to make money! What price the rural nation’s health? The pollution in the Cities is nothing compared to life in the country!”

John Elson from Uckfield: “I have been personally affected by this issue and am still suffering the effects of inhaling pesticides over 30 years after the event. I suffer from loss of voice, from pain in my chest and throat, and I have trouble breathing. I had to retire 12 years earlier than planned, which incurred loss of pension.”

Keith Anthony Taylor from Croydon: “I have been directly affected by spraying throughout my life starting as a child when crops were sprayed within a few feet as I walked to school and all day as I attended alongside fields that were sprayed. Throughout my life I have struggled with my health as a direct result.”

Gillian Arnott from North Berwick: “Where I live is surrounded by fields. Which are sprayed, year on year on year. We all know pesticides are dangerous to humans, and on so many different levels – so why is this still be allowed to continue?”

Victoria Pearson, Curry Rivel: “I am signing because it is absolute madness that there is currently no protection for anyone living, working or going to school in these rural areas where these poisonous chemicals are sprayed on crop fields. I have witnessed crops being sprayed just metres from my Daughter’s rural school and have had signs of chemical scorching on our fruit trees in our garden, from the adjacent field being sprayed. (Just metres from my Daughter’s sand pit!)”

Lorraine Batchelor from Trowse Newton: “I am surrounded by farmland that is regularly sprayed and so is my son’s primary school.”

Brenda Marks from Toddington: “Both our children have rare kidney diseases. The farmer has sprayed fields on three sides of our house for over 30 years without telling us when he will spray or what he will spray. There is no law to stop him or even to make him tell us in advance. This is WRONG!”

Patricia Denny from Chichester: “My family have always lived next to fields sprayed with chemicals. My husband and my son died from neurological diseases. Our neighbouring farmer and his wife both have MS. That’s why I’m signing.”

Angela Burton from Kilham:”I live in a rural area and have done all my life. Spraying of crops is carried out almost daily with massive machines. I suffer from 2 chronic diseases, one of which is fatal and I have long suspected that the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have a detrimental effect on the health of all of us.”

Nicola Chester from Upper Green: “I have brought my family of 3 up next to a frequently sprayed arable field. On many occasion the sprayer has come in and gone over them while they have played. It has covered washing hanging on the line and blown through our open windows at night. It also, at least three times a year kills the plants at the end of the garden and our grass path. We are long term tenants and treated as if this is nothing to do with us. We do not know what chemicals these are, year after year, only that the farmer, when mixing and pouring them into his tank wears full protective clothing, then sits in a protected cab. Once, when the spray boom went right over my children, misting them completely, and we complained – we were told it was only water. Of course it wasn’t. It killed most of our garden hedge.”

Emma Mould from Chichester: “I live in a cottage surrounded by fields and the sprayers turn up nearly every week. I have seen yellow spray which surely cannot be good to the crop or nature and especially me. I have neighbours who have been hospitalised because the farmer sprayed right up close to their fence and know of two farm hands that both got esophical [sic] cancer after using spray tractors. Pretty disgusting on this day and age. I also see loads of dead bees!!!”

Charlotte Davis from London: “As a teenager I lived near crop spraying. The chemical overload I experienced at this time, led to devastating health consequences for many years. I had to defer my place at Cambridge University for 3 years as I was too unwell. I had to have lots of medical treatment and I still do. I would not wish what I experienced on anyone else. The safety tests that are currently used (short exposure by a man in a mask) in no way replicate the exposure levels experienced by people living next to fields that are regularly sprayed. Please sign this, thank you.”

Tamzin Pinkerton from Brighton: “I’m signing because I feel sure pesticide spraying was the cause of my daughter’s leukaemia, and most likely many of the other cases of leukaemia in the local area – a cluster way above the national average for leukaemia incidence. The law needs to change to help protect rural residents from the proven damaging effects of these chemicals.”

Another lady (anonymised as requested): “I am sprayed with Cocktails of pesticides by my neighbour, a fruit farmer, around 20 times per year. As a toxicologist I know that these agents are not meant to be used anywhere near residences and yet my home is covered with these chemicals every time he sprays. I have been to HSE, Environmental agency and Dow and they all agree with me but there is no legislation in the UK to protect innocent neighbours.”

Gwyneth Rushton from Selborne:”My Dad dies after working in a grain dryer for several summers, not realising that the chemical sprays that had been used on the crop were killing him. This is such a serious problem and the people in the tractor cabs seem completely removed from the devastation that is being caused around them. Thank you Georgina.”

Daphne Dear from Winchester: “Humans and wildlife alike are suffering the ill effects of these filthy, foul smelling chemical pesticides which are used to spray crops. People’s lives are being made a misery by the illnesses they suffer as result of crop spraying. No wonder our National Health Service is stretched to the limit. Crop spraying anywhere near homes, schools etc. should be banned should be immediately.”

Philip Walkley, Newport: “The human costs are terrible. But the healthcare and welfare costs are also a huge and increasing burden which Britain cannot afford.”

Sian Withers from Llandovery: “Spraying crops is insane and does damage to the human body. Chemicals cause many of the diseases of the western world including cancer. It’s crazy to spray poison into our food chain. STOP!”

Robin Clark from Petworth: “Enough is enough. We are being poisoned. These chemicals are toxic.”

Jenny Hicks from Caversham: “I am signing because i dont want pesticides near me and my airspace and Prime Minister would you like chemicals sprayed near your home? Ban harmful chemicals, go eco control natural instead.”

Matthew White from Moffat: ”I am signing because I have been poisoned by pesticides and I know many other people suffering from the horrible health problems caused by pesticide poisoning. I was an Agricultural Training Board apprentice shepherd and have worked in food production all my life.”

Chris Jakins from Sawtry: “We have farmers spraying near our home and school. The fumes cause headaches, dizziness and burn the throat. It not just the environment, there is a real human cost to intensive farming that we will be paying back for many years.”

Alison Logan from St Lawrence: “I’m signing because this is urgently needed, why are we allowing our food, environment & wildlife to be poisoned?”

Barbara Robinson from Tuddenham: “I have been directly affected for 40 years living 8 feet from the sprayed field.”

Jackie Scoones from London: “I have had to move twice in the last 10 years because I was made ill by pesticide spraying. The public has no protection whatsoever from being poisoned this way and it needs to stop now, before further people lose their health or die.”

Charlene Williams from Loughborough: ”I totally disagree with chemicals in the air our water table and on our food its been going on far too long stop now its already damaging all our health. I stayed on a farm when picking apples where they sprayed numerous chemicals then we pucked [sic] them getting residue in our lungs n bodies many of us had health issues I believe due to those toxins,”

Marissa Read from Shrewsbury: “I have been made ill from the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, so have other members of my family and neighbours. I don’t want my children to suffer too. Please ban the use of chemical sprays near residential areas, it is not fair, summer is spent keeping an eye on the fields for crop sprayers and days spent with the doors and windows shut. I buy organic food as a principle.”

Ben Waters from Watercombe: “My neighbour sprays so close we can sometimes feel the drops on our face and there is nothing we can do, my children are at risk from this!!!!”

Jean Mair from Canterbury: “I live in an intensively sprayed area where agricultural land, fields and crops within just a few miles or less of each other can be treated with pesticides/herbicides even on the same day. This state of affairs puts rural residents in particular at risk as it is almost impossible to avoid the chemical fumes and vapour, but also walkers and visitors are endangered when they use public rights of way through or near to crops which might have been treated with very toxic chemicals only hours before.”

Jenny Jowett from Epping: “This affects so many people and no one in government seems to care. #StopTheSpraying.”

Iain Lee from Markinch: “I’m signing this petition because the toxicity of these sprays has now been proven beyond doubt. Peoples lives have and are being ruined due to the lack of proper testing and scrutiny, and also to the uncontrolled power of the corporations who manufacture and distribute the products.”

  1. Source: The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers 2013 report, ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not‘.

Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields in the UK for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign