Why are Certain NGOs Trying to Condemn Rural Residents to an Even Longer Pesticide Fate?

When I first started the UK Pesticides Campaign 17 years ago in 2001 I did so largely because I had discovered that there was no specific representation in the UK for rural residents and communities exposed tothe vast cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops.

As a resident myself directly affected from pesticide spraying in my locality I had started to attend various conferences and meetings on pesticides and whilst NGOs and environmental groups would make the odd comment here and there about operators health, environmental impacts, or pesticide residues in food, there was no mention of the risks and adverse health impacts for rural residents and communities across the UK.

So began almost two decades so far of doing my upmost–in often very difficult circumstances–to ensure the voices of residents and communities directly affected by one of the biggest public health scandals of our time were heard at every possible turn.

Synthetic chemical pesticides were originally developed as chemical warfare agents in the 1930s and 1940s, but then astonishingly remanufactured as agricultural pesticides. These highly toxic chemicals have been used in UK farming for around 75 years and are increasingly relied upon by conventional (ie. non-organic) farmers and growers.


Agriculture now accounts for more than 70% of land use in the UK, and has a major influence on our health and 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 with synthetic chemical pesticides under the existing conventional food and farming production system.


From the outset of such pesticide use in farming there has always been a catastrophic failure to protect rural communities from the use of these poisons in the locality of where we live and breathe. Despite a number of significant UK Pesticides Campaign victories and achievements in both 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 284/2013), the widespread poisoning of rural residents still continues unabated.


The fact that the chemical poisoning of innocent rural citizens was ever permitted in the first place – let alone to continue for over three quarters of a century with no action – is a national disgrace. (In fact, as this public health scandal also goes on in the majority of other countries around the world then it is indeed an international disgrace!)

Known adverse impacts of pesticides


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,” andeven“May be fatal if inhaled.”

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.”

It is therefore beyond dispute that agricultural pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute and chronic adverse health impacts. This includes irreversible/permanent chronic effects, illnesses and diseases.Whilst operators generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment, respirators, and will be in filtered cabs – residents and communities have absolutely no protection at all.

The former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in a 1975 document stated that, “The repeated use of pesticides, even in small quantities, can have cumulative effects which may not be noticed until a dangerous amount has been absorbed.”

This clear statement from 43 years ago shows that successive Governments’ have always been well aware of the cumulative effects of pesticides, but again no action has been takento secure the health of rural families.

There are many thousands of reports of acute and/or chronic health impacts from rural residents across the UK. Obviously with millions of rural residents exposed in crop sprayed areas there will undoubtedly be many more unreported cases. The most common chronic long-term effects, illnesses and diseases reported from residents include neurological conditions such as neurological damage, Parkinson’s disease, Motor Neurone Disease, as well as various cancers, especially those of the breast and brain, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, amongst many other chronic conditions.

Nearly 6000 people – the majority of which are affected UK residents–have signed a petition calling on the Prime Minister and DEFRA Secretary 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. This must be in substantial distances, as small buffer zones simply won’t protect anyone considering how far pesticides are known to travel. For example, scientific studies have found pesticides miles away from where they were originally applied and calculated health risks for rural residents and communities living within those distances.

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

+ 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.

Unarguable case

The evidence of harm to both human health and the environment – as itis also well established that pesticides cause substantial damage and pollution to water quality and safety, to biodiversityetc – from the use of pesticides in agriculture is simply unarguable.

Further, the widespread damage that chemical pesticides cause has massive economic, societal and financial implications for all parties, with the exception of the pesticides industry! In relation to some of the already known environmental costs of pesticide use in the UK, it has been estimated to cost £140 million per year removing pesticides from drinking water, and around £4.75 million for monitoring pesticides at 2500 surface and groundwater sites, and £5.4 million for pesticide monitoring in both food and livestock.

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

Decades of weak and inadequate NGO measures

With all the existing evidence of harm that exists to human health–as well as other species such as bees and birds–and to the environment from the use of pesticides in our food production system, why do certain NGOs and so-called environmental groups such as the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK) and Sustain continue to call for weak, compromising, and wholly inadequate measures (eg. merely reducing the use of these poisons in farming, reliance on IPM – which is a system that still uses pesticides etc.)?

These NGOs have always been notorious for merely tinkering at the edges of the agricultural pesticide problem, but actually it runs far deeper than that, as by ignoring all the evidence that already exists for action to be taken and saying evidence is needed to ‘make a case’ for action what these NGOs are in fact doing is not only misleading but highly damaging and would condemn us rural residents to an even longer pesticide fate!

Further, the pesticides reduction target advocated by PAN UK, Sustain, other NGOs and affiliates, sends out completely the wrong message, as it is saying that it is okay to use these poisons in farming but just a bit less! When it was never okay to use such toxic chemicals for food production and certainly not for spraying in the locality of innocent rural residents and communities and which includes babies, children, pregnant woman, the elderly, those already ill and/or disabled, amongst other vulnerable groups.

For PAN UK to recently tweet that such a reduction target–and that merely reduces the use of these toxic chemicals–would then be able to deliver a ‘truly sustainable, environmentally friendly, green UK food growing system’ is simply not true, as using such poisons in any capacity cannot be described as sustainable, environmentally friendly or green! As a fellow rural resident, Barbara Robinson, tweeted in response “reduction of pesticide use – inadequate – a poison is a poison no matter how little.” 

It has been reported recently that the agriculture pesticides reduction target in France, along with a pesticides tax (and which again both originated from NGO recommendations) has been a complete failure, as agricultural pesticide use on crops has overall increased over the last decade not decreased! Thus various commentators are quite rightly saying that such inadequate measures have wasted those 10 years.

The weak and inadequate measures proposed by NGOs–often in the name of so-called ‘strategy’–has been a common feature throughout my campaign for real change.

Take for example the ludicrous 5 metre buffer zone recommendation from a then employee of PAN UK to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in its 2004/5 enquiry and that had been requested by the Minister Alun Michael as a result of my campaign representations. It was groundbreaking for a DEFRA Minister to have gone over the heads of its own Government regulators and pesticide scientific advisors to invite the RCEP to examine not only the issues my campaign had been raising but also the responses to those issues from those same regulators and scientific advisors.

So, although the RCEP report heavily criticised the Government, its regulators and advisors, over its policy failings and for failing to protect rural residents from the health risks of pesticides–and vindicating me and my campaign arguments in the process -the report then contradicted its own findings and was completely undermined by including the 5 metre buffer zone recommendation, as anyone with any knowledge of the dispersion, volatilisation, and the long range transportation of pesticides of many miles would know that such a small distance was not going to be able to protect anyone

Pesticides Forum fiasco

Then in 2012 I spotted that various NGOs including PAN UK and Sustain had been signing up to year after year grossly inaccurate statements in the annual Pesticides Forum reports–and that DEFRA Ministers also rely on to inform them of pesticide harms–including that “the use of pesticides is not adversely impacting on the health of UK citizens or the environment.” After I spotted this the NGOs concerned went into panic mode and hastily tried to distance themselves after publication from the then most recent 2011 report, even though they had already signed up to it before its publication!

In any event trying to subsequently distance themselves from that one report couldn’t excuse the fact that they had signed up to the same erroneous and outrageous statements in all the Pesticides Forum reports since at least 2008 with no dissenting from either before or after publication.

The 2008 Pesticides Forum report was even more infuriating for me personally as at the same time that I had put in a herculean effort working day and night–and spending tens of thousands of pounds in the process–to secure a resounding landmark High Court victory on all 4 grounds against the UK Government over its failure to protect rural residents and communities from pesticides and in which the High Court Judge concluded that there was “solid evidencethat residents have suffered harm to their health”, these NGOs were signing up to statements that blatantly denied that the use of agricultural pesticides adversely impacted the health of UK citizens or the environment.

I was absolutely right to expose what was going on with the Pesticides Forum reports, and am led to understand it resulted in various changes regarding the Forum. Indeed Matt Shardlow, the Chief Executive of one of the NGOs involved Buglife conceded in a recent tweet “Of course you did a good thing and I admire your tenacity.”However, I have continued to have to incur the wrath of a number of the other NGOs–and those who work for them–that were involved in the Pesticides Forum debacle as a result.

Yet I will continue to speak up and speak out when I see anything that risks the necessary and long overdue action for rural residents and communities being taken. I did not enter this field of work to win a popularity contest, nor to further my career, or to receive a hefty wage packet (for the record I have never taken a wage in all the 17 years of running the campaign and work entirely voluntarily). As I purely entered the arena out of necessity because no one else was then–or still is now–representing in any other national campaign us residents and communities directly affected in the UK.

Ignoring the existing evidence

The key question is why do certain NGOs continue to push such weak and inadequate measures when it comes to agricultural pesticides? Why are they seemingly ignoring the existing evidence when calling for further research, monitoring, and mere reduction, all of which delay any concrete action to truly protect human health and the environment from pesticides being taken and indeed, as can be seen with the use of agricultural pesticides in France, could delay such action for many years, even decades, to come.

Just to add that regarding monitoring, under existing pesticide laws no pesticide is supposed to be approved for use if it has not been established that there will be noimmediate or delayed harm to human health. Therefore it should not be the case that toxic chemicals are approved and then monitoring reports the damage, but that any chemical that poses a risk to human health is not approved in the first place. The principal aim of pesticide policy is clearly based on the risk of harm–not that harm has to have already occurred–and so no one should be put at risk of harm from pesticides.

If there is harm–which of course there is–then the necessary action is supposed to be taken by the Government to immediately stop that harm (eg. by prohibiting use) and not just reducing such harm, as the NGOs PAN UK and Sustain have been wrongly stating.

In stark contrast to the inadequate measures PAN UK advocates regarding the use of pesticides in agriculture the NGO has taken a far stronger stance on the non-agricultural use of pesticides where it has called for a ban on such use. Yet the non-agricultural use of pesticides is only around 4% of the annual pesticide use in this country compared to the whopping 80% used each year in relation to agriculture which is by far and away the largest sector and for which, not surprising, the majority of adverse human health impacts are reported. That is not to say non-agricultural use is not important to tackle, it is more the question why such NGOs are so dismally weak in comparison when it comes to the biggest user of these poisons in the UK and which are used in untested and innumerable cocktails (whereas the non-agricultural sector predominantly uses a small handful of pesticides and which are usually used individually) and for which untold damage to both human health and the wider environment has already taken place.

Ignoring the law

I have previously raised PAN UK’s differential strength of position between the non-agricultural and agricultural use of pesticides with various members of PAN UK in the past. For example, I once asked Nick Mole in an email–and that was copied to a few other fellow campaigners–why PAN UK was backing the seriously erroneous interpretation by the UK Government that Article 12(a) of the EU Sustainable Use Directive did not include the agricultural use of pesticides when it clearly does by any proper reading of it. Indeed the European Commission has recently confirmed to me in writing that there is no legal reason why agricultural application should be excluded from the provisions of Article 12.

So why did PAN UK back the UK Government and industry position that Article 12(a) was only referring to non-agricultural use? Nick Mole of PAN UK said it was “strategy” as non-agricultural use was simpler “in terms of trying to win this particular argument.” So never mind what the legal requirements are then! He then went on to say that including agricultural pesticide use “complicates the matter” and “who will compensate for the large area of land that would not allowed to be sprayed on”. Any resident hearing that and knowing what so many rural families have had to endure from regular exposure to the cocktails of poisonous chemicals sprayed in our localities would point out that it is not about who is going to compensate the farmers for not being able to spray poisons in our air and surrounding environment, but who is going to compensate all the innocent people who have been harmed by this ongoing chemical warfare in the countryside!

It is a criminal offence to knowingly expose someone to poison so there should never have been any exemption on that regarding agriculture and it needs urgently rectifying.

No compromising on public health protection

These are just a few of the many examples that will no doubt explain why my independent campaign does not really associate with certain NGOs and why I have been absolutely right to continue to question and call out their actions, and which risk the necessary and long overdue action for rural residents and communities being taken.

Inevitably, as a result of me speaking up and speaking out there have been various attempts by such NGOs to blatantly misrepresent both me and my campaign. Most commonly the NGOs wrongly say that I don’t cooperate, when in fact it is that I quite rightly do not compromise, and the residents and communities who continue to contact me certainly do not want to see their representative campaign compromise on the action that is needed to provide proper protection for all our families’ health and lives.

Considering all the hard work and efforts and sacrifices made over the last two decades in fighting for proper action and protections from pesticides–especially considering the chronic health problems I have to live with on a daily basis–then it is obviously hugely dismaying when NGOs–who often have no direct experience of the problem–fail to present accurate facts of the true dire state of affairs we are in as a result of the vast damage crop pesticides are already known to be causing to both people and planet.

This is not a game, as these are real human lives we are talking about here.For over 7 decades successive Governments’ have shamefully–and quite frankly criminally–sanctioned the widespread exposure of rural residents and communities to the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops in our localities. This has to stop and the necessary action taken not mere half measures and compromises that won’t solve anything. We are way past ‘starting points’, which is another term so favoured by numerous NGOs – none of which of course would be directly affected by the inadequate measures they advocate, as they would continue to exist, get their wages paid, get their funding coming in etc., (including for some of these NGOs from the Government itself, as many NGOs have received funding from the Government, and over many years). Yet it will continue to directly affect the many millions of rural residents living in the locality of sprayed crops.

If all these NGOs in the UK actually stood up and shouted the truth from the rafters that the use of poisons in farming is a public health scandal, is unacceptable, and that definitive long overdue urgent action needs to be taken to truly protect human health and the environment then it might well help force such action through. But by continuing to push weak and inadequate measures–such as further research, monitoring, IPM, taxes, mere reduction–none of which will be able to protect either human health or the environment then they are doing a huge disservice to all those who are actually affected by the use of these poisons in our food and farming production system, as well as a disservice to those members of the public who donate to their organisations wrongly thinking that they are actually calling for an end to the use of pesticides in agriculture.

When these NGOs do call for a ban on any pesticides in agriculture it is usually just one individual pesticide such as glyphosate or individual group of pesticides such as neonicotinoids. And even then for glyphosate a number of these NGOs only called for it to be banned for non-agricultural use and regarding agriculture only when it was related to pre-harvest use. Thus all the agricultural use of glyphosate outside of that was simply ignored by a number of NGOs, despite the fact that it is used most widely in agriculture!

In any event focusing calls for action on individual pesticides completely misses the bigger picture and falls into the divide and rule strategy. Those of us residents living in the locality of crop fields and who are in the direct pesticides firing line know only too well that such a strategy is simply not going to prevent the legacy of damage that is being caused by the innumerable cocktails of pesticide poisons sprayed on crops. Particularly as historically once one pesticide has been withdrawn another toxic chemical pesticide will just be introduced in its place. How does that solve anything? The answer is simple, it doesn’t.

Non-chemical farming

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.

Further, rather surprisingly but most certainly welcome by rural communities was the recent comment made by DEFRA’s own Chief Scientific Advisor that pesticides need to be designed out of farming systems. When I highlighted this comment at a meeting with DEFRA Minister George Eustice last month he said he agreed with that position.

Yet the UK’s new Agriculture Bill that is currently before the Commons–having just finished its stint before the Public Bill Committee–certainly does not reflect this position.

So here’s hoping that Parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords will amend the Agriculture Bill to reflect the health and environmental protections that are so urgently needed, as the new post Brexit UK agricultural bill and policy provides a real opportunity for the UK to clean up agriculture once and for all and adopt 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, and other species.

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.

The chemical warfare in the countryside under the guise of ‘conventional farming’ has to stop–and not just a bit less–for the protection of us all now, and for future generations.

Now is the time for rural residents and communities to speak out as loudly as we can and contact our MPs, as we cannot let anyone–whether it be pesticide companies, NFU, or indeed certain NGOs–silence our voice! Don’t let anyone else dictate our fate!

The UK Pesticides Campaign’s written evidence regarding the Agriculture Bill can be seen here. Please write to MPs asking them to support amendments for the inclusion of the following two crucial commitments and actions in the Agriculture Bill: 1) there is an urgent need to secure protection for rural residents and communities from pesticides; and 2) the need to adopt and utilise a truly sustainable non-chemical farming system for the overall protection of human health and the environment.

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.


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