NGOs are Too Weak to Halt the Catastrophic Pesticides Crisis

So another day and another NGO report on pesticides that simply fails to deliver!

This latest one by the Soil Association and the lesser known PAN UK entitled “The Cocktail Effect” says that it “exposes for the first time” how pesticide mixtures may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife.

Well, actually, it doesn’t, as the harm to human health, wildlife and the wider environment from the cocktail effect of pesticides has long been raised by the campaign I run, the UK Pesticides Campaign, among other researchers, academics, and journalists. Indeed even the Soil Association itself has raised it for many years, and I first met the late Peter Melchett at an event specifically on the cocktail effect!

It is beyond dispute that agricultural pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute and chronic adverse health and environmental impacts. In relation to human health, this includes irreversible and 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.

Over ten and a half thousand people – mainly affected rural residents from across the UK – have signed a petition calling for a ban on the use of agricultural pesticides in locality of rural residents’ homes, schools, children’s playgrounds.

Yet bizarrely whilst the Soil Association and PAN UK report calls for a ban on the use of non-agricultural pesticides in locality of such areas, it does not do the same for agriculture, despite the fact that agriculture uses far more of the cocktails of pesticides that these NGOs are writing a report about! In fact in the non-agricultural setting pesticides are far more likely to be used individually not in mixtures. I was not surprised to see this contradiction and juxtaposition in the NGO report as this has been a long held and so called ‘strategy’ of PAN UK.

Yet to argue pesticides need to be banned for protection of urban residents, but to not have the same requirement for protection of rural residents health is ludicrous.

It should be noted that 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 – and for which untold damage has already taken place.

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 globally then it is indeed an international disgrace!)

Yet the latest NGO report as per usual calls for the same weak, compromising, and wholly inadequate measures of just “reducing” the use of these poisons in farming to “minimise” the adverse effects, along with some further research, monitoring, IPM (which is a system that still uses pesticides), and a pesticides tax.

Some of this language “reduction” and “minimisation” is the same as the Government when it comes to pesticides and falls way short of the – now very long overdue – urgent action that is needed to halt the catastrophic pesticides crisis

Further, as I pointed out in my previous article on the weakness of NGOs on these issues, such measures would also add even further delay to any real concrete action to truly protect both human health and the environment from pesticides and could even delay such necessary action for many years, even decades, to come.

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 unarguable evidence already exists of harm to human health, to bees and birds and the wider environment from the use of pesticides in our food production system.

Therefore, 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 these NGOs 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.

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 no immediate 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. Further, 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 by just reducing it.

It is a criminal offence to knowingly expose someone to poison so there should not be any exemption on that for agriculture and therefore it needs urgently rectifying.

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. Urgent action is needed, 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 the environmental 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 crops sprayed with cocktails of poisonous pesticides year in year out

A 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 comment made by DEFRA’s then Chief Scientific Advisor that pesticides need to be designed out of farming systems. When I highlighted this comment at a meeting with the Minister George Eustice he said he agreed with that position (not that that was reflected of course in the previous version of the Agriculture Bill!)

So here’s hoping that Parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords will get the chance to amend the latest version of the Agriculture Bill (when it is published) to reflect the health and environmental protections that are so urgently needed.

The new post Brexit UK Agriculture 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 food.

This would then protect not only the health of rural residents and communities, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, amongst many 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 the environment we live in.

Therefore it is a complete paradigm shift that is needed to move away from the use of pesticides in farming 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.

To sign the petition to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and DEFRA Secretary Theresa Villiers, 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