The Use of Toxic Pesticides in Farming is the Biggest Problem for Bees … and Us!

A ground breaking new meta-analysis on the impacts on bees of a combination of real life environmental pressures has confirmed that the cocktails of toxic pesticides bees are exposed to from intensive conventional farming significantly increases bee mortality.

According to the analysis of 90 studies, it also found that agricultural pesticides sold to farmers ready-mixed into “cocktails” can kill twice as many bees, and that regulators underestimate the dangers of pesticides in combination, including the synergistic effects.

This is because both the health and environmental risk assessments undertaken prior to the approval of pesticides have, to date, been based on exposure to just one individual pesticide at a time which of course is not the reality of farm pesticide use.

Dr Harry Siviter, from the University of Texas at Austin, who led the study, told the BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme that “Exposure to multiple pesticides is the norm, not the exception.”

Professor Mark Brown from the Royal Holloway University of London – that published the new meta-analysis – has highlighted the crucial fact that the regulatory process in its current form does not protect bees from the unwanted consequences of complex agrochemical exposure and that a failure to address this, and to continue to expose bees within agriculture, will result in a continued decline of bees and pollination services, to the detriment of human and ecosystem health.


As someone who has spent the last 20 years exposing the really rather astonishing gaps in the approvals process and protection system for agricultural pesticides – both here in the UK and in the EU – including on the cocktail effect of agricultural pesticides, along with the catastrophic damage the existing chemical farming system worldwide is causing to people, bees, other species, and the planet, then this study just further confirms the validity of many of the very serious issues that I have to continued to raise.

For example, back in 2012 a Parliamentary Committee in the UK House of Commons, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), undertook an inquiry into bees, other pollinators and pesticides. Although the majority of those who provided written and oral evidence (ie. from farming, industry and NGOs) focused on only one group of pesticides, the neonicotinoids (neonics), the evidence I provided from the UK Pesticides Campaign stressed the need to consider the adverse impacts of all synthetic chemical pesticide groups on bees, other species, as well as most importantly on human health.

In written evidence to the EAC I stated that:

“The reality of crop spraying in the countryside is not merely related to exposure to one individual pesticide or to one single group of pesticides, as agricultural pesticides are rarely used individually but commonly sprayed in mixtures (cocktails) – quite often a mixture will consist of 4 or 5 different products. Each product formulation in itself can contain a number of different active ingredients, as well as other chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants and co-formulants (some of which can have adverse effects in their own right, before considering any potential synergistic effects in a mixture(s)). Studies have shown mixtures of pesticides (and/or other chemicals) can have synergistic effects.”

“The failings in the UK Government’s policy and approach to exposure and risk assessment regarding human health, and related and repeated inaction, is also comparable to the serious concerns that have been raised regarding the UK Government’s policy and approach to exposure and risk assessment in relation to other species, such as bees. Bees and other species, just like residents and other humans, could be exposed to innumerable mixtures of pesticides, repeatedly, throughout every year, and for years.”

“Therefore aside from the individual products that carry warnings of a risk to bees on the product label and safety data sheet information (such as ‘harmful’, ‘dangerous’, ‘extremely dangerous’ or ‘high risk’ to bees), there will also be the risk of adverse impacts on bee health from the cumulative effects of multiple exposures to mixtures of different pesticides.”

“The reality of pesticide spraying in the countryside is not reflected in any of the risk assessments under the UK Government’s existing approach, whether for humans or bees.”

Reality of pesticide use in farming

At the time I remember feeling frustrated that all other parties, including a number of bee experts and scientists that also provided evidence to the EAC, seemed to focus solely on neonicotinoids as a risk to bees, when it was clear from the warnings on the manufacturers own data sheets that many other pesticide groups would impact bees.

There were even high profile NGO campaigns to “keep bee-killing pesticides off our fields” but that were only ever related to neonics and so they ignored all the other bee-killing pesticides, even on an individual basis, and let alone before getting onto the  mixtures/cocktails of agricultural pesticides that bees are being exposed to in real life.

Similarly, in recent days NGO based campaigns and petitions have started that call for a ban on pesticides but only in urban areas and private gardens. Yet whilst it is certainly important that the risks of pesticide use are tackled in all settings, it is without doubt that the sector where definitive and concrete action will make the real difference to protect bees, wildlife, and human health, is in relation to the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Indeed the biggest sector for UK pesticide use per year is agriculture with around 80% of use. Non-agricultural use (ie. urban) is around only 4% of pesticide use per year.

Also, whilst pesticide use in urban areas is mainly the application of individual pesticides, for example, weedkillers, pesticides are rarely used individually in agriculture, as they are predominantly used in mixtures and cocktails of products per application, as the aforementioned recent study on the adverse impacts – and synergistic effects – of combinations of agricultural pesticides on bees rightly identified.

In reality, bees and other pollinators can come into direct contact with mixtures of different agricultural pesticides and, in fact, if a bee is regularly situated in amongst pesticide sprayed fields then it could even be coming into direct contact with mixtures of pesticides on a daily basis, including not only in any particular crop field itself, and any other crop fields it may visit in a day, but also when in flight when travelling from one field to the next as a result of exposure to mixtures of pesticides in the air.

Air pollution from chemical pesticides

As once agricultural pesticides have been dispersed they simply cannot be controlled and are airborne droplets, particles and vapours and are present in the air irrespective as to whether there is any wind or not. Indeed volatilization (ie. vapour lift off) can occur days, weeks, even months after any application further exposing humans, bees and pollinators, other wildlife and species, and the environment to these toxic chemicals.

Scientific studies have in fact found pesticides transported in the air at high levels, including considerable distances (ie. many miles) from where pesticides were originally applied and calculated health risks for rural residents and communities living within those distances and which includes some of the most vulnerable sub-groups such as babies, children, pregnant women, elderly and those already ill and/or disabled – none of whom should ever have been exposed to these harmful chemicals in the first place!

Air pollution from chemical pesticides is therefore one of the components of atmospheric pollution. There are still no specific restrictions here in the UK – and indeed in most countries worldwide – on the contamination and pollution of the air from the widespread spraying of mixtures of pesticides in rural areas. Yet this is despite the fact that improving air quality is a major public health issue and also an environmental one.

While operators generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of PPE, respirators, and will be in filtered tractor cabs when spraying pesticides – rural residents and communities, bees and other species, have absolutely no protection at all from the innumerable cocktails of toxic agrochemicals sprayed on crop fields.

It is clear the existing UK pesticides standards, as well as in Europe and other countries globally, fail on every level to protect human health and other species in rural areas.

Even DEFRA’s very own former Chief Scientist Advisor, Professor Ian Boyd, in an article in ‘Science’ in 2017 (when still in post in the top science job at DEFRA) issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach globally for pesticides sprayed on crops including that the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes” has been ignored; and that the assumption by regulators that it is “safe” to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change. Professor Boyd has since repeatedly advocated that pesticides need to be designed out of farming systems altogether.

Impossible to test all mixtures

Some scientists have pointed out that it would be “impossible” to test all the different mixtures and combinations of pesticides and other agro chemicals exposed to in real life

The Government has recently fully acknowledged that itself, as the Minister for Environment, Lord Goldsmith, stated on 7th July in a written response in the House of Lords to an Environment Bill amendment for protection of rural residents and communities from agricultural pesticides that, “It is not possible to assess directly the potential human health and environmental impacts of every possible combination of chemicals in the environment. There are too many billions of potential mixtures.”

Preventing exposure

This then means that preventing exposure to agricultural pesticides is the only real way to secure overall protection for bees, other pollinators, as well as rural residents and communities. Ultimately, this requires a paradigm shift away from use and reliance on such toxic chemicals in food and farming production to non-chemical forms of farming.

Considering the very significant damage that the use of agricultural pesticides has caused then the strategic aim must be to move away from pesticides to a health and environmentally sustainable crop production utilising non-chemical farming methods (such as crop rotation, physical and mechanical control, natural predator management).

This would obviously also 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 huge external costs of pesticide use would also be eliminated if agricultural policies are fundamentally shifted towards utilizing non-chemical farming methods.

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

The assertion usually promoted by the agrochemical industry (although also bizarrely suggested by bee champion Dave Goulson in an article in the Guardian last week) that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security has already been debunked in the 2017 UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food that found such claims are “false,” “inaccurate,” and “dangerously misleading.” The report stated, “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.”

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

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.

Crucial Environment Bill amendment

Whilst this may not happen overnight, there is the opportunity of a return in the coming weeks of a crucial amendment to the Environment Bill to finally secure the necessary and long overdue protections for human health, bees, other wildlife and the environment in rural areas by prohibiting use of agricultural pesticides in locality of specified areas.

A previous similar amendment was actually adopted by the House of Lords into the Agriculture Bill last year after widespread cross party support – including the main opposition front benches – but was very disappointingly taken out again at the final stages in the House of Commons, despite again having strong cross party support.

The amendment calls for the same protection measure as that contained in an ongoing UK petition here in the UK to the Prime Minister and DEFRA Secretary and that has been signed by nearly 13,700 mainly affected rural residents and communities. This sets it apart from other petitions that people may click on in support as the majority of those who have signed this petition are those directly impacted – and many with adverse health effects – from the very high volume of use of cocktails of agricultural pesticides in locality of our homes, schools, nurseries, hospitals and other health care facilities.

The petition has also been supported by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, the Prime Minister’s own father Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, DEFRA non-executive board member Ben Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas MP, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, among many others.

It is important to note that since 2009 EU (and UK equivalent) laws (up until now at least!) have legally defined rural residents living in the locality of pesticide sprayed crops as a “vulnerable group” recognised as having “high pesticide exposure over the long term,” and further, the risks of both acute and chronic effects of such exposure is again recognised in Article 7 of the EU Sustainable Use Directive. It is therefore clear that the high level of exposure rural residents receive is way and beyond that of those living in non-agricultural areas. Indeed in all the years I have been running the UK Pesticides Campaign – and the many thousands of reports received of those adversely affected by pesticides – around 98% have been those impacted from pesticide use on nearby farms.

Adverse impacts on human health

High quality, peer-reviewed scientific studies and reviews have concluded that long-term exposure to pesticides can damage the function of different systems in the body, including nervous, endocrine, immune, reproductive, renal, cardiovascular, respiratory.

Such studies have concluded that exposure to pesticides is associated with a wide range of chronic diseases including various cancers, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neuro degenerative diseases (including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), cardio-vascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diabetes, chronic renal diseases, autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus).

Yet if such harmful agricultural pesticides were not sprayed in the locality of rural residents’ homes, schools etc. then such pesticide related health conditions in rural communities would clearly be preventable. Even based on the acute effects reported by rural residents and communities which the Government itself has previously monitored and recorded cases on (including acute effects such as chemical burns to the eyes and skin; rashes and blistering; damaged vocal chords; difficulty swallowing; respiratory irritation; breathing problems; asthma attacks; headaches, dizziness, nausea; vomiting; stomach pains; flu-type illnesses; and aching joints), then immediate action is supposed to be taken, as any reports of any adverse health effects, whether they are acute or chronic, are not supposed to just be accepted by Government when pesticide laws clearly require there to be “no immediate or delayed harmful effect on human health.”

Reports of acute and chronic harm for rural residents and communities have existed for decades and the only way to prevent such harm occurring and protect human health is to prohibit the use of agricultural pesticides in the locality of rural residents/communities.

Vital protections from farm pesticides

 The vast majority of international studies and scientific evidence on the devastating harmful impacts of pesticides on bees, wildlife, and human health is from use in farming.

NGO based campaigns for banning pesticides solely in urban areas and private gardens are all well and good but if excluding the biggest contributor of the ever increasing pesticides crisis of harm to human health and species decline, then bees and pollinators, wildlife, as well as human health and the environment will continue to suffer.

With a reported 40% of insect species in the UK declining, and with a third classed as ‘endangered,’ then the reality is that without concrete action on the use of pesticides in agriculture and farming – which is the biggest user per year in the UK by a very long way – then its reported that a mass extinction of insects could well occur in the next 50 years.

The use of toxic pesticides in agriculture is therefore the biggest problem for bees and us and so securing vital protections from farm pesticides is absolutely integral to the health and existence of all those living in the countryside, as well as other species that are being wiped out from the use of these poisonous chemicals. Such vital protections are extremely urgent and simply non-negotiable.

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