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Pesticides urgently need reform – the UK’s overdue action plan must make these drastic changes

Pesticides urgently need reform – the UK’s overdue action plan must make these drastic changes

Nature is in crisis, with a human-caused global mass extinction event well underway. There is widespread recognition that the ongoing global increase in pesticide use is a significant contributor to the biodiversity crisis. But we still haven’t heeded the warning that Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, gave us in 1962.

If we are to tackle the biodiversity crisis, then radical and specific action is needed by governments around the world to mitigate the impact of pesticides. But progress in the UK has not been picking up pace. It is deeply concerning that the UK national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides is six years late.

A plan is rumoured to finally be due for publication in February 2024, but based on a previous draft there are also concerns among scientists and environmentalists that it won’t be sufficient to address the problem. There are some specific steps that these experts agree the UK government should start taking to ensure pesticides don’t continue contributing to the collapse of our ecosystems.

Under an EU directive, the UK was supposed to produce a plan in 2018, but a first draft for consultation did not appear until 4 December 2020. By the end of the 12-week consultation period, Defra had received a remarkable 1,568 responses, 68% of them from private individuals, plus 37,000 emails.

It is fair to say that there was a lot of criticism of the draft, summarised in detailed documents released by charities including the Wildlife Trusts and Pesticide Action Network among others, and also in Defra’s response. The high-level aim of the plan was to reduce pesticide use and minimise impacts of pesticides on humans and the environment, while still effectively managing pests. Almost everybody agreed with that, but there was widespread dissatisfaction with the detail.

On target?

In particular, the plan completely lacked targets: there were no clear targets for reducing overall pesticide use, no ambition to phase out pesticides in urban green spaces or along pavements and around hospitals and schools, and no plan to ban the more harmful pesticides. But several European countries are making significant progress through the use of targets in these areas.

Many environmental organisations also called for more concrete plans to support farmers to properly implement integrated pest management. This approach considers pesticide use a last resort.

Research has shown that integrated pest management is an effective way to reduce pesticide use. It involves a combination of crop rotations, resistant varieties, encouraging natural predators, and other techniques to minimise pest problems, only applying pesticide if all else fails and pest numbers exceed economic thresholds.

The draft action plan offered no mechanism for meaningful progress here, which might have included providing farmers with independent agronomic advice, provision of demonstration farms, and funding for research.

More recently, the government has received considerable criticism over its decision to repeatedly grant emergency derogations (exemptions) allowing use of banned neonicotinoid insecticides on sugar beet. This decision went against the recommendations of both the Health and Safety Executive and the government’s ExpertCommittee on Pesticides, and so does not appear to be following the science.

These emergency derogations were declared illegal in the EU in 2023, so the UK has now departed from all EU member states in still allowing farmers to use neonicotinoids.

Strengthening the strategy

This has all fuelled existing concerns among environmental NGOs that the UK government may be using the freedoms of Brexit to weaken environmental protections and that the country is becoming the dirty man of Europe.

Defra has remained quiet for three years since the consultation on the national action plan ended in February 2020, perhaps trying to digest the 1,568 responses like a python having a nap after a large meal.

Now that a final plan is thought to be imminent, members of the Pesticide Collaboration is gearing up to prepare a response. This large consortium of environmental and human health-related charities including RSPB, Breast Cancer UK, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Cure Parkinson’s, WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, recently met to discuss what they are hoping for.

As outlined by this coalition, there was broad agreement that the national action plan’s new iteration should include:

  • a continued commitment to the precautionary principle and a hazards-based approach to pesticide regulation
  • ambitious and unambiguous targets to reduce impacts of pesticides on the environment via reducing usage and toxicity (and not simply a promise to introduce such targets at a future date)
  • a strategy to phase out pesticide use in urban areas
  • provision of support, advice and training for farmers to adopt integrated pest management, with a clear definition of what is meant by the term
  • a commitment to breaking the link between agronomic advice and profits from pesticide sales (at present most of the agronomists who advise farmers work for pesticide companies)
  • an end to emergency authorisations of banned chemicals.

Other issues that have been raised by environmental organisations include provision for better monitoring of pesticide use and environmental fate. For example, monitoring of rivers is patchy while soils are scarcely ever screened for pesticides.

It would also be in the public interest for all pesticide usage data collected by Defra to be made open access, enabling researchers to examine links between use and environmental harms or human health impacts.

Few people at the recent Pesticide Collaboration discussion were optimistic that many of these aspirations will be met by the new action plan, if it does arrive this month. There is a keen appetite for meaningful action, not more kicking the can down the road.

If actions are not delivered, this could become a highly politicised issue in this election year. With environmental issues becoming increasingly important for voters, it remains to be seen whether any of the main UK political parties will grasp the opportunity to win over the green vote.

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology (Evolution, Behaviour and Environment), University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.