The UK Government’s “dither and delay” approach to pesticide policy continues to put the health of our natural world at serious risk, sixty years after author Rachel Carson first sounded the alarm about the hidden harms of these toxic chemicals in her book “Silent Spring”.
Today, on the 60th anniversary of the ground-breaking exposé, experts in The Pesticide Collaboration are calling out the UK Government for failing to adequately protect human health and the environment from pesticides. Since official records began in 1990, the UK has covered over 700 million hectares in pesticides – enough to douse every inch of the UK 14 times over. Meanwhile, pesticides linked to cancer are still routinely used in parks and playgrounds by local councils, up and down the country.
Sarah Haynes, from The Pesticide Collaboration, said: “Government leadership and action on pesticides is long overdue. As more towns choose to go pesticide-free, and farmers explore non-chemical alternatives, what’s missing is Government support and ambitious reduction targets to tackle the problem on the scale required. Sixty years ago, Carson warned against a certain arrogance – the idea that we can fully control the pesticides we put in the environment. Time and again pesticides once deemed “safe” are revealed to persist and pollute the environment far beyond what was originally thought. Another way is possible, and appetite to poison the planet whatever the cost is quickly diminishing.”
Despite Government promises to publish a national action plan on pesticides in 2018, it is yet to materialise – a delay of almost five years. Instead, the Government is now talking about deregulation, with PM Truss promising a “red tape bonfire” which is likely to put human health and wildlife at further risk.
In the meantime, the environmental degradation predicted by Carson, who warned in 1962 of a future “Silent Spring” unless pesticides were tackled – where the hum of bees or chatter of birds are no longer heard – continues to unfold. Rural wildlife has declined dramatically, with farmland bird populations plummeting on average by 50 per cent since 1970. Research suggests that flying insects have declined by almost two-thirds in the UK in the last 20 years – in line with plummeting insect numbers globally. A single teaspoon of neonicotinoid insecticide is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion bees.
Martin Lines, an arable farmer and UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, explains: “Government policy has taken farmers down a path that doesn’t view or reward nature as integral to sustainable food production. The government has not acted with the necessary urgency to address the biodiversity crisis, and it continues to drag its feet in delivering a new pesticide National Action Plan. We are concerned that this new government will turn a blind eye to importing products that use pesticides which are illegal in this country and will contribute to the decline of nature internationally. The government must take the health and vitality of our farmed landscapes seriously, which means acting to support the improvement of farm ecosystems where the need to use
damaging insecticides is negated. We need policy that will stop the use of harmful pesticides, including clear reduction targets.”
Pesticide harms are not limited to the environment. Through residues in food, spraying throughout towns, parks and playgrounds, as well as pet flea treatments – human health is exposed to these toxic chemicals in multiple unseen ways. Long term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; and cancers.
Thalie Martini, CEO of Breast Cancer UK, said: “We are very concerned about the effects of certain pesticides still in current use. Some may act as carcinogens by inducing gene mutations. Others can act as endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals that may affect hormones – including oestrogen – which may also increase breast cancer risk”
Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife added: “Insect numbers have crashed and while countries all around us are moving towards banning pesticide use in towns and large areas of the countryside, the UK no longer has basic safeguards in place and seems to be drifting in the opposite direction. If the Government is committed to protecting people and the environment from pesticide harm then a statement to that effect is long overdue.”
When Rachel Carson wrote her seminal book sixty years ago, it sparked a wave of public interest and concern. Her writing is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement. Carson was also met with fierce resistance from agrochemical companies, dismissing and undermining her scientific studies as nonsense – a tactic that the industry still uses today.
The Pesticide Collaboration is calling for an urgent reduction in pesticide-related harms to both the environment and human health. They are urging the UK Government to introduce ambitious pesticide reduction targets and put in place the support farmers need to transition over to non-chemical alternatives.