Agriculture Bill

Written Evidence submitted by Georgina Downs of the UK Pesticides Campaign (AB47)

Executive Summary

1.1 Considering it appears that not very much has changed in the Agriculture Bill - particularly regarding the total omission of any requirements for the protection of human health and the environment from agricultural pesticides [1] - since the previous version of the Agriculture Bill was before the Agriculture Bill Committee, then the vast majority of the key points that the UK Pesticides Campaign raised to the Agriculture Bill Committee in its previous evidence in October 2018 remain the same and are reiterated again here.

1.2 The revised version of the Agriculture Bill still does not recognise - or even have any specific reference to - the fact that the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in agricultural areas is from the continued use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals on crop fields across the UK.

1.3 Thus much of the perceived benefits of the proposed new Agriculture Bill that DEFRA is advocating simply will not materialise without concrete and definitive action on the biggest problem - that being the widespread use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in our existing farming system - and which appears to be the Government’s ‘elephant in the room’ with how reluctant DEFRA is to even mention it, let alone focus on it.

1.4 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 Government then farmers would have to adapt and find alternative methods that do not put public health and the environment at the risk of harm.

1.5 It cannot be stressed enough that there is no chance of restoring and enhancing the countryside environment - and the health of rural residents and communities within it - if the Government, DEFRA and the Department of Health continue to ignore the catastrophic damage that the existing chemical intensive farming system is causing.

1.6 Toxic pesticides and other harmful agricultural chemicals should never have been used where we rural residents and communities live and bre athe. Non-chemical farming methods are the only real way to protect both people and planet from harm

1.7 The two most important amendments to the Agriculture Bill would be for the insertion of new text for: 1) the urgent need to secure the 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.

1.8 For 1), the UK Pesticides Campaign would urge the Committee to include the NC10 amendment tabled to the previous version of the Agriculture Bill, see further below.

Background

1.9 Synthetic chemical pesticides were originally developed as chemical warfare agents in the 1930s and 1940s, but then 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.

1.10 Despite the inherent hazards for human health and the environment synthetic chemical pesticides were used as crop sprays on large areas of farmland for many decades without considering or accounting for the risks to the health of rural residents and communities actually living in the locality of such crop sprayed areas.

1.11 The gaps in the approvals process and protection system for rural residents has been raised by the campaign I run - the UK Pesticides Campaign - since 2001.

1.12 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 cocktails of synthetic chemical pesticides under the existing conventional food and farming production system.

1.13 DEFRA’s own Chief Scientist Advisor in an article in ‘Science’ [2] issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach worldwide 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.

Adverse health impacts

1.14 It is well established that the use of harmful chemical pesticides in agriculture causes substantial damage to air and water quality and safety, to biodiversity, and most importantly to the human health of rural populations who are profoundly affected by the effects of the industrial scale - and under regulated - use of chemical pesticides.

1.15 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," and even "May be fatal if inhaled."

1.16 Cornell University’s teaching module ‘Toxicity of Pesticides’ [3] 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."

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

1.18 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."

1.19 This clear statement from 45 years ago shows that successive Governments’ have always been well aware of the cumulative effects of pesticides, but again no action has been taken to secure the health of rural families.

1.20 Further, considering that the warnings contained in the manufacturers product data sheets are for individual  products, then what on earth does that say about all the untested cocktails of agricultural poisons sprayed widely on crops across the UK.

1.21 There are in fact around 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for UK agricultural use. Government statistics show that in relation to just pesticides alone ( ie . not including chemical fertilisers and all the other agro chemicals used in conventional farming), in 2014 the total area treated with pesticides on agricultural and horticultural crops was 80,107,993 hectares, with the total weight applied being 17,757,242 kg. [4]

1.22 The reality of this widespread pesticide use - and with innumerable cocktails of different pesticides sprayed on crops across the country - has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed any country around the world.

1.23 Nearly 11,000 people - the majority of which are affected UK rural residents have signed a petition [5] 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 residents and communities living within those distances. [6] The petition has been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, the father of the Prime Minister Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, DEFRA non-executive board member Ben Goldsmith, Michael Watt, Caroline Lucas MP

1.24 A few examples of some of the truly harrowing experiences from other rural residents affected by the spraying of agricultural pesticides across the UK - as taken from the many thousands of cases within the petition - can be seen in one of my previous articles at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/03/19/the-double-standards-and-hypocrisy-of-the-uk-government-over-the-nerve-agent-spy-poisoning/

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

Ø The United Nations report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food [7] 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;

Ø The IPES-FOOD report [8] 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;

Ø The Lancet Commission on pollution and health report [9] 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.

UK Agricultural policy

1.26 The evidence of harm to both human health and the environment from agricultural pesticides is simply unarguable and certainly will not be solved by merely papering over the cracks as the whole core foundations and structure on which the current UK policy operates is inherently flawed. For example, it would not solve the deep seated and fundamental problems that exist by merely reducing the use of pesticides, as just one single exposure can lead to damage to the health of any rural residents or others exposed. Further, the pesticides reduction targets advocated by NGOs and that were previously set in France, along with a pesticides tax, have not worked - and have wasted the last 10 years - as pesticide use in France has overall increased! Those pushing for the mere reduction of pesticides also sends the wrong message as it implies that it is ok to use them but just less when no it was never ok to use highly toxic chemicals in our food production system and certainly not for spraying in the locality of unprotected residents.

1.27 Nor will the problems with pesticides be solved by Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - which I note has been advocated by DEFRA as a way forward - as IPM still uses pesticides to some degree whichever definition one goes by. Many conventional farmers insist they already adopt IPM practices - even though they are still spraying mixtures of pesticides on a regular basis, year after year, on crops across the UK. So in reality and in practice, IPM is simply a red herring as it's not going to fundamentally change anything.

1.28 The problem is also not going to be solved by merely substituting one pesticide for another. Particularly as historically once one pesticide has been withdrawn another toxic chemical will just be introduced in its place. How does that solve anything? It doesn't!

1.29 The UK Pesticides Campaign has continued to advocate that the only real solution to eliminate the adverse health and environmental impacts of agricultural pesticides is to take a preventative approach and avoid exposure altogether with the widespread adoption of truly sustainable non-chemical farming methods (such as crop rotation, physical and mechanical control, and natural predator management).

1.30 This would obviously 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. Further, the fact that previous research has shown that more than 3,000 pest species have developed resistance to at least 300 types of insecticide ingredients [10] yet further supports the urgent need for a different approach.

1.31 Yet the use of non-chemical methods still does not appear to be mentioned in any capacity in the revised version of the Agriculture Bill, as it wasn’t either previously.

1.32 Considering the catastrophic damage that the use of agricultural pesticides has caused then the strategic aim must be to move away from chemical pesticides to a health and environmentally sustainable crop protection utilising non-chemical farming methods.

1.33 The aforementioned 2017 UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food concluded that the agro-chemical industry has continued to falsely maintain that damage will be caused to agriculture and food production if pesticides are not used. The report stated that "The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. 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! [11]

1.34 The UN report concluded moving away from pesticide-reliant industrial agriculture to non-chemical farming methods should now be a political priority in all countries globally

1.35 Further, rather surprisingly but most certainly welcome by rural communities was the repeatedly stated position of - until recently - DEFRA’s 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 in October 2018 he said he agreed with that position (not that that has been reflected, as said, in the Agriculture Bill text!)

1.36 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 urgently 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, as well as other members of the public, but also the environment, wildlife, pollinators, and other species.

1.37 This is very long overdue, especially regarding the protection of human health and lives, as it is truly scandalous that it has now been over 7 decades that rural residents have not been protected from the risks that pesticides pose to us and our families, and there have been no mandatory measures in the UK specifically for the protection of rural citizens.

1.38 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/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 completely for the protection of us all now, and for future generations.

1.39 The new Agriculture Bill and related policy provides a real opportunity for change.

1.40 The UK Pesticides Campaign would therefore urge the Bill Committee to amend the Agriculture Bill to reflect the health and environmental protections that are so urgently needed, including with the following crucial commitments and actions.

New clauses in the Agriculture Bill

1.41 The two most important amendments would be for the insertion of new text in the Agriculture Bill for: 1) the urgent need to secure the 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.

1.42 A specific amendment (New Clause 10 (NC10)) to the previous version of the Agriculture Bill to secure the protection of rural residents and communities from agricultural pesticide applications was tabled by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and which was then co-signed by numerous MPs and so had considerable cross party support.

1.43 In addition to cross party support, the NC10 amendment also received considerable support from various prominent groups and figures within the food and farming sector.

1.44 The vital NC10 amendment entitled "Application of pesticides: limitation on use to protect human health," would prohibit the application of any pesticide for the purpose of agriculture near (a) any building used for habitation, (b) any building or open space used for work or recreation, or (c) any public or private building where members of the public may be present including, but not limited to, schools, nurseries, and hospitals.

1.45 The full text of the NC10 amendment was as follows:

To move the following Clause-

"Application of pesticides: limitation on use to protect human health

(1) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision for prohibiting the application of any pesticide for the purpose of agriculture near-

(a) any building used for habitation,

(b) any building or open space used for work or recreation, or

(c) any public or private building where members of the public may be present including, but not limited to, schools, nurseries, and hospitals.

(2) Regulations under this section may specify a minimum distance to be maintained during the application of any pesticide between the place of application and any place under subsection (1)(a) to (c).

(3) For the purposes of this section-

"agriculture" has the meaning given in section 15(6), and

"public building" includes any building used for the purposes of education.

(4) Regulations under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure."

Member’s explanatory statement

This new clause would have the effect of protecting members of the public from hazardous health impacts arising from the application of chemical pesticides near buildings and spaces used by the public.

1.46 The NC10 amendment was crucially important for public health protection. The UK Pesticides Campaign would therefore urge members of the Committee to consider including this amendment in the revised version of the Agriculture Bill. This amendment would finally provide an opportunity to get parliamentary support for the protection of rural residents and communities, especially the most vulnerable groups such as babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those already ill and/or disabled - none of whom should ever have been exposed to cocktails of these poisons in the first place.

UK Pesticides Campaign

1.47 The UK Pesticides Campaign [12] was founded in 2001 and specifically exists to highlight the exposures, risks, and adverse health and environmental impacts of pesticides on rural residents and communities, as well as on other members of the public. I myself, as the Founder and Director of the campaign, have lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for over 35 years, and I therefore have the direct experience of living in this situation.

1.48 The use of pesticides, chemical fertilisers, and other agro chemicals in the existing conventional farming system, not only poses a risk to the environment, wildlife, pollinators, other species, habitats and biodiversity, but most importantly – and often ignored – there is a risk to the health of all those living in the locality of conventionally farmed crops, as well as children attending schools/playgrounds near crop sprayed fields.

1.49 This continues to have avoidable and totally preventable adverse impacts on the health of rural residents and communities, particularly babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people already ill and/or disabled (and where any interactions or synergistic effects between agricultural pesticides and any medication is simply not accounted for).

1.50 The campaign was the first to identify and expose the flaws in the Government’s risk assessment policy and approach in 2001, in that there was no risk assessment undertaken for residents exposure - only a short term assessment for bystanders - prior to the approval of any pesticide, and yet it has always been a legal requirement under EU law.

1.51 Existing regulatory assessments are predictive only and based on a mere mathematical model and, as said, have never reflected the real life exposure scenario of rural residents.

1.52 Further, any reports of harmful effects are supposed to inform that the approvals system is failing. The fact is that there are harmful effects occurring, indeed thousands of truly harrowing reports from rural residents suffering devastating - even fatal - consequences on their health and lives from crop spraying.

1.53 The work of the UK Pesticides Campaign is widely recognised both nationally and internationally, [13] and has led to a considerable number of prestigious environmental awards and nominations. [14] The work of the UK Pesticides Campaign has also led to recognition by an independent international political research centre in Washington DC and for which experts are described as "well-respected and recognized authorities in international governance with expertise and research activities. Through their world-leading research and analysis, IIPRC experts aim to contribute to international governance policy innovations that will lead to a better world." [15]

1.54 I myself have also been a registered journalist under both the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and British Guild of Agricultural Journalists since 2006. [16] The following are just a few articles that refer to the UK Agriculture Bill and related policy:

Ø A summary of the UK Pesticides Campaign’s submission to the DEFRA Consultation (that preceded the publication of the Agriculture Bill in Sept 2018) was contained in an article in Green Times in May 2018 entitled: "Pesticides and human health: the UK government’s ‘elephant in the room’" at: http://thegreentimes.co.za/pesticides-and-human-health-the-uk-governments-elephant-in-the-room/

Ø Ecologist, Sept 2018, "Is the new UK Agriculture Bill a triumph or a travesty?" at: https://theecologist.org/2018/sep/14/new-uk-agriculture-bill-triumph-or-travesty

Ø Ecologist, December 2018, "Pesticides amendment to protect residents" at: https://theecologist.org/2018/dec/20/pesticides-amendment-protect-residents

Ø Counterpunch, October 2019, "NGOs are Too Weak to Halt the Catastrophic Pesticides Crisis" at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/25/ngos-are-too-weak-to-halt-the-catastrophic-pesticides-crisis/

Georgina Downs FRSA, IFAJ, BGAJ.

Agricultural Journalist and Founder and Director of UK Pesticides Campaign

February 2020


[1] And in stark contrast to a new section in the revised version of the Agriculture Bill regarding regulatory requirements for mitigating risks to human and animal health and the environment from (chemical) fertilisers.

[2] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6357/1232.full

[3] http://psep.cce.cornell.edu/Tutorials/core-tutorial/module04/index.aspx

[4] As informed by the Government’s Pesticide Usage Survey Group.

[5] https://www.change.org/p/the-prime-minister-rt-hon-boris-johnson-mp-ban-all-crop-spraying-of-poisonous-pesticides-near-our-homes-schools-and-playgrounds

[6] Eg. Lee et al, "Community Exposures to Airborne Agricultural Pesticides in California: Ranking of Inhalation Risks" (2002).

[7] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21306&LangID=E

[8] https://theecologist.org/2017/oct/17/expert-panel-identifies-unacceptable-toll-food-and-farming-systems-human-health

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/19/global-pollution-kills-millions-threatens-survival-human-societies

[10] Hardy, M.C., 'Resistance is not futile: it shapes insecticide discovery'. Insects, 2014. 5(1): p. 227-242

[11] The UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers 2013 report, 'Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not'.

[12] www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk

[13] The work of the UK Pesticides Campaign has been featured in national and international media since 2002. Examples of national media coverage include: in the Times, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Guardian, Observer, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Metro; as well as on a number of BBC TV and radio programmes (including BBC News, Politics Show, Countryfile, The Food Police, Radio 4’s: Today programme, Woman’s Hour, You and Yours, PM, The World at One, Costing the Earth; BBC World Service, BBC Radio 5 Live); ITV and Channel 4 programmes (including ITV News, Channel 4 News,); and on Sky News. In relation to international media coverage, articles that have featured the work of the UK Pesticides Campaign have appeared in, amongst others, the US (including CNN), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Portugal, India, and The Beijing News in China. In addition a diverse range of magazines have also featured the work of the campaign including: Cosmopolitan, Marie Clare, Grazia, Red, Vogue, Ecologist, Counterpunch, Independent International Political Research Center, Resurgence, Private Eye, Science in Parliament, Country Living, The Big Issue, New Consumer, Easy Living, Ethical Living, Landworker, Positive Health, among others. The work of the campaign has also been featured in a number of books including " The Vitamin Murders " by James Fergusson; " Scared to Death " by Christopher Booker and Richard North; " People Power " by Jon Robins and Paul Stookes.

[14] Some of the awards and nominations can be seen at: https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/Georgina_Downs.html

[15] http://www.iiprc.org/experts.html

[16] https://www.ifaj.org/eco-award-uk-writer/

 

Prepared 26th February 2020