The UK Government currently has a consultation running until 8th May entitled ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit.’ A promising title I thought! That was until I read the various consultation documents – produced by DEFRA – where it became abundantly clear that, despite the title, there is a glaring omission of anything human health related, especially regarding rural residents and communities.
In fact, it is highly noticeable that in various places in the main consultation document it refers to safeguarding pretty much everything else – such as the natural environment, animal health, plant health, bee health, soil health, the health of trees, crop and livestock health, as well as economic health, healthy growth etc., – which then makes the omission of safeguarding human health even more astonishing!
Further, an equally striking omission is that there is seemingly no recognition or acknowledgement of just how damaging the existing industrial and chemical intensive food and farming system in the UK actually is.
Whilst there is some limited acknowledgment in places of agricultural fertilizer run-off and related pollution, there is simply no recognition or acknowledgment of the damage to human health and the environment as a result of the widespread use of pesticides. To give the following example – from the many – contained within the consultation to highlight this point.
Section 5 of the consultation is extraordinary, as despite listing a number of environmental public goods that the consultation document states underpins the Government’s proposed approach to future agricultural policy, including better air quality, improved water quality, improved soil health, increased biodiversity, there is no mention whatsoever – and thus no recognition in any capacity – of the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of all of the above, which is the continued use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals on crop fields across the UK.
Therefore much of the perceived benefits of the proposed new agricultural policy that the UK Government consultation 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 systems – 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.
For example, in a 64 page document pesticides is mentioned in just 1 paragraph on page 55, and that states, “…people must be protected from the risks that pesticides can pose to them and the environment. Strong regulation of pesticides is essential to limit the risks…”
No protection for rural citizens
Yet for over 7 decades, people – in particular rural residents and communities – have not been protected from the risks that pesticides pose to them and their families, and there have been no mandatory measures in the UK specifically for the protection of rural citizens. Further, as I detailed in my article Poison in the Fields: Agriculture as Chemical Warfare, there are many thousands of known cases of adverse health impacts reported by rural residents across the UK, but which the Government has continued to blatantly ignore. Obviously with millions of rural residents exposed in crop sprayed areas there will undoubtedly be many more unreported cases.
A few examples of the truly harrowing experiences from other affected rural residents can be seen within the ongoing campaign petition, which calls on the Prime Minister Theresa May, and DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, 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.
The campaign petition has also been signed by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, Ben Goldsmith, Caroline Lucas MP, among others.
Such glaring omissions in the consultation document regarding the human health impacts of agricultural pesticides is perhaps not overly surprising considering that, despite saying he was in ‘listening mode’ (prior to the preparation of the consultation proposals), the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, failed to meet with and listen to the most important voices to be heard – that being the representation of rural residents and communities who are the ones directly affected from the agricultural activities in the areas where we live and breathe.
This is despite the fact that the DEFRA Secretary did meet and listen to farmers, landowners, NGOs, business and industry interests, including the National Farmers Union (a number of times), among others.
This resulted in the most important stakeholder – affected residents – being excluded from the development of the consultation proposals.
I have in fact repeatedly tried to present the evidence to the DEFRA Secretary and his predecessors, as well as other relevant Ministers including the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and even the Prime Minister, so that the health damage from the existing chemical farming systems in the UK doesn’t go unseen, undocumented and unaddressed.
Yet the Government has continued to turn a blind eye to this scandal by seemingly deliberately ignoring the very people who are impacted from the existing conventional farming system and who, as said, are the most important to be heard, especially when the future of such farming systems are being considered!
The first duty of any Government is meant to be to protect its citizens, especially those most vulnerable.
Chemical warfare in the countryside
Yet there is simply no way to achieve the outcomes advocated in the consultation document of ‘clean air’, ‘clean water’, and a truly green, sustainable, healthy environment – along with, most importantly, the health of the people in it – if the Government continues to permit the release of innumerable cocktails of pesticides and other harmful chemicals over the majority of UK land.
The Executive Summary of the consultation itself states, “Agriculture accounts for over 70% of land use in the UK, and has a major influence on our 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 under the existing chemical intensive conventional farming system.
Latest Government statistics show that regarding 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 17,757,242 kg.
The reality of crop spraying in the countryside is that it involves cocktails of pesticides, as agricultural pesticides are rarely used individually but commonly sprayed in mixtures – quite often a mixture will consist of 4 or 5 different products.
There are approx. 2,000 pesticide products currently approved for UK agricultural use and each product formulation in itself can contain a number of active ingredients, as well as other hazardous chemicals, such as solvents, surfactants, co-formulants (and many of which can have adverse effects on human health in their own right, even before considering any potential synergistic effects in a chemical mixture).
They know not what they spray
Many farmers still do not understand the dangers of the highly toxic chemicals they use to those non-occupationally exposed, ie. rural communities. Quite frankly many farmers still don’t understand the risks of the adverse impacts to themselves and others occupationally exposed!
This continues to come down from the top as the Government, regulators and farming unions (ie. the NFU, amongst other industry bodies) continue to wrongly insist that pesticides are “safe” and so not a risk to farmers’ health or to others.
As long as this misinformation continues then farmers will not necessarily grasp how dangerous the agro-chemicals are that they use to either human health or to the environment. I have been pointing this out since the outset of the campaign I run in 2001, and yet Ministers and officials still make false statements on the safety of pesticides.
DEFRA’s own Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Boyd, has himself recently issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach used worldwide for pesticides sprayed on crops – albeit the failings were still not detailed strongly or extensively enough by any means. He also criticised the lack of any real monitoring in the UK of pesticide effects.
Pesticides not safe on an industrial scale
Professor Boyd’s article published in the journal Science said regulatory systems worldwide have ignored the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes”, and so the assumption by regulators globally that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change.
The reality of the widespread use of pesticides on crops has never been properly assessed in any policy either here in the UK or indeed in any country around the world.
It is a matter of fact that there has never been any evidence of safety for residents, or children attending schools and playgrounds near sprayed crops, just successive Governments’ own unfounded assertions, and those of the pesticides and farming industries.
Radical and fundamental reform needed
Therefore in order for farmers across the board to widely adopt a truly sustainable food and farming production system they need to be provided with the correct facts and knowledge to fully understand why the existing system is harmful to both human health and the environment.
This has to come from the top, from central Government, and yet to date, successive Governments’ have continued to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo of the existing chemical intensive, industrial farming system, to the detriment of the health of rural residents and communities, wildlife, pollinators, soils, biodiversity, and the environment.
The existing system simply does not work and therefore to achieve what the DEFRA consultation paper says it wants to from the new agricultural policy then there has to be radical and fundamental reform of the attitudes at the heart of central Government in order to achieve real change and to protect and enhance the health and lives of all relevant parties.
Focus on profit over human health
In fact it is highly noticeable that much of the focus in the consultation paper is on economic profitability, financial value, and competitiveness. Yet that was how we got to this sorry state in the first place with subsidies rewarding for production, and thus farmers primarily pushing for profit and high yield, with little concern as to how it was achieved, and resulting in the dire consequences and adverse impacts from such business activities.
Therefore, as said, in the absence of any concrete and definitive action by the Government on the widespread use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in our existing farming systems then the proposed ambitions in the DEFRA consultation paper – such as in the Executive Summary under “Our ambition for farming and the environment” that states, “Leaving the European Union and the CAP will give us the opportunity for fundamental reform” and that “…we want a reformed agricultural and land management policy to deliver a better and richer environment in England” – apart from being totally unachievable, are just hollow words.
There is no doubt that the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture is causing serious damage to the environment, wildlife and, above all, human health.
One in eight bird species now threatened
In relation to wildlife, a recent global study on the state of the world’s birds revealed a biodiversity crisis driven by intensive farming and found that one in eight bird species are now threatened with extinction.
In relation to human health, it has now been well over 17 years since I first identified the catastrophic failure to protect rural residents from the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops in the locality of where we live and breathe. Yet despite a number of significant campaign victories and achievements in that time both in the UK and in Europe (including, amongst others, stronger requirements for the protection of residents in EU laws; ensuring residents are now legally defined as a “vulnerable group” recognised as having “high pesticide exposure over the long term”; ensuring new exposure and risk assessment specifications for residents and bystanders are included in, most importantly, EU Commission Regulation 284/2013), the widespread poisoning of residents still continues unabated.
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 without a doubt one of the biggest public health scandals of any time.
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.”
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. In any event residents would obviously not be expected to wear such equipment on their own property and land!
A number of recent major international reports have detailed the damage to human health from existing industrial and chemical-intensive conventional food and farming systems.
- The United Nations report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food 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;
- The IPES-FOOD report 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;
- The Lancet Commission on pollution and health report 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.
The widespread damage that pesticides cause has massive economic, societal and financial implications for all parties, with the exception of the pesticides industry! Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to all those suffering chronic health conditions – including loss of lives – and the impacts on those around them cannot be calculated in financial terms.
In relation to some of the environmental costs of pesticide use in the UK, it has been estimated to cost £140 million per year removing pesticides from drinking water, and around £4.75 million for monitoring pesticides at 2500 surface and groundwater sites, and £5.4 million for pesticide monitoring in both food and livestock. (NB. It is important to stress that there has never been any actual monitoring of pesticides in the air, despite the vast quantity released in the air from crop spraying all over the country).
In fact the reality is that taxpayers are paying twice, as at present members of the public subsidise intensive farming at a cost of many billions of pounds per year, but British citizens then have to pay again in both financial and human terms for the damage caused to their health and/or of their families, and to the wider environment.
Yet despite the fact that chemical farming is costing the UK billions every year, the entire financial analysis of the issue by successive Governments’ has been hopelessly flawed because it has never taken account or factored in the wider, destructive impacts of pesticides, and enormous external health and environmental costs of pesticide use.
The public simply should not have to be subsidising farmers, as this does not happen for other industries. But if some form of public subsidy were to continue post Brexit – which I note the DEFRA consultation sets out at least in relation to the initial years after the UK has left the EU – then rural residents and communities in particular should have the overall say in how that farming in the areas where we live and breathe, go to school, play, etc. is undertaken and operated. This is not a matter of social acceptability it is quite simply a matter of protecting public health.
Mismatches and inconsistencies
Whilst it is good to see in recent days DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, wanting to protect bees and other pollinators, the fact remains that there is nothing being done to protect residents. In EU law there is actually a higher protection standard required for human health than bees (in Article 4 of EU Regulation 1107/2009), as for human health there must be ‘no harm’ from pesticides and for bees it falls under protection of the environment and other species for ‘no unacceptable effects’, and thus human health does not have any qualification in its protection standard.
If the Government is keen to protect bees then it is wholly inconsistent to not want to protect us rural residents too!
There is also currently a clear mismatch and inconsistency between the Government’s longstanding failure to protect people from passive exposure to pesticides and the Government’s approach in other comparable policy areas that ended in a ban for public health protection, such as the smoking ban in public places; asbestos and straw-burning, to name but a few.
The latter, straw-burning, is a very good example of: a) the vociferous objection from the industry of any legislature measures being introduced, (which has always been the same sort of industry objection in relation to any measures being introduced regarding pesticides); and b) how inadequate measures, such as small buffer zones, as well as voluntary approaches, (however many times they are repackaged) failed to protect rural communities.
Despite the fact that the industry – led by the NFU – claimed that it would damage farming if a ban on straw-burning came in, there was no apparent harm to the industry following the introduction of the legislation.
No ‘health and harmony’ without protection
Therefore the protection of UK citizens is the overriding most important ‘public good’ to prioritise, as there certainly cannot be any ‘health and harmony’ when there is no protection of the millions of residents living in the locality of pesticide sprayed crops!
The pollution and contamination of our health and the environment must be stopped at the highest level, which means if such harmful farming practices are no longer permitted by the 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.
There is an astonishing statement on page 15 of the consultation document that states, “In 25 years’ time, we want cleaner air and water, richer habitats for more wildlife and an approach to agriculture and land use which puts the environment first.” Yet we rural residents should never have been denied – by successive Governments’ – clean air and a healthy environment in the first place, and it certainly should not be something that the Government hopes has improved in 25 years’ time!
It needs rectifying now with concrete and definitive action to clean up UK agriculture. This is very long overdue, especially regarding the protection of human health and lives.
Further, as I pointed out in my previous article there is another clear case of double standards here. The Government’s condemnation and robust response to the chemical poisoning of innocent civilians in both Salisbury and Syria with alleged organophosphate compounds is at serious odds with its lack of any action over the millions of innocent people – including babies and young children – exposed to OPs and various other neurotoxic poisons sprayed on UK crop fields, and which is under direct Government sanction!
In relation to any chemical terrorist attack there is no way any politician would say “well just because they were exposed it won’t necessarily cause harm” or “it depends on the dose they were exposed to,” which are just two examples of the types of comments made by those trying to deny and ignore the damage inflicted on rural residents from toxic crop sprays.
It is a criminal offence to knowingly expose someone to poison so there should never have been any exemption on that in relation to agriculture and it needs urgently rectifying.
It is clear that the problems with pesticides are not going to be solved by simply 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.
Nor will it be solved by Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – which I note is advocated within the DEFRA consultation document as a way forward – as IPM still uses pesticides to some degree whichever definition one goes by.
Different approach urgently needed
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.
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!
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).
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.
Non-chemical farming the way forward
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 yet further supports the urgent need for a different approach.
The 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.
The new post Brexit UK agricultural bill and policy provides a real opportunity for the UK to adopt such a non-chemical farming policy in order to no longer use toxic chemicals in the production of our 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, other species, and biodiversity.
The new UK Agriculture Bill should therefore include clear commitments for non-chemical farming, as well as for the protection of the health of rural residents and communities.
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 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.
Anyone affected by the health risks and adverse impacts of pesticides should submit an email to the DEFRA Consultation to let them know that the new UK Agriculture Bill and policy needs to include clear commitments for NON-chemical farming, as well as for protection of the health of rural residents and communities.
By Georgina Downs
A briefing on the DEFRA consultation can be seen on Georgina’s Facebook page.
Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 34 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign, which specifically represents rural residents affected by pesticides sprayed in the locality of residents’ homes, as well as schools, playgrounds, among other areas.