Toxic Brexit

20 Mar 2021

Since Brexit, many questions have been raised regarding the dismantling of UK regulations and the weakening of pesticide standards via trade deals, which would mean that a large number of chemicals that have already been banned could be authorised for use in the UK. This could have a catastrophic impact on our health as well as the environment.

“The UK public has made it very clear that we don’t want post-Brexit trade deals to lead to any weakening of UK pesticide standards. It’s vital that the Government listens to consumers and protects their health by refusing to allow food imports which contain larger amounts of more toxic chemicals”, PAN UK, Pesticide Action Network, commented.

“If UK pesticide regulations are weakened as a result of EU exit, it could lead to a rise in pesticides in our food, farms and urban spaces, thereby increasing the exposure of UK citizens and our natural environment to their harmful impacts. Pesticides previously banned because of their impact on human health or the environment (such as bee-toxic neonicotinoids) could once again be allowed for use the UK”, PAN UK added.

Pesticides affect our environment, damaging ecosystems by disrupting natural food chains and pollination, contributing to soil degradation, contamination of ground water and destruction of wild life.

These chemicals are also the cause of serious health issues, considered probable carcinogen, capable of causing different types of cancer, including Leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, are an endocrine disruptor (EDC’s), which interferes with hormone systems, therefore causing birth defects, developmental disorders, infertility and sexual function. In addition, they are considered a neurotoxin affecting nerve tissues and the nervous system. Children and expectant mothers are the most susceptible to the effects of pesticides.

If pesticide regulations are weakened as a result of Brexit, UK consumers could have no choice but to consume food containing high level of chemicals that are currently banned, due to trade deals with countries like the US, Australia, India and Brazil, where pesticide regulation is less rigorous. Post-Brexit pesticide regulations could include the approval of harmful chemicals such as asulam, glyphosate, neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos, among others.

UK agriculture and farmers will also be directly affected by allowing crops grown more cheaply on a larger scale to be imported. This could lead to UK farmers having no option but to resort to the use of more pesticides domestically.

The UK and the EU follow the “hazard-based” approach to pesticide regulation, meaning that if a substance is judged to be dangerous and too harzadous to be used safely, then it should be banned. Other countries like the US and Australia work on a “risk-based” approach, meaning that if a pesticide is harmful to human health, then it might be banned while a risk-based is introduced with measures, such as the use of PPE for users or instructions not to spray the chemical in certain areas.

Food regulations in the US are much less stringent than those in the UK and EU. A potential trade deal with the US means great opportunity for foreign lobby groups, such as the US agrochemical industry, to put pressure on domestic regulators in order to approve even more chemicals, expanding the list of pesticides that are already in use in the country.

According to a Toxic Trade report published by PAN UK, Pesticide Action Network, and Sustain, American grapes are allowed to contain 1,000 more times the amount of the insecticide propargite than in the UK. This chemical has been linked to cancer and considered as a developmental and reproductive toxin. An Australian apple can contain 30 times the amount of buprofezin, an insect growth regulator and a possible carcinogen, than a UK apple. This is just an example of the issues the UK could be facing if deciding to weaken pesticide regulations.

A total of 33 organophosphates (synthetic compounds that are neurotoxic in humans) are permitted in Australia, 26 in the US and 4 in the UK and EU. Of a group of 7 active substances considered highly toxic to bees and pollinators, mostly neonicotinoids (harmful to bees, mammals, birds and fish), are banned in the UK, all but one are permitted in Australia and the US.

Over the last 50 years, the US has experienced pesticide resistance due to overuse, allowing the development of “super weeds”, forcing farmers to use greater quantities and a wider range of mixtures, causing the “cocktail effect”, which is significantly more harmful than using single chemicals.

According to PAN UK and Soil Association, pesticide mixtures have been associated with obesity and impaired liver function, even when the doses of individual chemicals are below the safety levels set by regulators. Several pieces of research conducted on human cells and tissues have highlighted that pesticide mixtures can lead to the creation of cancer cells and disruption of the endocrine system, among other health problems. The UK’s regulatory system continues to assess the safety of one chemical at a time, failing to account interactions between multiple chemicals.

As reported by BrasilWire, a joint committee was recently formed by Brazil and the United Kingdom where both countries will work together on issues related to trade in agricultural goods, envisaging potential future trade agreements. A document was signed between the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, George Eustice, the UK’s Minister for Pacific and Environment, Zac Goldsmith, and Brazil’s Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina, for the creation of a Joint Agriculture Committee (CCA) between both countries. Tereza Cristina is responsible for breaking a record and supporting the approval of 967 pesticides during the Bolsonaro’s administration.

Another worrying factor related to pesticides is poisonings. A recent study published by the BMC Pubic Health Journal report that pesticide poisonings have dramatically increased globally. There are about 385 million cases of acute poisonings each year, meaning that 44% of the global population working on farms are poisoned every year. 

“These numbers are shocking, but unsurprising”, says Dr. Keith Tyrell, Director of PAN UK. “The tragedy is that these poisonings are avoidable – safe and sustainable alternatives exist, and experience from countries like Sri Lanka shows that banning pesticides can be done at low cost with little or no impact on productivity”.

Towards the end of 2020, Qu Dongyo, the Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), announced his intention to develop a partnership with CropLife International (Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, Corteva, Basf and FMC), a collection of private agrochemical companies, which means that the pesticide industry may have a strong ally and the effects of this partnership could be devastating, especially for LMIC countries.

Since 2015, IARC, the WHO’s International Agency for Research and Cancer, declared Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, as a possible human carcinogen. Since then, the manufacturer, Bayer/Monsanto, has been battling with thousands of lawsuits alleging that exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based products caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Germany has decided to implement glyphosate legislation and ban glyphosate by 2024. According to a Reuter’s report, German farmers will need to gradually reduce the use of glyphosate and stop using it completely by 2024.

“The exit from glyphosate is coming. Conservationists have been working toward this for a long time. Glyphosate kills everything that is green and takes away insects’ basis for life”, said Germany’s environment minister Svenja Schulze in a statement.

In January, the UK government authorised the emergency use of the chemical neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on sugar beet seeds, but has recently overturned its decision on the use of the chemical, which has been linked to the falling numbers of honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators.  One third of the food we consume rely on pollination mainly by bees.

Recently, Brussels diplomat, Michel Barnier threatened to suspend the Brexit deal if the UK ignores EU standards. One of the issues in question was pesticide regulation. He added that the UK would be stripped of its zero-tariff and zero-quota with the bloc if it lowers European standards.

“With our agreement, the UK can now export goods without quotas or tariffs to the EU. “However, he [Boris Johnson] announced his intention to deregulate in three areas: financial services, pesticides and working hours”, he added.

“How the UK chooses to govern pesticides will have profound implications for the health of citizens, the natural environment, and the future of UK farming”, said Sarah Haynes, collaboration coordinator at Pesticide Action Network UK.

At the beginning of March CHEM Trust, with more than 20 health and environment NGOs, wrote to UK ministers to urge the Government not to weaken plans for chemical regulations now we have left the EU. In the letter, CHEM Trust stressed that the industry’s proposals would “significantly reduce the ability of the regulator to take action to protect the environment and public and workers’ health from hazardous chemicals.”

In order to protect the environment and safeguard our health, the UK government must decrease the number of pesticides used in the country, avoid the weakening of regulations and at the same time develop sustainable agricultural practices, supporting farmers by adopting a nature-based IPM, Integrated Pest Management. This decision should not be taken lightly and the results will have an irreversible lifelong impact on all our lives and nature.

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