Toxic Side Effects of a UK-Brazil Free Trade Agreement

23 Feb 2022

A recently released report from Pesticide Action Network (PAN-UK), reveals that a potential trade deal between the UK and Brazil is being considered. If a trade deal between both countries goes ahead, the UK population could be consuming products containing higher level of pesticides, which could have a direct impact not only on public health, but also on the environment.

“The UK Trade Secretary is promoting trade with Brazil as providing ‘real opportunities to go further on green trade’. Meanwhile, Brazil’s overuse of highly toxic pesticides is contributing to the destruction of the Amazon and other crucially important ecosystems, contaminating water and poisoning farmworkers and communities. And yet the government has provided no detail on how it will ensure that Brazilian food sold on UK shelves is not contributing to the global climate and nature crises”, said Josie Cohen, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Pesticide Action Network, PAN UK.

Brazil is the world’s third largest user of pesticides, only behind China and the US, allowing almost double the amount of highly hazardous pesticides, HHP’s, to be used (131), compared to the UK (73). For instance, lemons grown in Brazil have 200 times the amount of insecticide dimethoate than in the UK. Dimethoate has been linked to cancer and is banned in the UK.

The UK already imports large amounts of food (meat, fruit and vegetables) and soya for animal feed from Brazil. Food imports are subject to UK safety limits for the amount of pesticides residues allowed to a particular item, but no limits are placed on feed.

Soya beans are Brazil’s largest export to the UK, worth approximately 220 million USD in 2020. The majority of it is genetically modified (GM), and at least 90 per cent of it is fed to animals.

A large amount of the meat British people buy, including beef, dairy and chicken reared in the UK, have been fed on soya grown on deforested land using toxic pesticides.

“Most UK consumers have no idea that some of the meat they are eating has been fed on soya grown using highly toxic chemicals. Right now, the UK government is talking a good game on reducing pesticide harms in the UK, but appears to have no problem with exporting our environmental and human health footprints to Brazil”, mentioned Vicky Hird, Sustainable Farming Campaign Coordinator at Sustain.

In February 2021, Defra signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Brazilian government with the intention to facilitate trade in agribusiness between Brazil and the UK. The Brazilian agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, nicknamed by Brazilians as “poison muse”, said that the UK would eventually become more aligned with international rules on food safety.

“The UK government continues to pursue increased agricultural trade with Brazil, but the intensification of agricultural production there has been linked with deforestation and highly hazardous pesticides which harm wildlife and ecosystems. The UK should ensure that it is not contributing to the problem”, said Dr. Emily Lydgate, specialist in environmental law at the University of Sussex.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has continuously developed a close and special relationship with pesticides. He recently incorporated a presidential decree (10.833/2021), amending the 1989 pesticides law, by making the approval process of pesticides even more flexible, including the approval of chemicals that have already been banned in the US and Europe.

With the new amendment, chemicals that cause cancer, genetic mutations and fetal malformation, will be given approval to be used as well as manufactured, if a “safe exposure limit” is determined.

Additionally, the current Brazilian legislation does not provide for a minimum period for the renewal of pesticides licensing. Pesticides that have been in the Brazilian market for more than 4 decades are still being used today, without ever undergoing an assessment of environmental and health issues.

The approval process of pesticides in Brazil has never been made easier, as more power has been given to the Ministry of Agriculture on the decision making process, leaving ANVISA (National Health Surveillance Agency) and IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) excluded from the final decision.

An increase in agriculture exports from Brazil to the UK may also pose a threat to British agriculture, increasing the pressure on farmers to escalate the use of pesticides to compete with cheaper products grown on a larger scale.

Beef and soya production in Brazil plays a major role in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, as well as devastation of the Cerrado region, the home of 5% of the world’s plant and animal species.

Pesticides have also contaminated Brazilian water. According to a 2021 study, freshwater bodies in 80% of Brazilian states are now contaminated with herbicides such as glyphosate, posing a direct threat to aquatic species and ecosystems.

Drinking water in Brazil can contain glyphosate levels of up to 500 micrograms per litre. In the UK, the current for drinking water is 0.1 microgram per litre, 5000 times lower than the level in Brazil.

Another catastrophe reported on a regular basis is the countless poisoning incidents in Brazil caused by pesticides aerial spraying. A report published by Publica estimated that between 2007 and 2017, pesticides poisoned approximately 6,500 children, all under the age of 14.

In September 2020, Science Direct reported adverse effects of pesticides on the function of our immune system, which could affect how we fight Covid-19. Additionally, a new study performed in human lung airway cells is one of the first to show a potential link between exposure to organophosphate pesticides and increased susceptibility to COVID-19 infection.

“We have identified a basic mechanism linked with inflammation that could increase susceptibility to COVID-19 infection among people exposed to organophosphates,” said Saurabh Chatterjee, PhD, from the University of South Carolina and a research health specialist at the Columbia VA Medical Center and leader of the research team.

Pesticide Action Network UK has made some key recommendations to the UK government, including putting additional measures in place to ensure that Brazilian agricultural imports are not driven pesticide-related harms to either human health or the environment in Brazil.

Another proposal would be not allowing any weakening of UK pesticide standards as a result of an increase in trade with Brazil and preventing UK farmers from being disadvantaged by cheap food imports produced to weaker pesticide standards in Brazil.

The impact pesticides cause to our health and the environment is undeniable. It doesn’t only affect human life, but also the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado, the soil, the air, wildlife and the water, speeding up the destruction of the world’s most precious ecosystems.

We only have one life and one planet. It is our duty to protect them both in order to guarantee our survival!

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