Frequently asked questions2020-12-18T09:18:08+00:00

Frequently asked questions

What are pesticides?2020-12-17T21:01:04+00:00

‘Pesticide’ is an umbrella term for any substance which is designed to control a pest or disease. Types of pesticides are: herbicides (designed to kill plants), insecticides (kill insects), fungicides (kill fungi), rodenticides (kill rodents), molluscicides (kill mollusks) and nematicides (kill nematodes), but also include synthetic plant growth regulators (modify plant development so they can grow out of season, for example), defoliants (accelerate leaf fall) and desiccants (leaf is dried out but remains on plant).

For more general information about pesticides, go to our introduction to pesticides page.

Where are pesticides used in the UK?2020-12-17T21:00:05+00:00

The agricultural sector is the predominant user, using pesticides in the growing of crops which, in turn, can make their way back to consumers as a mix of residues on produce, pesticide drift if living in rural areas and through contaminated water sources.

Pesticides are also used by councils and different private land management organisations such as housing estates to clear roads, pavements, playgrounds and other urban spaces of ‘weeds’. You can view our Pesticide-Free Towns campaign to read about the work we’ve done to help councils and local campaigners phase-out the use of pesticides.

Finally, pesticides are still widely available in various UK supermarkets, garden centres and DIY chains for use at home. However, certain major retailers have taken steps to remove these products from their shelves. Read more about our supermarkets campaign here.

What are some common pesticides to look out for?2020-12-17T20:57:17+00:00

We advise that you avoid all pesticides unless they are certified or approved for organic use.

There are thousands of different substances that are used in agricultural land management, but in terms of chemicals available to individuals that are still sold in garden centres, there are a few notable ones that you can look out for and avoid: ‘glyphosate’, ‘2,4-D’, ‘MCPA’, ‘acetemiprid (neonicotinoid)’, ‘pyrethroids such as cypermethrin and deltamethrin’ and ‘metaldehyde’, to name a few.

Are pesticides all bad?2020-12-17T20:55:45+00:00

The government carries out a survey of pesticide use every year which they publish on the Pesticide Use Survey Statistics (PUS STATS) website. The data they publish only covers pesticides in detail by type (i.e. herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and so on). Crucially, this is only measured by weight and not by how powerful (toxic) the pesticides are.

What we can say is that pesticides impact nearly all life on earth. They are substances designed to kill pests and undesirable plants. Yet, their impact is not limited to these effects. Some pesticides have been shown to be more damaging to human health than others. They can be toxic and bio-accumulate in bodies through direct contact or residues, with varied effects such as cancer and endocrinal disruption. You can read more about health effects here, and about residues in our report, The Cocktail Effect. Pesticides also affect the environment, leaching into soils and waterways, killing insects, and depleting bird and fish populations.

To grow food, pests need to be kept under control. In industrial agricultural practices, where farmers rely on pesticides to grow monocultures, pests and diseases have actually been shown to increase their resistance, progressively calling for larger amounts of these chemicals to successfully treat crops, to greater health and environmental repercussions. A vicious cycle.

Thankfully, managing crop loss has been proven to be possible without the use of harmful chemicals, and without putting humans and biodiversity at risk. Through Integrated Pest Management (IPM), farmers turn to a suite of techniques to work with nature to protect crops against pests and disease, instead of using synthetic pesticides.

Should we be asking for an immediate ban on all pesticides?2020-12-17T21:03:43+00:00

Some people do advocate for an immediate ban on all pesticides. However, from our years of working with farmers and councils, we have found that a phasing-out process is more conducive to long-term success in the adoption of alternatives.

Farmers in particular need help to make a transition to a pesticide-free approach. No transition happens overnight. Currently, in the UK, the majority of farmers don’t have the tools they need to stop using synthetic pesticides. Subsidies and support are overwhelmingly given to large-scale industrial farms. That’s why we are calling for more support for farmers looking to do things differently, more research into alternatives, and more incentives for pesticide-free farming. Read more about our asks here.

Councils also need the time to assess their local needs and to create an adapted weed-management plan. We usually don’t advocate for a ‘like-for-like’ approach, where a synthetic pesticide is replaced by a natural substance for instance. We recommend, rather, that councils adopt a suit of alternatives. Over the course of a two-year phase-out period they can trial different targeted measures adapted to particular areas: some are simply left with weeds to grow freely, some have hand-weeding, some a mechanical weeder or a Foamstreem machine, there are many possibilities which take time to test! For information on alternatives see our guide for local authorities.

We do think that all non-agricultural pesticides should be banned as they are in France, but like any law, there should be a period between the passing of the law and its enforcement to give councils and others a chance to find alternatives and dispose of any remaining stocks safely.

Where individual use is concerned, however, we do advocate for an immediate end in the sale of pesticides in supermarkets and garden centres. You can read more about our work with supermarkets here.

To find out more about glyphosate and its effects see our Glyphosate Myth Buster.

In our international work, we are helping farmers on the ground to transition away from pesticide farming by trialling different adapted IPM measures, and we also work with intergovernmental organisations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation to create systems where Highly Hazardous Pesticides can be phased-out. Read more about our international cotton work here, and the work we are doing with supermarkets to reduce pesticide-use in supply chains here.

Is the UK reducing its pesticide use?2020-12-17T20:52:27+00:00

Recent data suggests that pesticide use is actually increasing in the UK. While the weight of pesticide amounts has decreased, the toxicity (how powerful a pesticide is) has increased. Since 1990, the exposure of the UK public and environment to pesticides has increased in the following ways:

  1. The toxicity of pesticides has increased over time so that less chemical is required to do the same job. As an example, some of the newer neonicotinoid insecticides are 10,000 times more toxic than the most notorious insecticide in history, DDT.
  2. The area of land being treated with pesticides has risen.
  3. The number of times crops are treated with pesticides has gone up.

Read more in our report on the Hidden Rise of UK Pesticide Use.

If you are concerned about pesticide-spraying in your local area, consider joining the Pesticide-Free Towns campaign!

Food & Farming

What does the EU exit mean for pesticides in UK food and farming?2020-12-17T20:51:48+00:00

For decades, the way the UK regulates and uses pesticides has been largely decided at the European level. However, as a result of the EU exit, the UK will soon be operating its own standalone pesticide regime. This change presents some major threats and opportunities in terms of protecting human health and the environment from pesticides.

While far from perfect, UK pesticide standards are some of the strongest in the world. Safety limits for the amount of pesticides allowed to appear in our food tend to be stricter than in non-EU countries and, along with its European counterparts, the UK is more likely to ban a pesticide due to concerns over the harms it causes. As a result of these relatively high standards, future trade deals with agricultural powerhouses such as the US, Australia and India present a considerable risk to the health of UK citizens and the environment. Trade partners attempting to access the UK market for their food exports have listed UK pesticide standards as a key sticking point and made it clear that weakening them is a priority. It’s vital that UK trade negotiators stand up to demands from trade partners and defend our existing pesticide protections.

Read more about pesticides and trade in our report Toxic Trade.

Meanwhile, the EU exit has also led to a number of new opportunities to drive drown pesticide-related harms in the UK. As we move away from the EU’s farming subsidy system (the Common Agricultural Policy) we have a chance to put in place the support farmers need to significantly reduce their pesticide use and transition to agroecological systems which farm with nature instead of against it. While financial assistance is vital to help UK agriculture transition away from its current dependence on chemicals, this package of support must also provide farmers with access to research into non-chemical alternatives and the ability to obtain agronomic advice which is independent from the pesticide industry. We are also calling on the UK Government to introduce an immediate ban on all non-agricultural pesticides (including those used in towns and cities and by amateur gardeners) and adopt a pesticide reduction target, a measure which has been shown to be effective in other countries.

Read more about Brexit and pesticides here.

Do we need pesticides to feed the world?2020-12-17T20:51:00+00:00

In short, no. The most comprehensive study of global food supply chains to date carried out by the United Nations found that small farmers (who often farm without pesticides) feed 70% of the world’s population.

It is a myth that we need to produce more to “feed the world”, as the pesticide industry claims – rather, it is a problem of priority. Just 55%  of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people; 36% is used for animal feed; and the remaining 9% goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses. The ‘efficiency’ rationale behind using pesticides also does not account for the many externalized costs of industrial farming, such as impacts on the environment and public health.

Finally, an important factor to highlight is that the UK wastes almost one quarter of the food that we buy, meaning that we don’t need as much food as we consume currently.

Do pesticides make food cheaper?2020-12-17T20:49:53+00:00

Industrial farming, which relies on pesticides, is heavily subsidised by EU agricultural funding which has, to-date, favoured this large-scale production. In other words, pesticides don’t make food cheaper in and of themselves, but they do prop up a system of industrial farming which is designed to churn out masses of food for low prices. Whilst initially farmers see an increase in yields, this intensive approach exhausts the soils and more and more synthetic fertilisers are needed to maintain high production levels.

Most now recognise that this system is unsustainable. Not least because the world is facing its sixth mass extinction. For instance, studies suggest that more than 40% of global insect species are declining, with a third of insects facing extinction and scientists pointing to the systematic use of pesticides as one of the main reasons for this. Ecosystems are not only valuable in their own right, but they are essential for food production. Around 75% of the global food supply is dependent on insects.

Since leaving the EU, the UK has slightly shifted the subsidy bias in favour of long term gains by passing a new Agricultural bill which aims to help and reward small sustainable food growers – ultimately contributing to making local pesticide-free produce cheaper.

Do GMOs help reduce pesticide use?2020-12-17T20:48:58+00:00

The agrochemical industry often claim that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are designed to help reduce the need for pesticides, as they are developed to be resistant to certain pests. There is no evidence to support this. In fact, it is quite the opposite: genetically modified organisms are driving up pesticide use. An unsurprising finding when we consider that it is the same agrochemical industry which produces both GMO seeds and pesticides.

The main goal of introducing GMO seeds is to increase corporate control of global agriculture. Most seeds these companies sell have ‘terminator technology’, meaning harvested seeds are sterile and cannot be saved to grow the following year. They also call for pesticides to create the right growing conditions for these non-heirloom seeds – more than 80% of the GMO crops grown worldwide are designed to tolerate increased herbicide use, not reduce pesticide use. GMOs lock in farmers’ dependency on these big corporations, leading to precarious situations, and in many cases, suicides.

The U.S. is the leading grower and exporter of GM crops. In 2009, 93% of U.S. GMO soybeans and 80% of GMO corn was grown from Monsanto’s (now Bayer) patented seeds. “RoundUp Ready” corn and soybeans were designed for use with Bayer-Monsanto’s weed killer, which mostly feed animals and fuels cars rather than people. Now that weeds have developed resistance to RoundUp, DowDuPont and Bayer-Monsanto are introducing GMO corn that includes tolerance of dicamba and 2,4-D, antiquated and dangerous herbicides prone to drift from where they’re applied on neighbouring non-GMO fields and into neighbouring communities.

Fortunately GMOs are not authorised in the UK for commercial purposes – let’s keep it that way!

What are the pesticide-related health risks in conventional farming?2020-12-17T20:45:36+00:00

Conventional farming practices rely on pesticides to maintain adequate yield production levels. Spraying these dangerous chemicals requires very careful managing and farmers must wear appropriate protective gear. Rural residents living next door to farms can also be exposed to pesticide drift. Unfortunately, through chronic exposure and accidents, pesticides are a major global killer. Nearly 1,000 people die every day from acute pesticide poisoning and many more suffer from chronic ill health, such as cancers like leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neurological diseases and reproductive problems including infertility, miscarriage and birth defects.

Certain countries with less access to protective gear and weaker pesticide regulations will have even higher numbers of poisonings, with farmers and surrounding residents more likely to be exposed to harsher chemicals which are banned in the UK. Read about the latest figures on global pesticide poisonings here.

People and the natural environment are also being exposed to potentially harmful mixtures of pesticides through run off and residue. These mixtures appear in and on our food, water and soil and can affect the health of both humans and wildlife. There is a growing body of evidence that pesticides can become more harmful when combined, a phenomenon known as the ‘cocktail effect’. Despite this, the regulatory system designed to protect us from pesticides looks at individual chemicals and safety assessments are only carried out for one pesticide at a time.

What are the viable alternatives to industrial farming?2020-12-17T16:31:21+00:00

There are many viable alternatives to industrial farming which are encompassed within ‘sustainable agriculture’. Sustainable agriculture refers to farming that is based on a whole ecosystem approach, investing in a healthy system which works with the environment, animals and people. It can take the form of various practices such as organic, agroecological, biodynamic, and regenerative.

These approaches don’t rely on adding in ‘external inputs’ such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. Farmers are less dependent on buying things off-farm. Rather, they use their own farm’s ‘outputs’ such as compost and animal manure as fertiliser. This ‘closed-loop’ system builds soil health, clean water systems and biodiversity rather than depleting them.

Research shows that these approaches can achieve yields in the range of those obtained by chemical-dependent methods. Depending on the circumstances and crop, sustainable yields have been equivalent, slightly greater, or 15 to 20 percent lower than those of chemical agriculture. Given how much research and subsidy funding is put into conventional practices compared to sustainable approaches, the yield differences are relatively small. Imagine what could be possible with greater investments!

Read more about alternatives to pesticides in farming here.

Do organic farmers use pesticides?2020-12-17T16:29:16+00:00

Yes, organic farmers sometimes use pesticides. However, there are only 20 pesticides that they can use (as opposed to the hundreds used on conventional farms) and all of them are derived from natural ingredients. This means that they tend to be much less harmful to human and environmental health than synthetic pesticides that are used in conventional farming. Most organic farmers also use Integrated Pest Management to control pests and diseases – a system which works with nature and not against it – which means that they are using pesticides much less regularly, and do not rely on them.

Which pesticides are in my food and how do I avoid them?2020-12-17T16:28:29+00:00

The government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) test food products every few months for pesticide residues due to health concerns. However, they only take samples of some foodstuffs and this is by no means a comprehensive picture of exactly which pesticides (and how much of them) is in your food.

The only way to be really sure that pesticides aren’t in your food is to buy organic. We know for many this is prohibitively expensive, which is why we call for residue-free, accessible food for all. Not all pesticide-free farmers will be certified organic as this is an expensive and timely label to acquire. Shopping at local farmers markets can be one way of knowing more about your produce. However, we know this can be just as expensive and inaccessible as certified organic produce.

To help navigate the PRiF report’s findings and supermarket produce, we release a ‘dirty dozen’ report each year to highlight which produce is most contaminated. This helps consumers on more limited budgets to choose organic produce.

Can I stop a local farmer spraying pesticides nearby?2020-12-17T16:25:28+00:00

Unfortunately, there is no law or official way you can make them stop.

We advise that you contact that farmer directly. Your council will not have the authority to dictate what an individual does on their private land. It is the farmer’s discretion to decide what pesticides to apply and when to apply them. They should be keeping records of the products they apply as best practice. You may be able to reach an agreement so that the farmer notifies you and the community before they apply pesticides. Some farmers have used a lag system to notify neighbours of when they have ben applying, so that neighbours can take precautions i.e. close windows, not go walking with children or pets through sprayed farmland.

Ultimately, the only way we can truly change the use of pesticides on farmland is through government policy and by calling on farming organisations and businesses to reduce their pesticide use.

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