Frequently asked questions
UK shoppers are increasingly concerned about the impact of pesticides on their own health, the health of farmers, wildlife and the natural environment. Supermarkets are also becoming more aware of environmental issues and the urgent need to reduce the impact of their global supply chains. Some supermarkets have recently stepped up their action on issues such as plastic, but reducing pesticide use is generally not getting the attention it so urgently needs.
PAN UK assessed supermarkets on pesticides in both 2009 and 2011. We felt that the recent rise in public attention on pesticides, and environmental issues more broadly, created the perfect window to launch another supermarket ranking.
In addition, Brexit poses some key threats to pesticide standards which could result in UK citizens being exposed to a wider variety of pesticides in larger quantities. In this context, it is more important than ever that supermarkets take action to protect their customers and suppliers from harmful chemicals.
Pesticides impact nearly all life on earth. They are designed to kill pests (such as weeds and insects) but can also have a major impact on non-target organisms, including people.
Pesticides can drive a range of environmental harms, including contaminating water and soil. They impact wildlife such as birds and bees and have been named as one of the key drivers in recent studies on biodiversity losses which have revealed that one million species are now at risk of extinction.
Pesticides have also been shown to cause a range of health impacts. Repeated or continuous exposure at low levels, for example through diet, have been linked to very serious illnesses such as cancer. Meanwhile those directly exposed to pesticides, such as farmers, are at risk of acute poisoning which can cause harmful or lethal effects after a single episode of ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. This problem is exacerbated in the global south where pesticide regulations are often weak.
Our 2019 ranking reveals which UK supermarkets are doing the best and worst on pesticides. But the truth is that all of the UK’s biggest supermarkets could be doing more to reduce pesticide-related harms. Currently, buying organic is the only sure-fire way of avoiding pesticides in your food. But not all shoppers can afford to fill their baskets with organic products and everyone should be able to access healthy and sustainable food. That’s why we are calling for all supermarkets to improve their policies. The best thing you can do is write to your supermarket today and let them know that you care about pesticides and want them to change.
Not necessarily. Organic food is often more expensive but that is, in part, because it only accounts for a tiny percentage of food production and also doesn’t tend to receive the level of state support given to industrial-scale agriculture.
Regardless of their income, everyone should be able to access healthy food that doesn’t contain residues of potentially harmful pesticides. UK supermarkets tend to make huge profits so there is absolutely no need to pass the cost of pesticide reduction on to customers.
If we are serious about making healthy food accessible to all, then governments and companies must increase support to farmers to grow food with little or no pesticides. This will enable farmers to get a fair price for their crop and people from all socio-economic backgrounds to buy healthy food.
We selected supermarkets based on their share of the UK groceries market in 2019. This gave us a list of the top ten supermarkets in order of grocery market share: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, Morrisons, Lidl, Co-op, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, Iceland. These are the supermarkets that the majority of people in the UK will buy their weekly groceries from.
PAN UK selected the eight topics to include in the overall ranking based on the following factors:
- The key aspects of supermarket supply chains which involve using pesticides.
- The areas in which supermarkets can make the biggest impact in terms of reducing pesticide-related harms.
- Prior PAN UK knowledge of positive actions that some UK supermarkets are already taking on pesticides that could be adopted more broadly across the sector
- Issues that are of particular concern or interest to the general public.
PAN UK sent a survey to the ten supermarkets with the largest share of the UK groceries market, asking a range of questions on eight topics related to pesticides. Nine of the ten supermarkets (all but Lidl) replied to our survey and we then set about analysing and scoring their responses. Based on their scores, supermarkets were then allocated a ranking for each topic of ‘lagging behind’ (1 trolley), ‘could do better’ (2 trolleys), ‘making good progress’ (3 trolleys) or ‘outstanding’ (4 trolleys). Each supermarket’s total number of trolleys was added up to reveal the final ranking positions. We then sent each supermarket an outline of what we were planning to publish about them and gave them a chance to respond. See our methodology page for a more detail.
UK supermarkets should be doing everything possible to minimise the harms caused by pesticides linked to their global supply chains. This must include measures to protect wildlife, water and soil, to lessen the likelihood of farmers and growers being poisoned, and to reduce pesticide residues in food to protect the health of their customers. PAN UK also wants to see supermarkets being more open about which pesticides they use in their supply chains and the pesticide residues in the food they sell. See our full list of recommendations for more detail.
Following the launch of the ranking in November 2019, PAN UK plans to work closely with as many supermarkets as possible in 2020 to help them strengthen their pesticide policies and reduce pesticide-related harms in their supply chains. The following year, in 2021, we will assess the progress made by supermarkets and publish another ranking. We will then spend year four of the project (2022) once again working behind the scenes with the supermarkets to make further improvements.
PAN UK occasionally conducts consultancy work advising organisations and companies on pesticide issues. Between 2010 and 2017, PAN UK provided paid advice to two of the supermarkets in the 2019 ranking:
- Between 2011 and 2017, PAN UK provided paid advice to M&S on Highly Hazardous Pesticides and options for removing them from the M&S supply chain.
- Between 2010 and 2013, PAN UK provided advice to the Co-op on Integrated Pest Management and pollinator-friendly farming practices; the Co-op also sponsored PAN UK’s Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture in 2010 and 2011, and an event at the House of Commons in 2013 focused on pollinator threats from neonicotinoid pesticides.
PAN UK last received funds from Co-op in 2013 and from M&S in 2017. Since the inception of this project in January 2019, we have not undertaken any paid consultancy work with any UK supermarket and will not do so until this project has come to an end in December 2022, at the very earliest. Separate from our consultancy work, PAN UK also conducted and published supermarket rankings in 2009 and 2011.
In 2006, the UN organisations on Food and Agriculture and World Health drew attention to continuing problems of poisoning incidents and pesticide-related ill health and environmental harm, especially in developing countries. In response, the UN policy makers called for concerted action on Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), including ways to reduce exposure and risks, as well as further bans.
PAN International warmly welcomed this initiative and in 2009 published its first List of Highly Hazardous Pesticides. This includes pesticides classified by internationally recognised authorities under four types of hazard:
- Acutely toxic to humans via swallowing, skin contact or inhalation
- Long-term human health hazards related to cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm, disruption of hormone systems or damage to genetic material
- Environmental hazards (persistent in soil or water; ability to accumulate in the food chain; highly toxic to bees; toxic to aquatic organisms)
- Recognised as causing serious or irreversible harm under actual conditions of use in a particular country
Find out more about Highly Hazardous Pesticides and find the full list here.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to managing pests, diseases or weeds under which chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort, if at all. It sits in direct contrast to the majority of conventional agriculture in which pesticides tend to be the first weapon of choice for dealing with unwanted organisms. There is no doubt that, properly implemented, IPM systems can effectively deal with harmful pests and diseases whilst maintaining crop yields, farmer income and delivering a more environmentally-sustainable agricultural system.
PAN UK has been campaigning to promote IPM as an effective way to reduce pesticide use for decades and we are now winning the argument with international organisations such as the UN and EU coming on board. However, pro-pesticide groups and the agrochemical industry are seeking to water down the definition of IPM, presenting it as little more than a ‘business as usual’ approach under which pesticide use continues to rise while biodiversity plummets.
In reality, IPM should not be viewed as one technique, but as a suite of tactics that should be used in a holistic way before, during, and after the growing of a crop. UK supermarkets must avoid the piecemeal approach that cherry picks individual IPM techniques and support their suppliers to shift to a whole system approach if the full range of benefits for farmers and reductions in pesticide use are to be achieved.