On Wednesday before Easter, just when you were starting to think about spring and fresh vegetables while considering what to cook for lunch on Easter Sunday, PAN, the Pesticide Action Network published a study on pesticide use in Britain: ‘UK citizens are being misinformed by pro-pesticide lobby groups who are using flawed data to suggest that pesticide use in UK agriculture is decreasing’, says PAN. While consumers get ever more worried about pesticides – from glyphosate in bread to neonicotinoids poisoning bees – the industry sends out the message: don’t worry, we’re dealing with it. PAN quotes the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) claiming: “The amount of pesticides used in the UK has halved since 1990.” This statement, says PAN, refers to the weight of the total amount of pesticides used, not to their toxicity. The pesticides farmers use today are much more potent. If you read Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and think DDT is bad – neonicotinoids, the second most commonly used group of insecticides in the UK, is worse. ‘By volume, modern neonicotinoid insecticides are 10,000 times more potent than DDT’, says PAN.
The industry claims that new pesticides are beneficial because they can replace older ‘nastier’ ones. ‘Not true’ says PAN, ‘newer pesticides tend to be added to farmers’ chemical arsenal, rather than replacing older chemicals’. The report does not go into details, but looking at the situation in the US, the reasons for farmers using every pesticide they can get their hands on is clear: after a certain time pests and weeds develop resistance against whatever poison is used in the attempt to kill them. Initially farmers will continue applying the pesticide that used to work in a higher dose or multiple times. If that doesn’t work they will combine different herbicides and hope that one of them will do the trick. And agrochemical companies do in effect much the same: As no company has managed to develop a completely new pesticide, in the US, Monsanto and Syngenta have launched ‘new’ formula herbicides that combine glyphosate with dicamba or 2,4-D, defoliants that were around during the Vietnam War and are better known as Agent Orange.
But back to the UK. The PAN study shows that in Britain, too, multiple rounds of pesticides are applied on one crop. ‘Taking oilseed rape as an example, in 1990 11% of the total crop was treated only once with a pesticide. This had fallen to 1% by 2016, showing that a larger proportion of the crop was treated with pesticides more than once’. Potatoes went from being sprayed 12 times on average to 32 times in the same period. The study provides a number of tables that illustrate the changes in pesticide use for different crops over time. The picture that emerges is not a pretty one and makes you seriously wonder not just about the next batch of roast potatoes.
So what can be done? PAN argues for the use of more meaningful ways of measuring pesticide use: Measuring pesticide use by weight does not make sense, and other European countries, including France and Denmark, have switched to a treatment frequency index and counting the number of doses. ‘Using these new metrics would provide a much clearer picture of the key pieces of information we are ultimately trying to discover – namely to what extent are UK citizens and our natural environment exposed to the harmful impacts of pesticides and what we need to do to protect them’, says PAN. And more information is needed about ‘where, when and why’ pesticides are used – PAN notes that the study focuses on pesticide use in agriculture; but pesticides are also used in many other areas from golf courses to parks, pavements, lawns, yards and gardens… In order to introduce meaningful targets for pesticide reduction, meaningful measurements are needed.
A decent set of data will hopefully also make it possible to do more research. We need to know for certain what the impact of pesticides on human health is – and on the environment. And we need to know exactly how different chemicals interact. It is not enough to say that the exposure to a certain amount of a particular pesticide is safe. That would only work if we were eating only potatoes or only bread, which of course we don’t. The potatoes, wheat, fruit and vegetables we consume may all individually contain pesticide residues that are below the threshold that is considered safe – but all these different residues add up. We also know that pesticides don’t just vanish, traces can be found after decades – in the soil and in our bodies. And different chemicals interact; their toxicity can increase.
So if you are reading this before you’re doing food shopping for the Easter-weekend, maybe consider buying organic. There is no guarantee that organic produce is 100% pesticide free – no farmer is in control of drift and dust from neighbouring farms, but at least you will be certain that organic meat, dairy, fruit and veg will have been produced without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel