Twenty years of lacklustre progress in tackling excessive use of harmful pesticides in UK agriculture, together with recent reversals, has finally led to the collapse of long-standing, high-profile collaboration between NGOs and government on the issue.
The break, a serious blow to government efforts to maintain stakeholder dialogue, was announced in a letter written to environment secretary Michael Gove on behalf of the RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link and Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), to express "deep concern regarding the environmental impacts of pesticides, and to announce our formal resignation from the Pesticides Forum and Voluntary Initiative".
It continues: "Our organisations have long participated in these voluntary groups in the hope that they would lead to better protection for the environment. However, in that time they have failed to take meaningful or significant action to reduce pesticide-related harms, and have consistently advocated pro-pesticide positions despite our concerted efforts to the contrary."
Meanwhile, the letter points out that "the area of UK land being treated with pesticides has risen by more than half, and many of our crops are being treated more times with a wider variety of chemicals". It stresses that "the evidence of the ongoing deterioration of our environment clearly shows that voluntary measures have failed".
It acknowledges that "the Government has recently taken positive steps by banning metaldehyde and supporting restrictions on neonicotinoids", noting that "more than two-thirds of the UK public want pesticide use to be reduced". But they have been frustrated and alarmed by the deteriorating situation, so that: "As the last remaining members representing civil society, and in light of recent evidence as to the impacts of pesticides on the natural environment, we can no longer stand by while these initiatives bolster the positions of vested interests, in association with our organisations."
As a result, they now say that "the Pesticides Forum and the Voluntary Initiative are clearly outdated and out of step with scientific evidence, public opinion and recent precedents that you have set", and have announced their departure.
The letter concludes by calling for these voluntary approaches "to be replaced with the mandatory measures required to discourage pesticide use and support farmers to adopt non-chemical alternatives".
It says that these measures should, among other things, include:
- Better support for research into Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and for farmers to adopt IPM and organic techniques, for example through the Environmental Land Management Scheme
- A "pesticide-use reduction target alongside an improved monitoring system which measures the impact of pesticide use on human health, the environment and wildlife"
- A consultation on "the introduction of a pesticide tax, intended to drive more sustainable use of pesticides in the future, with revenue reinvested into supporting sustainable agriculture".
The walkout by UK NGOs comes as more than 100 pesticides, including ones not licensed for the EU, have been found in sampling of Europe’s rivers by scientists at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, University of Exeter. The highest levels of contamination, including 70 pesticides, were found in a Belgian canal.
There was also a heavy presence of antimicrobial veterinary drugs, mostly antibiotics in the samples. Concentrations of at least one pesticide breached EU acceptable standards in 13 out of 29 waterways, and Carbendazim was present in 93% of samples.
A total of 103 pesticides were identified, with almost half of them herbicides, the rest fungicides or insecticides.