By Priya Attapatto
With support from concerned Guildford residents and the national campaign group Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK), GEF requested that Guildford Borough Council (GBC) take action to make Guildford a pesticide-free town.
GEF petitioned GBC to phase out pesticides in their publicly managed green spaces. They gained over 500 signatures, and the petition led to a motion that was debated in the Council Chambers in December 2021. Following speeches by Helen Harris and Frances Rollin from GEF’s Biodiversity group, and Nick Mole from PAN UK, Guildford councillors voted unanimously to support the motion to make Guildford a pesticide-free on Tuesday 7th December 2021.
In taking this decision, Guildford joined over 60 other cities, towns and boroughs in the UK that are working to phase out their use of pesticides.
What Are Pesticides
Any word that ends with ‘-cide’ comes from the Latin word caedere meaning to kill. Think about all the words that you know that end in ‘-cide’. Actually, let’s not.
Pesticides – as the word is usually used – are chemicals designed to kill ‘pests’. They include a wide range of compounds including herbicides (designed to kill plants), insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, molluscicides and nematicides. They are commonly used in the growing of agricultural crops, but are also in our towns, cities, homes and gardens.
Impacts Of Pesticides
There are local, national and global issues as well as short- and long-term consequences of the use of pesticides. It is a complicated and multi-faceted conversation. Here are some of the impacts that concern us:
Pesticides are used on the food we consume and that is a major concern. We have seen an increase in public demand for natural and organic foods because of the health issues surrounding pesticides. Exposure to pesticides have been linked to cancer, neurological, fertitlity and reproductive effects such as birth defects and foetal death.
PAN UK’s website lists diabetes, obesity, degenerative diseases e.g. Parkinson’s, asthma, depression, anxiety and ADHD among the impacts of pesticide exposure. Many pesticides ‘bioaccumulate’ (build up in the body), and while regulators set limits for safe use of each pesticide, there are almost no tests performed on the mix of different pesticides we find in our food.
PAN UK found that UK supermarkets are not doing enough to protect human health, wildlife or the environment from pesticides. Highly hazardous pesticides (HHP) continue to be used within the supply chains of all of the UK’s largest ten supermarkets. The chemicals in question include carcinogens (cancer-causing) and hormone disruptors, as well as bee-toxins and water contaminants shown to harm aquatic species. In 2021, PAN surveyed and ranked the UK’s top ten supermarkets on their efforts to tackle pesticides and found that they could all be doing more to reduce pesticide-related harms linked to their global supply chains. They also discovered that some supermarkets are doing much better than others, but some have made great progress in the past two years.
However, we are not just exposed to pesticides by consuming food that contains residues. Pesticides are routinely misused both in agriculture and in gardens, parks and public spaces, including through pesticide drift – the unintentional spreading of pesticides.
Pesticides also have various environmental impacts. Most obviously, their function is to kill something – and even when they only kill that thing, pesticides can destabilise ecosystems and food chains. However, pesticides are also often poorly targeted. For example, slug pellets kill not only slugs, but all sorts of other animals including birds and hedgehogs. There has been calls for the UK to ban pesticides in gardens and urban areas in order to protect human health, wildlife as well as butterflies, moths and pollinating insects. As you may already know, bees have a particularly hard time of it.
Government policy also drives destructive pesticide use, often overturning scientific advice. For example, the bee-harming pesticide thiamethoxam has been approved for use in the UK this year, despite being banned in the EU and many other countries. The UK government is also promoting the sale of thousands of tonnes of pesticides abroad, including those banned for use in the UK.
Other Environmental Impacts
Around 98% of pesticides (and 95% of herbicides) reach a destination other than their target species, including air, water, soil and non-target species. Soil health is especially damaged by pesticide use, often long-term. Many farm fields appear green and healthy from afar, but a closer look reveals them to be effectively ‘dead zones’.
Most genetic modification is for pesticide resistance, which leads to heavier pesticide use and fields where the only living thing is the crop – all other plants, animals, soil microbes, and other organisms cannot survive. These fields lose more topsoil and require ever more synthetic fertilisers, until eventually the soil simply cannot support a crop. Some even estimate that we may have fewer than 60-100 harvests remaining in the UK, partly because of these issues.
Many pesticides are also made using petroleum chemicals, such as ethylene, propylene, and methane. We’re sure we don’t have to point out the issues of using fossil fuels to produce pesticides!
Another problem with pesticides is that organisms eventually develop resistance to the chemicals. This requires more and more to be used every year, worsening all impacts, until a pesticide simply won’t work anymore. New pesticides then need to be developed – which is great news for agribusiness, but not for farmers, the public or the environment.
A similar issue occurs with antibiotic use in animal agriculture, particularly factory farms. The vast majority of all antibiotic use worldwide is to allow animals to be raised in cramped, unhealthy conditions – but as resistance builds, these antibiotics work less effectively, sometimes making them useless in healthcare. This also hugely increases the likelihood of pandemics affecting animals and humans.
Many of the problems mentioned above cause economic impacts – from restoring damaged ecosystems, to healthcare costs, to pesticide resistance. But farmers who don’t use pesticides, and consumers who choose organic or low-pesticide food, are not just indirectly affected. Pesticides can easily contaminate surrounding fields, and there are few legal consequences for contamination.
Pesticides have enabled a temporary boost to yields in many areas and crops – but long-term, the UN has declared that only ‘agroecological’ approaches can provide enough food without destroying ecosystems or our own ability to grow food. The idea that we need pesticides to grow enough to feed the planet is simply not true. In fact, agroecological farming (using natural ecological systems to guide the way we grow food) produces higher yields long-term, without the side effects mentioned above.
Globally, we already produce enough food to feed 10-14 billion people. However, much of this food is wasted – being burnt as fuel, or used to feed livestock unnatural diets, or simply left to rot. Access to food is a complicated issue – but the claim that we don’t have enough food to feed the hungry and starving worldwide is not true.
You may feel that there’s nothing you can do, except wash your fruit and veg! But there is always more that can be done. If you want to delve into this area further, you should check out our Green Read Share, the community library at ZERO, which has lots more books on agriculture, food, soil and related topics. We particularly recommend Stuffed & Starved by Raj Patel, The End Of Food by Paul Roberts, Meatonomics by David Robinson Simon, and Farmageddon by Phillip Lymbery.