Pesticides: A chance for change?

“However, what are the chances of achieving anything at all, at this “pivotal moment”, with a prime minister who doesn’t “get climate change”?” As the UK leaves the EU, it will also leave the monitoring and oversight jurisdiction of the European Commission. With an opportunity to reassess how the UK regulates the use of pesticides, Catherine Rowett wonders who will hold the government to account over commitments to manage their use responsibly?

Catherine Rowett hero
Catherine Rowett hero
Catherine Rowett

Opening my pile of letters this week, I find an appeal from the Soil Association. They are beginning the decade, they say, with a message of positivity, because 2020 is a pivotal year, when recognition of the need for change coincides with a moment when this change is possible. 

I presume I am right in seeing in these words a thinly-veiled reference to Brexit. 

This year the Association wants to launch a report into agroecology in the UK. It follows their role in the UK launch of IDDRI’s (Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations) publications in its Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe project. “With your help,” they say, “we will be able to demonstrate to the new government that it is possible to tackle climate change, reverse declines in wildlife, care for our farm animals and feed people well without pesticides.” 

However, what are their chances of achieving anything at all, at this “pivotal moment”, with a prime minister who doesn’t “get climate change”? We’re about to lose access to a vast system of regulation and monitoring, run by a huge bureaucracy in the EU. Who is going to be policing us now, and for the benefit of whom?

The EU currently has a ban on most neonicotinoid pesticides (the ones known to disrupt the nervous systems of bees). When the EU introduced severe restrictions from 2013, they were supported by a qualified majority of EU member states, including the UK. In 2018, Michael Gove stated in a news item that he supports a continuation of the ban, based on his conviction that the science supports it. 

But I am wary of these paragraphs that conclude that article: ‘Unless the scientific evidence changes, the government will maintain these increased restrictions post-Brexit.

‘The UK reserves the right to consider emergency authorisations. We will only do so where there is a real need for the products and the risk to bees and other pollinators is sufficiently low.’

Perhaps the government is anticipating emergency use in response to a plague of locusts? Or what exactly?

By contrast, glyphosate is currently approved in the EU, and very widely used and abused in farms, gardens and council weed-killing activities across the UK. When the European Commission renewed the current licence for glyphosate in 2017, the UK, along with 17 other countries, voted in favour of renewal, contrary to the wishes of more than 1.3 million European citizens and the European Parliament. 

What will our post-Brexit Conservative government do about this chemical at the end of this year? Follow the will of the people and ban an endocrine-disrupting pesticide that is currently still approved in the EU? 

Well, here’s a guess. Currently, nothing stops a country from regulating how or where poisonous chemicals are used, even if the substance is licensed for use in the EU. Countries such as France, Germany and Italy have all introduced national or regional legislation to outlaw glyphosate in all or some uses. By contrast, in the UK, there is no national guidance. 

In effect, the UK could have introduced an outright ban in 2017, when the citizen outcry against it provided a democratic mandate and the EU failed us. But in reality, while other EU countries have looked after their own citizens, using the legislative autonomy that the EU allows on this matter, the UK Government has shown no inclination to take any action.

Even if the UK were to announce that it would take such action, by what mechanism would it hold itself to account over its commitments once the monitoring and oversight role fulfilled by the European Commission ends on 31 December 2020 at the end of the EU Withdrawal transition period?

The government has committed to introducing an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to replace the monitoring and oversight duties of the Commission, including powers to impose fines and penalty payments through the European Court of Justice, ensuring that it will have the teeth to take the government to task when it fails to adhere  to its own environmental commitments. 

But what chance that a Conservative government that has made great hay of its promised bonfire of red tapes and regulations will stick to its word by providing itself with adequate independent oversight? 

Look at how it has responded to its continued lack of compliance with EU air pollution rules. The UK has been failing to meet EU air pollution limits for years, and owes millions of Euros in fines to the EU. If the UK Government won’t pay the penalty for its failure to comply with EU regulations, why would it abide by rulings from a body it itself created? 

A government can enforce compliance on others, if they fail to meet its regulations; but no one can enforce the government’s commitment to enforce its regulations – except at the ballot box, or in civil unrest.

So I would say good luck to the Soil Association if they think that they can push a Conservative government that promised to end EU red tape to take the first steps in restricting harmful pesticide use here in the UK. I fear we may see the moment for change slip away once more.