Sunset in field

Do Agricultural Sprays Have Any Future?

Do Agricultural Sprays Have Any Future?

Yesterday, the Soil Association attended the Royal Society of Medicine's Pesticide and Food conference. The conference was reported on the Telegraph today.

The conference featured an expert panel of scientists, public health officials, the National Farmers Union and the head of the pesticide industry’s lobby group, along with the Soil Association and the influential NGO the Pesticides Action Network.

Speaking at the conference, Prof Anne Marie Vinggaard, division of diet, disease prevention and toxicology, at the National Food Institute, said: "Chemicals can have a mixture effect. They may have no effect by themselves but when mixed have a pronounced mixture effect. " "We are not just exposed to pesticides. We are exposed to a lot of chemicals acting together and we must take account of this cocktail effect affecting the same target audience that the pesticides are."

Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the gene expression and therapy research group at King's College London, added: “All this evidence shows that you should minimise your exposure to pesticides. Minimally as a precaution you should minimise your exposure to pesticides. The only way to guarantee that, is by eating organically"
“A long term study of roundup in rats found that the lowest dosage, that was 75,000 times below the recommended dose of glyphosate [a common crop weed killer] had Anatomical Level toxicity leading to fatty tissue liver disease"

Keith Tyrell, spokesman at the Pesticide Action Network UK, said: "There is a huge lack of transparency there and it undermines the public trust in the regulatory system.” “It should be up to the pesticide companies to prove that the pesticide does not cause harm, not up to the researchers to show that there is harm.”

Peter Melchett, our Policy Director spoke at the event. Before the event, Peter wrote this blog about pesticides and food:

combine harvester in a wheat field

Last week, for what may have been the first time since the end of the Second World War, a government Minister took a decision about whether a particular chemical spray should be used by farmers on their crops, on the basis of science rather than economic interests and political power. This may seem an extraordinary claim to make, given that politicians in the UK always say that decisions they make on pesticides sprayed on crops are based on science, and that view is constantly reinforced by farming and chemical industry interests.

However, when it comes to defending the continued use of a chemical like glyphosate, the world's most widely sold weedkiller, or neonicotinoids, the world's most widely sold insect killing sprays, farming and industry interests often tend to use economic rather than scientific arguments. So we are told that it will cost a lot more to grow particular crops if neonicotinoids are not available, or that particular farming practices will become impossible if glyphosate is banned. Interesting arguments, but not scientific evidence as to whether these chemicals are safe for us and wildlife. The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove MP, has rightly recognised that the scientific evidence shows that neonicotinoids are causing widespread damage to honeybees, wild bees, butterflies and other precious insects, and to birds which feed on insects. Meanwhile, the EU has been unable to get a majority of Member States to vote in favour of first 15, then 10, and now not even a five year extension of the licence to use glyphosate in Europe.

This unprecedented controversy about the world's most widely sold weed and insect killing sprays has led to renewed scrutiny of how crop sprays are authorised in the first place – if neonicotinoids are so bad for wildlife, and if glyphosate might cause cancer, why were they ever allowed to be used? Part of the explanation is that since chemical sprays were introduced 70 years ago the pesticide industry has operated on the basis that ‘the dose makes the poison’ - chemical industry scientists are fond of saying that everything can be a poison if taken in excess, including water, and that everything is safe as long as the dose is low enough. This is a myth, but one that has been carefully cultivated over the decades.

We have known since the 1960s that some toxic chemicals accumulate in our bodies, so repeated very low doses build up, and there is now evidence that in fact, very low doses, well below the official limits known as the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) and the No Observable Effect Level (NOEL) can have direct impacts on people. First, new analytical and genetic techniques have enabled us to detect very low levels of pesticides in food, and detect impacts at the genetic level. Second, there is the long running argument that while chemical sprays are tested a substance at a time, people eat them as mixtures, cocktails of chemicals, and hardly ever as a single chemical. What chemical cocktails we eat will depend on so many different factors, including the dose and what combination of sprays are used on different foods, that they are in effect untestable – testing every possible variation would take thousands of years.  So governments and the chemical industry simply ignored possible risks for years, and when forced to look at the problem, have largely dismissed it. Third, new research has shown that ingesting one pesticide after another, so taking in chemicals in succession, can increase the potency of the pesticide – so it may be that the succession, not the dose, makes the poison.

Fourth, chemical sprays in fact consist of several chemicals – the ‘active ingredient’ -  the chemical being sold by the pesticide company, and which they have had cleared for use, but along with that comes several other chemicals, to make the spray stick to plants, to help it run through the spray machine easily and evenly, and so on. Scientific research has shown that it is possible that some of the extra chemicals added to the active ingredient, known as adjuvants, may be as or even more toxic than the main ingredient, but for no apparent reason, they are not tested to anything like the same extent.

There are all sorts of other problems with the safety regime for agricultural sprays. One of them has been noted recently by the Government Chief Environment Scientist, Professor Ian Boyd.  He complained that unlike medicines, where there is very strict follow-up after a medicine is cleared for use, to make sure no problems arise when it is prescribed widely, there is absolutely no follow-up once an agricultural chemical has been cleared for use. Professor Boyd was suggesting that the problems with neonicotinoids sprays might have been identified earlier had there been adequate reporting of problems once they started to be very widely used. Professor Boyd could have pointed out other yawning gaps in agricultural chemical regulation, compared to medicines. The amount of testing, particularly looking at long-term impacts, is negligible for pesticides compared to medicines. In medicine, there is much tighter control about who funds research, and the importance of independent research, compared to agricultural chemicals.  In farming, most safety regulation is based on secret tests the pesticide companies have carried out themselves.  In medicine, there is a requirement to publish details of all research that is carried out by a company, in agriculture, pesticide companies can keep secret and suppress research results that don't suit them.

Will the renewed scrutiny of glyphosate and neonicotinoids, and the the fatally flawed regulatory regime which allowed them to be used in massive quantities all over the world, prove a tipping point for chemical farming? Is there really evidence that very low doses, below any possible safety level fixed by politicians, can have adverse impact on wildlife and human beings? Are the alternative systems of farming and producing food, like organic, without the use of almost all chemical sprays, and certainly without the use of the most dangerous, capable of working? At the very least, following the thoughts of government scientist Professor Boyd, should we look to much more closely align the testing regimes of pesticides with medicines, and would that in practice make it impossible to get safety clearance for agricultural chemicals?


Peter Melchett
Policy Director. Soil Association