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The Royal Society of Medicine Conference

A Reponse

The Soil Association did not ‘cherry pick’ the data presented at this week’s Royal Society of Medicine conference on pesticides and health, as the Crop Protection Association has suggested in your story ‘Soil Association pesticide increase claim rebutted’.  It is of course true that the weight of pesticides applied to crops has nearly halved since 1990. We asked FERA to look at the number of active ingredients applied to three widely grown crops – wheat, potatoes and onions – and had no idea what the data would show in advance. The figures presented at the RSM conference were extracted manually by FERA from historical government data they hold; these figures have not been available before. The data covered the average number of active substances in pesticides used to treat three crops: wheat, potatoes and onions/leeks. The figures are as follows: Wheat - 1974: 1.7, 2014: 20.7 (12 times more active substances applied). Potatoes - 1975: 5.3, 2014: 30.8 (5.8 times more active substances applied). Onions and leeks - 1966: 1.8, 2015: 32.6 (18 times more active substances applied).
The CPA have said, “Most food products consumed in the UK contain no [pesticide] residues at all, and when residues do occur, maximum residue levels [MRLs] ensure they are at a level that means there is no risk to human health”.Elsewhere, the CPA has quantified this for potatoes, pointing out that ‘‘in 2015 of 156 samples of potato, 73 samples contained no residues at all and only 31 contained residues of more than one pesticide”. Yet, everyone knows that in fact there are no MRLs set for mixtures, and by the CPA’s own admission, ‘only’ a fifth of UK potatoes contain an untested, untestable and potentially dangerous pesticide cocktail. The scientists who presented at the RSM conference used recent, peer-reviewed science to make the case that mixtures can be more, sometime much more, toxic than the individual active ingredients (for which MRLs are set). 
Surely scientific evidence deserves to be taken seriously, and deserves a better response than name calling and suggesting that someone at the Conference said that the first thing farmers do is ‘reach for a pesticide’, when as the NFU know, one of the scientists said exactly the opposite – that farmers do not like using pesticides but sometimes were left with no choice. 
Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association