The global biodiversity crisis, driven in part by escalating pesticide use, demands urgent attention, yet the UK government’s response has been disappointingly tardy. The national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides, originally due in 2018 under an EU directive, remains conspicuously absent six years later, raising concerns among scientists and environmentalists.
The proposed release of the action plan in February 2024 has sparked scepticism, with fears that it may fall short in addressing the grave environmental consequences of unchecked pesticide usage. The delay and potential inadequacy of the plan are underscored by the absence of clear targets, a critical aspect criticised by various stakeholders during the consultation period.
The 2018 draft faced extensive critique, particularly for its lack of specific targets. Notably absent were clear objectives for reducing overall pesticide usage, a commitment to phasing out pesticides in crucial areas such as urban green spaces and around schools, and a plan to ban the most harmful pesticides. This stands in stark contrast to several European nations actively implementing targeted measures in these domains.
One major point of contention is the absence of concrete plans to support farmers in adopting integrated pest management (IPM), an approach viewed as a last resort for pesticide use. IPM incorporates practices such as crop rotations, resistant varieties, and encouraging natural predators to minimize pest issues, resorting to pesticides only when necessary. The draft action plan failed to provide mechanisms for meaningful progress in this area, such as offering independent agronomic advice, establishing demonstration farms, and allocating funding for research.
A recent cause for concern is the UK government’s decision to repeatedly grant emergency derogations, permitting the use of banned neonicotinoid insecticides on sugar beet. This move contradicted the recommendations of both the Health and Safety Executive and the government’s Expert Committee on Pesticides, raising questions about the government’s commitment to evidence-based decision-making.
The EU declared these emergency derogations illegal in 2023, highlighting the UK’s departure from EU member states in allowing neonicotinoid usage. Critics argue that such decisions may signify a weakening of environmental protections post-Brexit, with the UK potentially earning a dubious reputation as the ‘dirty man of Europe.’
As the final action plan reportedly approaches, members of the Pesticide Collaboration, a consortium of environmental and health-related charities, are gearing up to respond. The coalition, which includes prominent organizations like RSPB, Breast Cancer UK, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, is calling for a comprehensive strategy that includes continued commitment to the precautionary principle, ambitious targets for reducing pesticide impacts, and the phasing out of pesticide use in urban areas.
Key demands also include support and training for farmers to adopt integrated pest management, breaking the link between agronomic advice and pesticide sales profits, and an end to emergency authorisations of banned chemicals. Environmental organizations additionally stress the need for improved monitoring of pesticide use and environmental fate, with a call for Defra to make all pesticide usage data open access.
With the impending release of the action plan, there is a palpable concern that it may not meet these expectations. If the government fails to deliver substantial actions, this could escalate into a highly politicised issue, particularly in an election year where environmental concerns are gaining traction among voters. The question remains whether any of the major UK political parties will seize the opportunity to champion environmental causes and secure the coveted green vote. As the world grapples with a biodiversity crisis, the UK’s response to pesticide regulation emerges as a crucial indicator of its commitment to environmental stewardship.