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Report: UK Exported 10,000 Tonnes of Banned Pesticides

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

Mary Jane Amata reports on how, despite banning the use of harmful pesticides in-country, the UK are still exporting agrochemicals to developing nations.

Due to a loophole in UK legislation, a Greenpeace report has found that seven agrochemicals, that have long been banned in the UK, are still being exported abroad. Over 10,000 tons of pesticides related to high toxicity, birth defects and even death, have been shipped to countries across the globe and are causing disastrous consequences to the population and ecosystems of developing nations.

The Deadly Seven and More...

A report conducted by Unearthed has found that in 2020, the UK exported products containing seven banned pesticides. What’s more, the UK applied to obtain permission to ship a further six, which was in virtue of their exit from the EU and not conforming to the European Commission proposal to draft an EU-wide ban on said chemicals. Although these pesticides have long been banned on British soil, however, there is no interdiction for them to still be produced and exported to foreign countries. 

The pesticides found in the exported products include Paraquat, Diquat and Asulam, (herbicides), Imidacloprid and Cyhalothrin (insecticides), and Chlorothalonil and Propiconazole (fungicides). But what are some of the reasons these pesticides should be banned?

Paraquat is known to be the most toxic pesticide in the world, causing an alarming number of deaths and increasing the risk of Parkinson’s disease. This weedkiller has now been banned in 50 countries, as statistics show that paraquat is 65% deadlier than other pesticides when ingested. The company that produces this agrochemical, Syngenta, has objected that Paraquat is safe when used according to directions. They have even taken precautions to avoid accidental ingestion by giving Paraquat three distinguishable features: a strong chemical odour, a specific dye, emetic qualities to induce vomiting in those that inadvertently swallow it.

Propiconazole is known to be highly toxic to babies in the womb. Studies have found that Propiconazole may change the activity of the CYP51 enzyme, which is necessary to produce sexual steroid hormones and can therefore become an endocrine disruptor. This fungicide can also inhibit the aromatase enzyme, which transforms androgens into oestrogens, and may have detrimental effects on the reproductive process.  

Imidacloprid, one of three "neonicotinoids", was exported from the UK in 2020 following the prohibition of outdoor usage in 2018. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN have issued a warning that a "rapidly growing body of evidence" strongly suggests that "existing levels of environmental contamination" by Imidacloprid and other neonicotinoids are "causing large-scale adverse effects on bees and other beneficial insects”. Numerous samples of produce examined in 2020 and earlier years still contain residues of bee-toxic neonicotinoids which is highly concerning. The recent losses in populations of bees and other pollinators have been linked in large part to this class of insecticides and the UK and EU have rightly prohibited their usage. 

Banned in the West, Destined for Developing Countries

Considered unsuitable or dangerous in western countries, these pesticides are being exported to developing countries that have less restrictions. Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, India, and Indonesia are among the developing nations that will receive some of these pesticides. But it is not only developing countries that have bought large quantities of paraquat, for example. The US, Australia, and Japan likewise purchase large amounts of pesticiees, such as 1,3-dichloropropene. As Başkut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances, stated:

"Just because a country is wealthy does not mean there are not grave human rights violations and abuses being committed against vulnerable communities. […] In the US, where three times more pesticide products are registered for use, farmworkers suffer more chemical-related injuries and illnesses than any other workforce. The racial dimension can not be ignored, with so many agricultural and food workers from migrant and minority backgrounds” (Başkut Tuncak, The Guardian).

Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that people of colour (POC) and lower income communities are more at risk of pesticide exposure. A study has found that 90% of pesticides employed in the US are intended for agricultural use making farmers the most vulnerable to them. Among these, 83% identify as Hispanic. This goes to show that structural injustices, regulation loopholes and the inadequate protection of farmers and generally lower income workers, have been the reason for the disproportionate effect on POC by the handling and utilisation of harmful pesticides.  

How These Pesticides Affect Our Food

Traces of pesticide residue from agricultural practices can often end up in, or on, our food. Several pesticides, for example, have been found in fruit, vegetables, and grains. Glyphosate and chlormequat, that have been found in barley, oats, and wheats, are both a probable carcinogen and plant growth regulator respectively.

Research from the Pesticides Action Network UK has analysed something called the “Cocktail Effect” which happens when pesticides are combined and become more harmful. Although increasing evidence of this effect has been gathered, the regulatory system which should protect people from pesticides continues to carry out assessments for one chemical at a time. Unfortunately, a false perception of the number of pesticides present in our food is created, and the true number of harmful chemicals remains to be hidden.

A Plan Forward?

Even though the UK has banned certain pesticides and chemicals from being used on the country’s ground, it has still found a viable way to produce and export the same dangerous substances to other parts of the world. The quality control is weaker, therefore harmful chemicals are still used for farming.

Although the UK has set out a post-Brexit 25 year environment plan in order to protect and enhance the country’s natural landscapes and nature, this won’t be enough to protect the world’s population and ecosystems, and it will eventually backfire as the UK imports about 46% of the food it consumes. This means that, if the UK is indeed exporting toxic pesticides to other countries that employ them for farming, it will not only become part of the problem in those areas, but at some point, that very produce will end up back on the UK’s tables.  


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