Tomorrow’s a critical moment for UK nature

Insects are a vital part of life on earth – that’s why The Wildlife Trusts have had their say in the Government’s consultation on The Sustainable Use of Pesticides: Draft National Action Plan which closes tomorrow – writes Barnaby Coupe.

We are drenching our countryside in pesticides. Over 16,000 tons of pesticides are applied to UK fields each year, and the total area treated with these chemicals has increased by 63% since 1990. Shockingly, these statistics only cover pesticides used in agriculture – this doesn’t even begin to measure the extent of chemical pesticides widely used in forestry, amenity, urban management, and in our homes.

Are you worried? We are.

There has been an exponential growth in synthetic chemical use over recent decades, as Government policy has incentivised a model of farming based on increasing food production through using high-yielding seed varieties, artificial fertilisers, and pesticides. It is devastating our ecosystems.

The widespread and unnecessary use of pesticides is a key driver behind the catastrophic decline of insect populations. This, in turn, threatens our food security and risks ecological collapse. In the last fifty years, human activities have reduced the numbers of insects dramatically.

Recent evidence suggests that abundance of insects may have fallen by 50% or more since 1970.

 

Insects are a critical part of all terrestrial and freshwater food webs, providing food for numerous larger animals such as birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. They provide important ecosystem services and perform vital roles such as pollinating crops and wildflowers, controlling pests, improving water quality, and recycling nutrients in the soil.

It is not just insects that are threatened by pesticides. Chemicals in rivers and streams can affect drinking water and devastate aquatic wildlife, and new figures released by the Environment Agency in 2020 revealed that every single waterbody in England is failing chemical standards.

bee

Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

The Wildlife Trusts believe that a significant reduction in pesticide use is urgently needed to reverse insect declines, improve human health, and rebuild the natural world. Failure to do so risks a collapse of the natural systems on which humans and wildlife depend.

The Government’s Sustainable Use of Pesticides: Draft National Action Plan (the ‘NAP’) presents an opportunity for the UK to show real leadership in addressing the nature and climate crises. However, despite the Government recently committing £3bn of international climate finance on nature and biodiversity, the NAP fails to reference the ecological emergency or adequately address the serious decline in insects.

The Government still appears to believe that pesticide use is an important part of land management, including in the maintenance of our public green spaces and the streets on which we live – rather than a tool that’s only used as a last resort. It’s frustrating and The Wildlife Trusts believe this sets the wrong tone for the NAP and directly contradicts the Government’s stated commitment to “minimise and eventually phase out the use of pesticides”.

If insects are to thrive and help support healthy ecosystems, we need to significantly reduce the threat to insects from pesticides. The Wildlife Trusts want to see the revised National Action Plan:

  1. Set an ambitious quantitative UK target for the reduction in the impacts of pesticides on the environment by 2030

The Wildlife Trusts welcome the commitment within the NAP to establish a clear set of targets for reducing the risks associated with pesticide use, but we are concerned that the current wording implies a shift from Government commitments to reduce the environmental impact of pesticides.

While further research into pesticide use is welcome, pesticides continue to build up in soils and waterways, even while alternatives are available. We believe the NAP must acknowledge the UK Governments’ stated commitments to minimise and eventually phase out the use of these chemicals.

  1. Set out a strategy to phase out pesticide use in public areas, particularly green spaces, pavements and around hospitals and schools

The NAP identifies the need to reduce the risks to wildlife and humans posed by pesticide use, yet It does not set out to phase out their use in areas where pest management is unnecessary. Neither does it aim to phase out chemicals which are known to have significant environmental and human health risks – nor to regulate use of those for which the risks are unknown.

We believe that the UK Governments must halt the unnecessary use of pesticides, and the use of pesticides which present significant environmental concerns, while providing support for all sectors to make the transition towards becoming pesticide free. Currently, the NAP fails to set a commitment to phase-out the use of harmful chemicals in our public green spaces and along the streets we live on and fails to detail a strategy to phase-out the use of the most damaging chemicals for wildlife.

  1. Drive forward Integrated Pest Management.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to managing pests, diseases, or weeds in which chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort, if at all. While The Wildlife Trusts welcome the promotion of IPM techniques in the NAP, this needs to go much further and maintain Governments’ commitments to ensure that IPM is at the heart of pesticide policy.

IPM should be integrated into agriculture incentive schemes, and support, advice, and training on IPM should be available and promoted to all farmers. Advice should only be supported if it is independent of chemical companies.

  1. Commit to maintaining high levels of protection for the environment and establish an independent commission to consider future standards and chemical regulation.

Following the UK’s departure from the EU, all regulatory decisions on pesticides are now the responsibility of UK and devolved Governments. While The Wildlife Trusts support the commitments around maintaining regulation made in the NAP, it fails to provide detail as to how these will be guaranteed.

Furthermore, Defra’s recent emergency authorisation of a neonicotinoid undermines the commitments in the NAP to maintain current protections post-Brexit and highlights the flaws in the current system. It’s vital to base regulation on the best available scientific knowledge and follow the precautionary principle wherever there is uncertainty over levels of risk.

We want to see an independent commission on regulating chemicals established urgently to consider how the UK Government can achieve its commitments on maintaining high environmental protections through chemical regulation, including pesticides.

There is a role for everyone to play in minimising the impacts of pesticides on our environment, by reducing or ceasing domestic and unnecessary use of pesticides, but government-led action is crucial if the UK is to lead the way with a world-class pesticide management framework.

The Prime Minister has said “We will not achieve our goals on climate change, sustainable development or preventing pandemics if we fail to take care of the natural world that provides us with the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Addressing the tons of unnecessary chemicals we apply to our countryside, our parks, and our streets each year seems like a good place to start.

 

Barnaby Coupe is Policy & Information Officer at The Wildlife Trusts

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