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Daily News Blog

19
Jun

Toxic Trade: Will the U.S. Force a Trade Agreement that Allows More Poisons in the UK?

(Beyond Pesticides, June 19, 2020) As it navigates an exit from the European Union (EU) and its trade agreements, the UK is considering the establishment of its own Free Trade Agreements, including commodities treated with pesticides, with various partner countries. Toxic Trade, a new report from Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) and others, reveals how such agreements between the UK and other countries — and the U.S., in particular — threaten to weaken existing protections from pesticides in the UK, which are stronger than those in most other countries. The report points to potential harms to UK residents, environment, and wildlife; it further suggests that the likelihood of the U.S. successfully imposing a weakening of UK protections is high. In November 2019, Beyond Pesticides covered the warnings from PAN UK and the Soil Association that the UK’s “Brexit” might result in greater pesticide use and/or exposure.

The UK, and other European countries, have taken a more-precautionary approach to the permitting of pesticide use than does the U.S., Australia, or India. The UK bans a long list of pesticides that threaten human health, pollinators, ecosystems, and natural resources; many of these same compounds continue to be used in these three other countries. Shockingly, paraquat — banned in more than 40 countries because of its extreme toxicity to humans and high fatality rate, but not in these three — is one of them. Likewise, fipronil and neonicotinoids, both insecticides that cause severe harm to pollinators, are banned in the UK but permitted in this trio of countries. The report also calls out the uses of the herbicides atrazine and diuron in the three nations, whereas the UK has banned them because of their harm to aquatic life and damage to water body ecosystems.

Toxic Trade is co-authored by PAN UK, Emily Lydgate, Ph.D., senior lecturer in environmental law, University of Sussex, and SUSTAIN, a UK nonprofit focused on food and farming. It captures concerns in the UK’s public health and environment sectors that in negotiations on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), the U.S. will exert significant pressure on the UK to compromise its stronger pesticide regulations in order to secure agreements with the American government. The U.S. goal is to weaken such regulations so that it can export its more-contaminated food products to the UK. The report warns that this could result in both an increase in amounts of pesticide residues and increased toxicity of pesticides in food imported into the UK. But the impacts would go well beyond the residues in any U.S. foods that folks across the pond might consume: it would necessarily require more-lax pesticide standards for domestic UK food production.

The co-authors note, “Trade partners attempting to secure access to the UK market for their food exports have listed UK pesticide standards as a key sticking point and made it clear that weakening them is a priority.” One of the report co-authors, Dr. Lydgate, adds, “A clear and central objective of US negotiators is for the UK to lower its pesticide standards. The current picture in the UK of intense political pressure coupled with a lack of parliamentary and public scrutiny means the risk of this happening is very high.”

A comparison of a few rough metrics reveals some of the differences between U.S. and UK regulations. The UK has approved use of a total of 2,900 pesticide products; Australia has permitted 8,000, and the U.S., 9,000. Those products in the UK comprise 468 active ingredients; in Australia, that number is 486; in the U.S., 692. Of pesticides the authors label “highly hazardous,” the UK allows 73, whereas the U.S. allows 102, and Australia, 144. Finally, regarding organophosphates, which are highly toxic to humans: the UK permits 4; India, 16; the U.S. 26, and Australia, 33.

The reports asserts that UK acquiescence to such U.S. pressure would mean considerable risks to human and environmental health in the UK. Were the UK to relax standards to secure FTAs, the authors say, pesticides that have been banned in the UK could again appear in UK foods. Examples include:

  • chlorpyrifos, banned by the EU because of its devastating neurological and developmental harms to children; its use is allowed in the U.S. and India;
  • dimethoate, banned by the EU for its potential genotoxicity and mutagenicity; its use is permitted in the U.S. and Australia; and,
  • iprodione, banned by the EU because of concerns about its links to cancer and its status as an endocrine disruptor; the compound is allowed in the U.S. and India.

Toxic Trade compares UK pesticide regulations with those in two priority partners, the U.S. and Australia, as well as those in India. Among its findings are: (1) UK limits on pesticide residues allowed in food are lower than those in most non-EU countries, and (2) the UK has been more inclined than most countries to ban a pesticide because of harms it causes. As examples of higher pesticide residue tolerances, compared with the UK’s, the report cites these:

  • residue of the organophosphate insecticide malathion is permitted on U.S. apples at 400 times the level permitted in the UK;
  • residue of the organosulphite propargite on U.S. grapes is allowed at 1,000 times the amount that UK regulations authorize; and
  • compared to wheat grown in the UK, wheat grown in the U.S. is allowed to harbor 10 times the residue of the insecticide carbaryl, and Indian wheat, four times the amount.

All three of these pesticides are linked to serious health impacts, including (in the aggregate) reproductive, respiratory, and neurologic anomalies, and potential carcinogenicity. In addition, in understanding these comparisons, it is important to bear in mind that the amount of these pesticide residues the UK allows on these crops is not zero.

Recent You.gov polling, cited in the report, indicates that the UK public is strongly opposed to any compromise of pesticide regulations in order to appease U.S. negotiators and secure an FTA. More than 70% expressed concern about reduced standards and agreed that the “UK government must resist pressure in trade negotiations with the US to overturn bans on pesticides, even if this means the ‘best’ trade deal cannot be reached.” The authors advocate public resistance to any weakening of UK pesticide standards through trade deal negotiations, including: (1) maintaining current limits on allowed pesticide residue, (2) ensuring that foods containing residues of UK-banned pesticides cannot be imported, and (3) disallowing re-entry of any currently banned pesticides to the market. The authors also criticize the lack of opportunity for public or parliamentary scrutiny of these FTA negotiations or agreements, writing, “This makes it all too easy for the UK Government to trade away our hard-won protections behind closed doors. It’s therefore crucial that the public, journalists and MPs start calling attention to the significant risks posed to health and environment by toxic trade.”

Written to warn the UK public about the threats of these FTA negotiations to health and environment, and to rally pressure on the government not to surrender to U.S. (or other) pressures, the report also vividly underscores the terrible state of pesticide regulation in the U.S. The lack of precautionary ethic in U.S. statutes and regulations has led to relative corporate freedom to disburse — using farmers and consumers and industry as vectors — chemical pesticides across every corner of the country. Farms, parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, golf courses, homes and gardens, roadways, energy transmission corridors, and rivers, lakes, and even oceans — all are affected by the profligate use of pesticides. The integrity of natural resources and ecosystems, critical biodiversity, the welfare of pollinators and wildlife, and the health of the U.S. population are all being damaged by intensive chemical use and management. A quick look at the consequences for the domestic food supply is telling; a huge proportion of domestically grown fruits, vegetables, and grains contain significant pesticide residues, as Beyond Pesticides reported late in 2019.

Beyond Pesticides endorses a rapid transition to organic and regenerative systems of agriculture and land management, which would offer myriad benefits to human and environmental health. That endorsement of an “agroecological” approach was echoed in the UK in a report covered by Beyond Pesticides in 2019: “The RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) Food, Farming and Countryside Commission . . . has just released an important report: Our Future in the Land. As reported by The Guardian, ‘The true cost of cheap, unhealthy food is a spiralling public health crisis and environmental destruction.’ The commission’s report calls for radical transformation of the UK food and agricultural system, by 2030, to sustainable, agroecological farming, and establishes steps to launch the process.” The U.S., rather than pressuring the UK to diminish its more-protective standards, should look to its own house.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: https://www.pan-uk.org/toxic-trade/ and https://issuu.com/pan-uk/docs/toxic_trade_report_2020?fr=sM2MwNTExOTMxNQ

 

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