Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Monitoring pesticide use and alternatives

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 5th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of Royal Assent being given to this Act, publish proposals—

(a) to monitor the use and effects of pesticides in the management of livestock or land, to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control and to promote their take-up,

(b) to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control and to promote their take-up, and

(c) to consult on a target to reduce the use of pesticides.

(2) The proposals shall include steps to measure—

(a) the effect of pesticides on environmental health,

(b) the effect of pesticides on human health,

(c) the frequency with which individual pesticides are applied,

(d) the areas to which individual pesticides are applied, and

(e) the take-up of alternative methods of pest control by land use and sector.

(3) “Environmental health” in subsection (2)(a) includes the health of flora, fauna, land, air or any inland water body.

(4) “Human health” in subsection (2)(b) means the health of farmers, farmworkers and their families, operators, bystanders, rural residents and the general public.’—(

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish proposals to monitor the impact of pesticides, to conduct research into alternative methods of pest control, to promote their take-up, and to consult on proposals to set a target to reduce the use of pesticides.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Picture this: it is a lovely sunny day and everyone is outside. Kids are playing in the park, with their mums and dads looking on. What we do not often think about when we picture these happy scenarios, because we do not look for them, are herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. They may well be blowing in on spores and from nearby crops or, more directly, kids may be playing on grass in a park that has been treated with pesticides or weed-killing chemicals.

Quite rightly, we are now being told every day because of coronavirus that we need to wash our hands and not touch our mouths, eyes or nose. In more usual times, we are perhaps a bit more slack about possible transference of dangerous substances into our bodies—and these substances can be dangerous. A selection of the labels on pesticide products used in the UK contains warnings such as “Very toxic by inhalation”, “Do not breathe spray/fumes/vapour”, “Risk of serious damage to eyes”, “Harmful: possible risk of irreversible effects through inhalation”, “May cause cancer by inhalation”, and even “May be fatal if inhaled.” Cornell University’s work on pesticides points to the risk of deformities, mutations, cancer and poisoning of the nervous system. These are dangerous chemicals, and we need to keep a close eye on their impact.

Children and pregnant mothers are more exposed to the potential impact of pesticides than most of us, because they have a higher exposure rate. Children absorb pesticides more easily through their skin: not only is a child’s skin more permeable than an adult’s, but their skin surface area is higher relative to their body weight. That makes it easier for them to absorb higher rates of pesticides; in fact, infants will absorb around three times more pesticides than adults from similar exposure episodes. Children take in more air, water and food than adults relative to their body weight, which also increases their exposure. As an example, the breathing rate of a child in its first 12 years is roughly double that of an adult, and as a result the amount of airborne contaminants reaching the surface of the lung can be much higher.

Not only is exposure likely to be higher, but that child’s ability to cope with pesticide poisoning will differ from that of an adult. The systems in our bodies used to deal with toxins are less well developed in children, which can make them less able to cope with such substances than adults. As they grow, children’s brains and bodies undergo complex changes that affect tissue growth and organ development. Incidents of exposure that would be tolerated by adults can cause irreversible damage to unborn babies, infants and adolescents. What is worrying about this Bill is that not only does it completely omit any requirement for the protection of human health and the environment from pesticides, but it does not make a single recommendation for simply monitoring pesticides or their effects.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

One of the ways in which farmers can reduce their reliance on pesticides is by using new varieties derived though gene editing. Potatoes can be engineered to be resistant to blight, for example. Do Labour Front Benchers support that innovative technology that will reduce our reliance on pesticides?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Aha! As ever, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has touched on a subject that is of some interest to me, as I chair the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences. I look forward to having a detailed conversation with him about CRISPR-Cas9 and other exciting techniques.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we are absolutely interested in looking at ways in which we can reduce pesticide use. As I indicated earlier, I am well aware that farmers do not use pesticides without due caution, or without bearing in mind the current safety regulations and the costs involved. Having said that, we believe there should be additional measures in this Bill. We fully accept that pesticides are needed in some situations, but other new technologies might be available, including drones and satellite images that have the potential to make the application of these chemicals much more targeted and less damaging. I am told that those techniques are already being used in other countries, but if we are not monitoring pesticides and their impact, there is no way that we will be able to encourage or assist farmers to adopt more selective and less damaging techniques.

All Members present have been repeatedly promised by Ministers that when we left Europe, we would bring in stronger human and environmental protections, or at least equivalence. The Labour party believes that that is an absolute minimum, we should monitor what impact pesticides are having; where that impact is concentrated; and whether children, mothers and babies have been affected, especially in rural communities where exposure is likely to be higher. This amendment does not ban anything. It does not stop any farmer who needs to use safe pesticides on their crops, or to use them to increase their yields, from doing so. It simply states that we are not averting our gaze, but keeping our eyes open to the known risks; that we look to reduce those risks; and that we will particularly protect women and children in rural communities. On that basis, I ask that the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I assure the hon. Gentleman that our eyes are very open when it comes to ensuring that the use of pesticides is minimised, and that pesticide usage and its effects are carefully monitored. Current policies address these points already. Strict regulation only allows pesticide use when scientific risk assessments predict that there will be no harm to people and no unacceptable effects on the environment. Existing monitoring schemes cover each of the points proposed in the amendment. They report on the level of usage of each pesticide and on residue levels in food. They also collect and consider reports about possible harm to people or the environment.

The Government support good work to research, develop and promote means to move away from pesticides, which I am sure is our collective aim. These include: plant breeding for pest-resistant varieties; the use of natural predators; the development of biopesticides; and the use of a variety of cultural methods to reduce pest pressures.

The Government intend to continue to develop and refine our approach to pesticides. The 25-year environment plan is where the hon. Gentleman will find most of these details. The plan emphasises the importance of integrated pest management. That means not only that pesticides are used well, but that the approach to farming minimises the need for pesticides and that alternative methods are used wherever possible. Where these practices are shown to help to deliver public goods, they may well be funded under the new environmental land management schemes. We will determine in more detail which ELMS will pay for what as we develop the schemes in the future.

The approach set out in the 25-year environment plan is the right one and we hope that it will minimise pesticide use, help to reduce risks and strongly encourage the uptake of alternatives to pesticides. Alongside the maintenance and development of effective monitoring, this approach will deliver the main outcomes sought by the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I listened closely to the Minister and there was much that I probably agree with. However, I would have predicted that we would return to the vexed question of which piece of legislation this proposal would sit in, and we believe that it would be inappropriate to have a piece of major agricultural legislation without reference to it. On that basis, I will push the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 40 Agriculture Bill — Monitoring pesticide use and alternatives

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.