What are pesticides? Why are they used? How are they regulated? Find the answers to these, and other, frequently asked questions here.
Pesticides help protect plants from pests and diseases. They are used to:
- control or kill unwanted pests that damage or destroy crops;
- enhance the ability of crops to defend themselves from pests; and
- reduce the vulnerability of crops to attack by pests.
These pests include insects, weeds and crop diseases. There are three main types of pesticides:
- herbicides (which control weeds and unwanted vegetation);
- insecticides (which control insect pests like aphids); and
- fungicides (which tackle harmful crop diseases like potato blight).
These products can be applied in a number of different forms – sprays, seed treatments, or as pellets.
As the world’s population continues to grow we need to find ways of producing more food from the same amount of land while impacting less on the environment. Farmers use integrated pest management techniques – such as rotating which crops are planted in certain fields, choosing varieties of crops that are more resistant to pests, and cultivating the land – to help control the thousands of weeds, insect pests and disease which threaten our food crops and to keep the use of pesticides to a minimum. Farmers only use these products if they have to – for example, if they know that, in spite of all the other measures that have been put in place, there is still a significant risk of major damage to the quality and quantity of a crop. Without the products, it has been estimated that some crop yields could fall by up to 50 per cent, and some crops, such as frozen peas, apples and fresh carrots, would become extremely challenging to grow in the UK. It would also mean much more land would be needed to grow the same amount of food as is currently produced. Plant protection products also help keep food prices down. An economic report concluded that without these products, the nation's food bill would increase by around 40%, or £70 billion. Higher food prices would damage other sectors of the economy, while consumers would also suffer a reduction in the health benefits of having a wide choice of affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.
Pesticides are among the most highly regulated chemical products in the world. Government Ministers approve all plant protection products before they can be marketed or used in the UK. They are regulated to ensure they do not present health risks to the public, the people who apply them, the environment, or animals. Rigorous safety assessments are undertaken to ensure that any residues remaining in the crop will not be harmful to people. Products are also reviewed regularly to take account of progress in science and technology and experience gained since the active substance was last reviewed. Any company wanting to get a new product approved must submit an application containing information on any potential health risks, including data on the potential to cause cancer and damage human reproduction. Information must also be supplied on how effective the new product is, whether it is safe for the people who will be applying it, and whether it could impact on the environment in any way. Research released in April 2016 showed that, on average, it takes 11 years and costs around £230 million to bring a new plant protection product to market.
It makes sense for the authorisations for pesticides to be reviewed as the science and our understanding of the products develops and increases. There are a number of ways in which this reauthorisation process is carried out. In the United States they operate a “call-in” system where authorisations are reviewed in response to new evidence. In the EU legislation dictates that authorisations must be reviewed at least once every decade, to take account of progress in science and technology and experience gained since the active substance was last reviewed.
Good agricultural practice requires farmers and growers to follow the basic principle of using as little of a pesticide as possible to deal with a problem and only when it is absolutely necessary. British farmers have a high level of good stewardship in using pesticides through engagement with programmes such as the Voluntary Initiative (VI), Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) and Catchment Sensitive Farming. Pesticides can only be applied following a recommendation from a qualified agronomist – an expert in soil management and crop production. Farmers are legally required to keep accurate records of any products they spray. These records are checked every year by independent farm assurance scheme inspectors to ensure standards in crop protection are understood and applied correctly, and are available to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
People who apply pesticides have to undergo training and achieve specific qualifications in pesticide application before they are allowed to do so. The National Register of Sprayer Operators (NRoSO) provides ongoing training through Continuous Professional Development (CPD), while he National Sprayer Testing Scheme (NSTS) tests spraying equipment annually to ensure it is safe and reliable. The NFU and other stakeholders have worked together to produce the Good Neighbour Initiative to ensure people living near areas where pesticides are used are kept informed and any concerns they have are addressed.
Farmers also complete Integrated Pest Management Plans to show they are complying with the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive to minimise the risk of pests developing resistance to products. As the number of active ingredients available falls, the importance of resistance management increases.
Pesticide resistance is the ability for a target pest to naturally develop the ability to survive exposure to a product that would normally kill it. Repeated exposure to a product over time can lead to pests developing resistance and can mean products that were once vital to control a problem no longer have the desired effect. This is why judicious use of products as part of integrated pest management plans that incorporate the holistic use of all pest management methods are important.
Pesticides have to go through a stringent approval process before they are authorised for use. One of the criteria they have to meet is that they present no unacceptable risk to the environment. In the UK pesticides are applied in a highly controlled, highly regulated way and in the minimum quantities needed to ensure they work. The vast majority of what you see sprayed on crops is actually water. Using some of these products can actually have environmental benefits. They can help reduce soil erosion, soil compaction and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for ploughing and the use of machinery. For example, without glyphosate the equivalent of an extra 12 million tonnes of C02 would be added to the atmosphere each year – the equivalent of the emissions from 2.5 million new cars – through additional use of machinery and bringing more land back into agricultural production to enable current yields to be maintained. These products reduce the need for ploughing which helps earthworms thrive, and helps ensure habitats where birds such as lapwings nest are not disturbed.
They do. Many farmers use integrated pest management plans which combine traditional farming practices (like rotating the crops they grow in fields) and modern farming practices (like planting seed varieties that have been developed to be naturally more resistant to some pests) with measures which protect the environment. Farmers also plant crops at different times of the year when certain pests are less prevalent. Biological pest control – using natural organisms to control pests – is another method that farmers and growers use. By adopting this holistic approach and using appropriate measures to discourage the development of weed, pest and disease populations, this helps farmers keep the use of plant protection products to a minimum.
Bees, and other pollinators, make a crucial contribution to food production and the wider environment. In the UK about 70 crops are dependent on, or benefit from, visits from bees. In addition, bees pollinate the flowers of many plants which become part of the feed of farm animals. The economic value of honey bees and bumble bees as pollinators of commercially grown insect pollinated crops in the UK has been estimated at over £200 million per year. Farmers recognise and understand this and carry a huge amount of work to encourage pollinators on their land – for example, farmers have planted the equivalent of 10,000 football pitches worth of wildflower habitat to provide homes and a source of food for bees. A new website – Bee Connected – has also been created to provide a more efficient and effective way for farmers to provide information to local bee keepers about when they are planning to spray insecticides in the area. This notification is required by the Code of Practice for using Plant Protection Products.
Pesticide residues are the very small amounts of pesticides that can remain in or on a crop after harvesting. Not all foods contain pesticide residues, and where they do occur they are typically at very low levels. All approved pesticides are subject to strict conditions of use – including the timing and rate of application – to ensure food products contain minimal levels of pesticide residue, if they contain any at all. In 2016 independent assessment of pesticide residues in food showed that the majority of UK produced food that was tested contained no residues at all.
Yes. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) takes the issue of pesticide residues in food very seriously. Rigorous safety assessments as well as scientific studies are undertaken to ensure that any residues remaining in the crops will not be harmful to consumers. Legal limits are set on how much residue can remain in food – called Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs). They are based on the highest residue levels that are expected to occur when pesticides are used in accordance with good agricultural practice and are set at levels well below safety limits. An MRL is specified for each pesticide and this is usually expressed in terms of one part per million. Since 1998, 98% of samples tested by the FSA have not contained residues above the MRL. According to the FSA, the risk to health from eliminating fruit and vegetables from the diet would far outweigh the risks posed by possible exposure to these residues. The Government regularly monitors both home-produced and imported food to check for residues. This work is reviewed by the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food.
Look for the Red Tractor. Red Tractor was established in 2000 and has become the UK’s biggest farm and food standards scheme, covering all of animal welfare, food safety, traceability and environmental protection. The Red Tractor logo confirms that independent assessors have checked food or drink meets comprehensive standards, from farms to fork, including:
- traceability – all users have to keep comprehensive records of their livestock and crops;
- food safety and hygiene – water used for irrigation and washing of crops is clean; and
- environmental protection – farmers must use responsible farming methods to minimise pollution, including making sure pesticides are stored safely and applied correctly, and must also to minimise the impact their farming practices have on wildlife, flora and fauna.
You can find out more about Red Tractor here.
In simple terms, a ‘hazard’ is something that can cause harm – like electricity, chemicals, or noise – while a ‘risk’ is the likelihood any hazard will actually cause somebody harm in a normal everyday situation. To illustrate this difference Dr David Eastmond, a toxicologist at the University of California, uses the example of sharks – a shark in a tank in an aquarium is a hazard but it poses little risk; a shark in a sea where surfers are surfing is a hazard and poses a significant risk. Pesticides are highly regulated to ensure that they pose no risk to people when used correctly. Decisions on pesticides need to be based on the best available scientific evidence and should be risk-based rather than hazard-based.
An active ingredient is the part of a product that produces its biological or chemical effect – essentially, the part of the product that makes it do what it is designed to do.
A seed treatment is a chemical which seeds are coated with before they are planted to help plants fight off specific pests or diseases. Seed treatments can be an environmentally more friendly way of using pesticides as the amounts used are smaller and they reduce the need for the use of sprays to deal with problems.
Integrated Pest Management involves combining traditional farming practices (like crop rotation) and modern farming practices (like planting seed varieties that have been developed to be naturally more resistant to some pests) with measures which protect the environment. It involves the holistic use of all available crop protection methods and the integration of appropriate measures to discourage the development of weed, pest and disease populations and keep the use of pesticides and other interventions to a minimum. An Integrated Pest Management Plan has been developed by the Voluntary Initiative to help farmers meet the requirements of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive.
The Voluntary Initiative (VI) was created in 2001 after the Government accepted proposals put forward by the farming and crop protection industry to minimise the environmental impacts from pesticides. The programme was developed as an alternative to a pesticide tax which had been under consideration by the Government. By 2006 the programme had met or exceeded the vast majority of its targets and, in the light of this, the VI Steering Group proposed to Ministers that the VI should continue as a rolling two-year programme. These proposals were welcomed by the Government and the VI has continued since as a voluntary programme of work promoting responsible use of pesticides. Find out more about the VI here.
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE) was established in 2009 and aims to pull together the huge amount of work that farmers and land managers already do to encourage wildlife, to benefit soil and water resources, and support farmland birds. CFE encourages voluntary management that will benefit the environment, while ensuring efficient and profitable food production. It is a true partnership approach, supported by many organisations committed to both agriculture and the environment including the NFU, Natural England, the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and the Agricultural Industries Confederation. The partners recognise the importance of managing the farmed environment. Find out more about the CFE here.
The European Union sets rules for the sustainable use of pesticides to reduce the risks and impacts of their use on people’s health and the environment. The Sustainable Use Directive covers things such as national action plans, training, inspection of equipment, and information and awareness raising. Find out more about the Sustainable Use Directive here.