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UK at the heart of European pesticide scandal – investigation

Trade loopholes are allowing the UK and other EU countries to export banned toxic pesticides to countries with less stringent regulations.

Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed investigation team and the Swiss NGO Public Eye obtained documents which showed that 11 EU countries issued plans in 2018 to export more than 81,000 tonnes of 41 different banned pesticides to 85 different countries.

Half of these were intended for low- and middle-income countries and two thirds of the remaining exports were destined for the US, where three times more pesticide products are registered for use.

By far the biggest exporter by volume was the UK, responsible for shipments of 32,188 tonnes of hazardous chemicals. But the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium were all found to be major exporters.

The data shows chemical giant Syngenta notified for export, from a UK factory, more than 28,000 tonnes of a chemical called paraquat, which was banned for use in the UK in 2007. Paraquat is so fatal that a small sip can kill someone, making it a common cause of fatal suicide attempts in poorer countries. It has also been found by scientists to increase risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Among the other significant exports by weight were the soil fumigant and suspected carcinogen 1,3-dichloropropene (1,3-D), and the banned weedkillers atrazine and acetochlor.

Acetochlor, which is produced by both Bayer and Corteva, was banned from EU use in 2011 because of concerns about “potential human exposure above the acceptable daily intake”, “high risk of groundwater contamination”, a “high risk for aquatic organisms” and a “high long term risk for herbivorous birds”. The chemical is suspected by EU authorities of causing cancer and damaging fertility.

These chemicals often find their way back into the countries that have exported them. For instance, acetochlor, most of which is exported from Belgium to the Ukraine, is used on maize which is one of the main products the EU buys from this country.

Calls for an end to banned chemicals export

One of the few restrictions placed on these exporters is the Rotterdam Convention on international trade in hazardous pesticides and chemicals but this is far from watertight. Experts are now calling for a more black and white solution.

This summer a statement by 35 UN experts from the Human Rights Council called on rich countries to end the export of banned pesticides. Baskut Tuncak, former UN special rapporteur on toxic chemicals, who co-authored the statement, described the export of banned chemicals to poorer countries as a form of “exploitation” that shifted the health and environmental consequences of these products onto “the most vulnerable,” particularly “communities of African descent and other people of colour”.

He called paraquat an “unquestionably hazardous pesticide that is killing countless people around the world and resulting in who knows how many cases of health impacts such as Parkinson’s”.  He added the UK must “urgently end the export of paraquat and 1,3-dichloropropene.”

“Loopholes” that allowed this cross-border trade, according to the UN expert, were “a political concession to industry, allowing their chemical manufacturers to profit from inevitably poisoned workers and communities abroad, all the while importing cheaper products through global supply chains and fuelling unsustainable consumption and production patterns”.

In 2022, France will become the first EU country to impose a ban on the export of banned pesticides, after a legal challenge by agrochemical companies was defeated earlier this year.

Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said selling the pesticides was “exploitative hypocrisy” and urged UK ministers to end the practice. “The UK is at the heart of a European pesticide scandal that allows chemical giants to flood other countries – many of them poorer nations – with toxic chemicals on a major scale,” he said.

Take Action

If your country is implicated in this, write to your politicians and state that you disagree with the export of banned chemicals. Ask when they plan to ban this trade.

Furthermore, consider where your food comes from and ensure that you are not financing corporations that put profit over people and planet. Buying organic is a simple way to ensure you’re not buying into this system and exposing yourself unnecessarily to these risks.

For more information on how you can take action, click on the icons below:

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