The use of glyphosate in UK farming grew by 16 per cent over four years despite being linked to causing cancer and government plans to reduce reliance on conventional chemicals.
New usage figures, collected for the government by research agency Fera and analysed by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK), found that the amount of glyphosate use in UK farming grew by 360 tonnes (16 per cent) between 2016 and 2020, while the area of land sprayed with the pesticide increased by nine per cent or 230,000 hectares (3.5 times the size of Greater Manchester).
Glyphosate is a widespread herbicide used by farmers to control weeds and as an alternative to ploughing, which disturbs the life beneath the soil and releases carbon. The usage data coincides with a rise in regenerative farming in the UK, where one of the main practices to protect soil is to reduce ploughing, alongside planting increased biodiversity and using livestock for regular fertiliser.
Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), which spent six months analysing the data, said: “Farmers moving towards no-till/regenerative farming may be playing a small role in the increase in glyphosate usage but there is no way it could account for it on its own.
“In order to reduce the amount of glyphosate used in UK farming, a far better focus would be ending the highly-polluting and unnecessary practice of pre-harvest desiccation in which glyphosate is used to artificially dry a crop.”
Glyphosate has been the subject of a number US court cases which have resulted in its manufacturer paying out billions of dollars in compensation to cancer-sufferers. It has also been found to cause harm to bees and other wildlife and regularly contaminates water.
“Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding glyphosate and its impact on human health and the environment, use between 2016 and 2020 has generally increased in terms of weight, area treated and application rate per hectare,” a PAN UK briefing document stated.
“The exact reasons for these increases are unclear but could include a rise in pre-harvest desiccation (where crops are artificially dried using glyphosate) and/or an increase in ‘no-till’ agriculture which tends to rely upon glyphosate and other herbicides to deal with weeds without releasing carbon from the soil via ploughing.”
Nick Mole from PAN UK, said: “These latest figures, while shocking, are actually a huge underestimation of our exposure to glyphosate since they only relate to farming. Meanwhile, glyphosate is also sprayed liberally in most UK towns and cities.”
The overall amount of pesticides used by farmers and the area of land treated fell by roughly a quarter between 2016 and 2020, according to the figures, while certain chemicals did see increases.
Between 2016 and 2020, the volume of herbicide 2,4-D increased by 117 per cent. 2,4-D is a possible carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor, which means it can interfere with hormone systems.
Fungicide imazalil increased by 53 per cent, while the land area treated with the chemical rose 63 per cent to more than 81,000 hectares. Imazalil has links to cancer and is classified as a ‘developmental or reproductive toxin’.
The use of acetamiprid – a neonicotinoid that has not been banned – has grown significantly, with both the volume applied and land area treated rising by more than 240 per cent between 2016 and 2020.
While the amount of pesticides has fallen, the rate at which pesticides are being applied – the average kilogram of pesticide used per hectare of land – has largely remained the same.
Mole explained: “While it is heartening to see overall pesticide use falling, a closer look at the figures reveals that intensity has stayed fairly static.
“This means that humans and wildlife living in and around conventional farms are likely to be exposed to a similar toxic load. Absolutely key is supporting farmers to transition away from chemical dependence and towards more nature-friendly methods of production.”