Over a third of non-organic fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK contain a ‘cocktail’ of potentially dangerous pesticides, a new report has revealed.
The report, named ‘The Cocktail Effect’ and published by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK and the Soil Association, exposes how mixtures of pesticides commonly found in UK food, water and soil may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife.
It found that some food items contain traces of up to 14 different pesticides, and listed evidence of pesticide cocktails in the environment, where up to ten different chemicals were found in samples of UK soil and water.
Using government testing data, the report found that, in 2017, 87 per cent of pears, 64 per cent of apples and a quarter of bread contained pesticide cocktails.
Over half of raspberries tested were found to contain multiple pesticides, with one sample containing four known, probable or possible carcinogens, two endocrine disruptors, which interfere with hormone systems, one developmental toxin, which can have adverse effects on sexual function and fertility and one neurotoxin, which can negatively affect the nervous system and nerve tissue.
Multiple residues were found in more than three-quarters of grapes tested in 2018, with one sample containing traces of fourteen different pesticides.
“Because of the overuse of pesticides in UK agriculture, we are constantly exposed to a wide array of different chemicals which can interact to become more toxic creating a ‘cocktail effect,” said Josie Cohen of PAN UK.
“Yet the Government continues to assess the safety of just one pesticide at a time. The truth is we simply have no idea of the human health and environmental impacts of long-term exposure to hundreds of different pesticides.”
One study analysed by the report found that 43 per cent of pollinators had detectable levels of two or more pesticides. In one example, a certain insecticide touted as a ‘safe’ replacement for neonicotinoids and a commonly-used fungicide were shown to combine to be more toxic to bees than when either chemical appears alone.
As well as government data, the report brought together a range of scientific studies looking at the harmful effect of cocktails, even when each individual chemical appears at levels at or below its “no-observed-effect concentration”.
The UK regulatory system largely fails to monitor the cocktail effect, authors wrote. While limited testing for pesticide cocktails in food does take place, there is no assessment of the build up and combination of various pesticides to which the environment and wildlife are exposed.
Authors also warned that post-Brexit trade deals could lead to a rise in the number of pesticides authorised for use in the UK.
The only way to minimise the risk is to decrease overall pesticide use, the report said, while the Soil Association’s head of policy, Rob Percival, highlighted that farmers would need support to do so.
“The UK government has committed to reducing pesticide use, but the support farmers need to transition away from pesticides simply isn’t in place,” he said.
“The government urgently needs to support farmers to adopt nature-friendly, agroecological approaches that don’t rely on pesticides, including organic, to better protect both human health and the natural world.
"Brexit poses real threats to food and farming, but it also provides an opportunity to do things differently, if the right policies and legislation are put in place.”
The report makes a number of recommendations to the government, including calling for the introduction of a pesticide reduction target and a system for monitoring the impacts of pesticide cocktails on human health and the environment.
All data on pesticides residues in the report was based on analysis from the government agency Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF), from 2017 and 2018.
Where the government does not conduct monitoring of pesticide cocktails in the environment, researchers relied on independent academic studies.