EXCERPT: Not only is the current system very opaque for citizens, but it also prevents scientists from being able to properly study the effects of pesticides on human and wildlife health. If scientists want to know what’s being sprayed in a particular area for an experiment our only option is to ask the farmer to voluntarily tell us what they’re spraying.
Scientists push for access to pesticide spray records
by Ed Straw, researcher at University College Dublin
Pesticide Action Network UK, 14 Oct 2021
We don’t really know all that much about how and where pesticides are used in the UK. You’d probably think that given the ongoing debate around pesticides the government would keep rigorous records on what’s sprayed, but this doesn’t happen in reality.
The government publishes data which estimates the amount of pesticide used in each region, but this data only tells us about broad trends in what’s being used, it doesn’t give a clear picture of what happens at a local level. So, if you want to know what’s being sprayed in the fields near where you live or near your local school there is no way to find out.
Why this doesn’t work for science
Not only is the current system very opaque for citizens, but it also prevents scientists from being able to properly study the effects of pesticides on human and wildlife health. If scientists want to know what’s being sprayed in a particular area for an experiment our only option is to ask the farmer to voluntarily tell us what they’re spraying. I’ve been involved in projects doing just this, and it was an incredibly time-consuming effort to obtain data on just 128 farms. It simply wouldn’t be possible to scale up this method to look at a whole region or country. Not only is asking farmers time consuming, it is also potentially biased, as the farmers who apply the most pesticides are probably least likely to voluntarily join a study measuring if those pesticides are harmful.
Our proposed solution
A group of scientists, including myself, from around the world and across a range of disciplines, are proposing that the UK and EU adopt new rules on how pesticide use is reported. We are advocating for the creation of a database recording every single instance of pesticide application. Farmers would have to report yearly to the government on what they sprayed, when and how much. The government would then publish this data online each year. This idea isn’t revolutionary, California has actually done it since the 1970s with great success.
In the UK we have some of the best recordings of wildlife populations in the world, going back centuries. So, if we knew exactly where specific pesticides were sprayed, we could use maps to determine if there are any impacts on wildlife health in those areas.
This would be a rich source of data allowing scientists to detect subtle effects of pesticides on wildlife. It has been done successfully in California, identifying threats to the survival of endangered frog species. They’ve also applied the same approach to human health and found a relationship between herbicide and fungicide use near residential areas and Parkinson’s disease.
Hopefully if this proposal is adopted, we won’t see any relationship between pesticide use and declines in wildlife or human illness. But if there are unforeseen impacts, we can use this evidence to re-evaluate which pesticides we allow to be used, and how we allow them to be used. We can use this data to build a tool that allows scientists to further protect consumers, farmers and nature.
Access the full article published in Nature:
Improving pesticide-use data for the EU
Mesnage R et al (2021). Nature Ecology & Evolution. 14 Oct.
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-021-01574-1 (open access)
Download pdf: https://www.pan-uk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/Improving-pesticide-use-data-for-the-EU-Nature.pdf