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Funding work on pesticides: why now is the perfect time to take the plunge

By Josie Cohen, PAN UK, 23rd September 2021

Work on chemicals is notoriously hard to fund. It straddles two major areas of philanthropic focus – namely health and environment – and touches upon many others including corporate accountability, labour standards and children’s and human rights. Yet just 0.2% of the UK’s environmental philanthropy goes towards efforts on ‘toxics and pollution’ and, despite fundraising for the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) for more than four years, I have yet to discover a mainstream health funder that considers chemicals to be a core part of their remit.

The reasons for this lack of support are myriad. Chemicals are seen as a complex topic and few NGOs have invested sufficiently in the technical expertise required to work on them in depth. As a result, there is a severe lack of civil society voices with the confidence and knowledge to speak with authority on the subject.

The powerful forces on the other side of the debate have a long history of aggressively attacking those who criticise them. Pesticide companies in particular have been known to adopt tactics similar to the tobacco industry when defending their profit margins, including reportedly ghost-writing safety studies, going after scientists who publish unfavourable research and putting out misinformation designed to undermine evidence that their products cause harm and that effective non-chemical alternatives exist.

Work on pesticides can  be seen as too contentious and combative by some funders, especially when compared with less controversial efforts such as conservation, for example. On the health side of philanthropy, it has always appeared easier to secure support for work focused on cure rather than prevention.

The lack of support for pesticides work sits in stark contrast to the extent to which pesticides are a problem for both human health and the environment. As Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring (which is often credited with bringing environmental issues to the masses) states “The chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire”. Pesticides remain one of the few chemicals actually designed to kill living things, and the only hazardous chemicals released intentionally into the natural environment.

Thanks to their persistence and mobility, even pesticides banned many years ago can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Polar bears have been found to have pesticides residues in their system, despite those chemicals never having been used in the Arctic. Ice sheets and glaciers melting as a result of climate change are thought to be releasing pesticide residues that have been accumulating since the 1940s. DDT was banned in the US in 1972, but a 2019 study revealed that, along with other organic chemical pollutants, low levels of DDT could still be found in the blood of pregnant American women, who tended to have slightly smaller foetuses than women whose exposure to the chemical was less.

Pesticide-related harms are increasingly well documented. The evidence linking pesticides to diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s grows year-on-year. Recent reports have revealed alarming global declines in insect populations, with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered. Alongside habitat loss, pesticides have been identified as one of the key factors. This global picture is mirrored in the UK. England has lost 27% of its farmland butterflies since 1990.The impacts of insect collapse are felt further up the food chain. Farmland birds have declined by 54% since 1970. Hedgehog numbers have fallen by up to 50% in rural areas since 2002 and are now estimated to total just one and a half million compared with 30 million in the 1950s.

But it is not all doom and gloom. There is a unique window of opportunity right now to put in place the carrots and sticks needed to drive a dramatic reduction in pesticide-related harms in the UK. Driven in part by the pandemic, there is rising public interest in how food is produced and a growing love for nature fuelled by the realisation of quite how crucial our green spaces are for both mental and physical health. A run of successful US court cases linking glyphosate-based weedkillers to cancer has once again shone a spotlight on how exposure to pesticides might be contributing to many of the world’s most serious health problems.

Meanwhile, EU exit has created a vacuum in how pesticides are governed in the UK. The pesticide industry is already working hard to fill that vacuum with a weakened system less able to protect human health and the environment from harms. It has never been more important for UK civil society to have the skills and resources required to put forward and push for a compelling and plausible alternative to pesticides.

PAN UK has been on the frontline of this battle for decades and we are having more wins than ever with local councils across the UK going pesticide-free, supermarkets taking action to reduce pesticide harms in their supply chains and the UK Government committing to introduce pesticide risk reduction targets by 2022. 

But pesticides work, and chemicals work more broadly, remains underfunded and these victories are happening on a shoestring budget and with limited capacity. While some other areas of environmental campaigning have become crowded spaces, chemicals work remains the unpopular kid in the corner. The irony, however, is that many of society’s environmental and health goals cannot be met without tackling chemical pollution. Whether you’re hoping to achieve clean soils and rivers, increases in biodiversity or a reduction in cancer rates through your philanthropy, then chemical pollution is undermining your efforts. 

There are huge wins to be had right now. Let’s not miss this window of opportunity to create a healthier and more sustainable future.

Josie Cohen is Head of Policy & Campaigns for Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), and also spoke on our video/podcast, Inspiring People: Toxics and Pollution. These resources on toxics and pollution are part of our Healthy Planet, Healthy People series, which explores the links between the environment and human health, and the role for funders.

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