Glyphosate use by local authorities
Last summer we wrote to 43 local authorities in England and Wales about their use of glyphosate-based herbicides. Although herbicide use is in theory regulated, we found a very wide and worrying range of approaches by local authorities, all of whom were acting under the very same regulatory regime. Some appeared to be paying scant attention to their legal responsibilities.
Here we describe what we have done so far, we highlight some local authorities who have taken good action, and highlight some progress we have made in persuading others to move in the right direction. We also will be giving you the information on which you can act with your own local authority in due course.
We aren’t telling you here and now about the local authorities who need to up their game as we are still in correspondence with some of them, but we will certainly be prepared to shine a light on those authorites who are doing the least on this matter.
Glyphosate – why are we concerned?
Glyphosate (you may know it as Roundup) is one of the most-used individual pesticides in the world. It is used in agriculture, in public spaces (such as parks but also in the streets) and in private spaces such as gardens.
This is of course an issue about which others raised concerns, and organisations such as Pesticides Action Network have documented the problem over time. In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. There is a live debate about glyphosate’s environmental impacts and use in gardens (eg see here). Some countries and many cities across the world have banned or strongly regulated the use of glyphosate. Prof Dave Goulson’s new book Silent Earth highlights this issue and his petition, which Wild Justice supports, aims to limit use of glyphosate in built up areas – click here.
Wild Justice is not an expert in pesticides, but we recognise that there are concerns about the use of such products which include human health and environmental issues. Does the law recognise these issues too?
The law – what are local authorities required to do?
The regulatory regime in the UK arises from the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive 2009/128/EC, and Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 on the sustainable use of pesticides sets out the requirements of public bodies using (or permitting the use of) Plant Protection Products, which include glyphosate-based herbicides. Article 14 of the Directive requires Member States to:
“take all necessary measures to promote low pesticide-input pest management, giving wherever possible priority to non-chemical methods, so that professional users of pesticides switch to practices and products with the lowest risk to human health and the environment among those available for the same pest problem. Low pesticide-input pest management includes integrated pest management.”
The Directive was transposed into UK law by the Plant Protection Products (Sustainable Use) Regulations 2012 which came into force from 18 July 2012. The transposed domestic regime requires public bodies using (or causing or permitting other to use) plant protection products, including glyphosate-based herbicides, to ensure that:
- all reasonable precautions are taken to protect human health and the environment
- the application of the plant protection product is confined to the crop, land, produce, buildings, contents of buildings, materials or other areas intended to be treated
- when the product is used in places of heightened concern (which includes, among others, areas used by the public or vulnerable groups, areas in the close vicinity of healthcare facilities, and on or along roads, railway lines, very permeable surfaces, or other infrastructure close to surface water or groundwater) that the amount used and the frequency of use are as low as reasonably practicable.
It is clear that the regulatory regime in place in the UK recognises that there are risks to the use of herbicides such as glyphosate and has set in place, for nearly a decade, measures which should limit use of such products. But are local authorities paying attention to the regulations?
The EIR responses
Wild Justice is accustomed to working in areas where the authorities will say that ‘There are laws that cover this – don’t you worry about it’ and where the relevant industry, interest group or government agency will say ‘It’s not really a problem, but if it is, it is well regulated anyway’. Our experience, for example in raptor persecution, welfare issues in the Badger cull and compliance with general licences, is that regulations are poorly enforced, and advice on best practice rarely heeded, therefore the existing laws do not really work anything well enough. We wondered whether pesticide use would be another such issue.
We wanted to get an up-to-date detailed picture of how much glyphosate-based herbicides local authorities are using, what steps are they taking to ensure the adverse impact on nature and people is reduced, and what have they done to reduce use of glyphosate and develop the use of alternatives? We set out these questions and others in a series of requests made under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).
After much to-ing and fro-ing we received the local authorities’ responses and our lawyers set about assessing them against what the law requires. There was significant and startling variation in how local authorities approach the issue in practice. There were several local authorities who are taking commendable approaches to reduce their use of glyphosate and who have thorough and coherent policies in place. And then there are those who appear to have given the issue no thought, do not have in place any policies, or who hide behind the facts that glyphosate use per se is not banned outright and they contract its use on their land out to third parties. So who are the good and who could do better?
Good local authorities
We’d like to give a shout-out to five local authorities who seem to us to be doing a very good job, and a much better job than most others. They are:
- Glastonbury – banned use of glyphosate in 2015
- Frome – banned use of glyphosate in 2016
- Croydon – no glyphosate used on Council-owned or -managed land
- Brighton-Hove – good pesticide reduction plan and decided top phase out glyphosate use from 2019
- Lewes-Eastbourne – no glyphosate used on Council-owned land
For a number of other authorities, the responses were much less promising, and so we wrote again, highlighting what the law requires and asking for a more detailed response. We can report that several authorities have now agreed to look again at their use of glyphosate, and we commend them for that approach.
- Denbighshire County Council – “will imminently be seeking approval of an overarching policy which will seek to set out the information set out above on a corporate level for the whole of the council”. That’s good news and we’re looking forward to reviewing the policy when ready.
- Milton Keynes Council – has managed a significant reduction in glyphosate in the period 2015 to 2021 and has a pesticides position statement. But in practice, the use remains high. They have offered to meet with us to discuss how they can improve, and that is an offer we are keen to take up.
- Norfolk County Council – At more than 5300 litres/12 months, NCCs use of glyphosate-based herbicide is among the highest of any local authority. Norfolk has agreed to put in place an overarching policy which is being prepared and we have asked to be shared with us.
- Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council – Redcar & Cleveland reported to us that they’ve used 2120 litres of glyphosate-based herbicide over a 12 month period. but has, however, pledged to factor Wild Justice’s concerns into a current review of its Biodiversity Strategy. We look forward to considering that in detail, and hope that Redcar & Cleveland will now take steps to develop a coherent policy to phase out its use of glyphosate.
Too many other authorities
Many local authorities simply don’t have a pesticide reduction strategy nor any active policies to minimise use. They tend to say that glyphosate use is legal (which it is) and that that is an end to it (which it isn’t).
For more details of the good guys and the reforming authorities – see this more detailed blog.
Having considered the responses, there are many local authorities that appear not to be doing enough to make sure their use of glyphosate-based products is safe and/or to reduce the amount of glyphosate they are using. So, Wild Justice is now writing to them to set out in detail the ways in which they are not complying with the relevant legislative scheme and how their use of glyphosate-based herbicides may be unlawful.
To give a flavour of the problems we’ll be looking at, one local authority has a strikingly high use of three products at over 6500 litres over 12 months, but does not appear to have any written policy on their use. Another local authority recognises the efficacy of alternatives but has not explored the viability of adopting them, or taken any steps in that direction. Others have tried to offload all responsibility for the issue out to third party contractors, relying on contractual assurances and certifications, but saying nothing about taking steps towards minimising use in the longer-term.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
We’ll be writing to more local authorities in these nations – who do you suggest might be good authorities to contact, either because they are particularly good or particularly bad?
What you can do
After we’ve done more research, we’ll provide you with resources so that you can contact your local authority about this issue. We’d like to hear how you are getting on and we’ll publicise good and bad practice.
We’re planning glyphosate testing of food – a bit like we tested lead levels in supermarket game meat (see here – and we will be doing more of this in the autumn). Watch this space and sign up to our free newsletter to get the news first – click here.
As we outlined above, glyphosate-based products have the potential to cause significant damage to human health and to the environment and, in theory, their use is regulated because of those risks.
Our guess was right – in many local authorities the regulations have very little impact at all – the regulations are not enforced by the authorities whose job it is to enforce them and to comply with them in their own activities.
Wild Justice wants to work with those local authorities who are willing to improve, but, after years of complacency by some authorities, will now begin the next steps to take action against those who are turning a blind eye to the issue.
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