New evidence suggests pesticide use has seen a massive increase in the UK over the last 40 years, with a potential impact on human health, delegates at a Royal Society of Medicine conference heard recently. This is in sharp contrast to the claim by the pesticide industry that use has halved.

As well as hearing new evidence on increased pesticide use in the UK, delegates heard new global scientific evidence that shows that very low doses of pesticides, well below official ‘safety’ levels, pose a significant risk to public health from pesticides in our food supply.

Using data extracted for the first time from their records by FERA Science Ltd, who hold UK government data on pesticide use in farming, the research found that pesticide active ingredients applied to three British crops have increased between 6 and 18 times. The data covered British staples wheat, potatoes and onions. Far from a 50% cut, increase in active ingredients applied to these crops range from 480% to 1,700% over the last 40-odd years.

Professor Carlo Leifert, director of the Centre for Organics Research at Southern Cross University in Australia, presenting the research, said: “Supermarkets recognise there is a problem with some pesticides. No farmer likes to spray, but if he is dependent on making money it is very difficult to give up that spray. That is the circular situation we get ourselves into because use of pesticides is embedded in the farming system.”

Unlike medicines, which are rigorously tested even after they gain clearance for use, there is no follow up once a pesticide has been approved, as recently pointed out by the Department of the Environment’s chief scientist.

It is well reported that some toxic chemicals accumulate in the environment and in human bodies. Repeated doses, no matter how small, will build up over a lifetime. Pesticides are tested and approved individually, yet multiple active ingredients are applied to different crops, so people ingest them as mixtures and cocktails of chemicals and rarely as single chemicals.

Safety regulation of pesticide sprays looks at one ‘active ingredient’, but sprays consist of a number of different chemicals designed, for example, to make the pesticide work better by sticking to plants or helping it run through the spray machine more easily. These extra chemicals, known as adjuvants, may sometimes be as or even more toxic than the main ingredient.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, said: “It is frightening to learn just how many aspects of the pesticides we eat in our food are untested by pesticide safety regimes around the world, including in Europe. People eat food sprayed with increasingly complex mixtures of pesticides, and no safety testing is done on mixtures. In addition there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that tiny quantities of these sprays, well below levels considered by regulators to have ‘no observable effect’, do have both observable and negative impacts on human health.”