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Reducing pesticides in UK food: will supermarkets step up?

As the UK's biggest food retailer, Tesco has a responsibility to lead on reducing pesticides – with huge benefits for farming and wildlife worldwide.
  Published:  26 Apr 2018    |      2 minute read

UK farming is in the midst of huge upheaval. The government is preparing for the brave new world post-Brexit, and we’ll see radical changes to the way our farmers are supported.

The Common Agricultural Policy is out. Environment secretary Michael Gove is promising a shiny new post-Brexit policy that will enhance the environment. Farmers won’t simply be paid money for owning land, but will be rewarded for providing ‘public goods’, such as protecting soils, or flood prevention.

One of the biggest environmental improvements could be cutting pesticides.

Pesticides have been blamed for the huge decline in bees and other insects and birdlife – as revealed in recent reports from Germany and France.

Even the UK’s chief scientist has warned of the dangers of our current industrial-scale pesticide use, and has called for change.

The upcoming Agriculture Bill will set a new direction for UK farming. It’s essential that it addresses our pesticide addiction if it’s to deliver promised benefits such as flourishing wildlife and improved water quality.

Role of supermarkets in curbing pesticide use

But it’s not just government that shapes farming practice. Supermarkets wield huge power and influence over what we eat and how it’s grown. They’ll often specify what pesticides farmers should be using, and how often.

And, critically, supermarkets determine the growing practices for much of the food we import. It’s essential that we don’t end up turning a blind eye to bad practice when our food’s grown overseas. If we’ve banned bee-harming neonics in Europe, surely we shouldn’t be using them in the rest of the world?

After a few years of turbulence, Tesco’s retail performance continues to rise. On 11 April, in its quarterly results, Tesco again confirmed its status as the UK’s largest food retailer.

We believe that being a market leader should be about more than just market share. It should also be about showing leadership on some of the biggest challenges facing the food industry. And cutting pesticides is one such area.

We welcome Tesco’s public commitments "to lead the industry in addressing sustainability challenges in the supply chain" and to "improve water and biodiversity impacts in key agricultural regions".

But what does this mean in reality?

Pesticides in food and the decline in pollinators

Without question, one of the biggest challenges to global agriculture is the decline in pollinators – they are essential to healthy ecosystems and agricultural yields.

Friends of the Earth has been campaigning on this for several years, especially against the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Scientific studies now show neonics are harmful to pollinators, including honeybees, and wild bees.

We may soon see a ban on some neonics in Europe. But we must do more to move away from such pesticides in other parts of the world where legislation is weaker than our own. Otherwise we risk causing widespread damage to other countries’ pollinators and environments.

Our challenge to supermarkets like Tesco is to step up to the plate.

  • How will they be monitoring their commitments to improve the environmental impact of their supply chains?
  • How will suppliers and farmers overseas be incentivised, or required, to move away from the most harmful chemical pesticides like neonics? And how will they move towards pesticide reduction?
  • How will UK farmers be supported to adopt best practice in the brave new world post-Brexit?

If we cut our pesticide use we’ll see huge benefits for wildlife and more of the good bugs that help farmers. We'll also see improved water quality, healthy soils, and less pesticide residue in our foods.

Supermarkets must play their part.