New toxic trade deal threatens UK pesticide standards

Josie Cohen from Pesticide Action Network UK looks at the risk the CPTPP trade deal poses to our health and wildlife.

In summer 2020, more than a million people signed petitions demanding that the UK Government protect food standards from a trade deal with Trump’s America. Led by farmers and celebrities, the uproar focussed on defending UK rules that prevent imports of chlorinated-chicken and hormone-fed beef.

However, little attention was paid to an equally concerning issue for British consumers – namely the major threat posed by trade deals to existing UK pesticide standards.

A year later and the furore over trade deals and food standards has largely died down, but the threat remains. As part of its attempts to pivot trade away from Europe, the UK Government has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a huge trade deal between eleven countries, all with Pacific coasts.

But with a technical sounding name and no ‘bad guy’ like Trump to front it, the outrage from the media and public has all but disappeared. Meanwhile, like the US deal, CPTPP presents a considerable threat to UK food standards, including those designed to reduce harms caused by pesticides. 

Like most trade deals, CPTPP pushes for member countries to align their rules and regulations in order to make trade between them easier. While far from perfect, UK pesticide standards are some of the strongest in the world in terms of protecting human health and the environment. This means that UK safety limits for the amount of pesticides allowed to appear in food tend to be stricter than in CPTPP member countries, and a pesticide is more likely to be banned in the UK due to concerns over the harms it causes. 

While in an ideal world UK membership of CPTPP might force the eleven existing member countries to raise their pesticide standards, in reality trade deals tend to ‘align’ standards down. As a result, joining CPTPP could present a serious threat to the health of both UK consumers and wildlife. 

Wheat field sprayed with chemicals

What are the risks for UK consumers?

In particular, CPTPP could lead to a massive rise in the amount of pesticides found in food imported into the UK which, in turn, increases pesticide-related health risks for UK consumers.

A recent report from PAN UK, Sustain and Dr Emily Lydgate from Sussex University provides plenty of examples of where pesticide safety limits in CPTPP member countries are considerably higher than their UK equivalents.

For example, grapes grown in New Zealand, Chile and Peru are allowed to contain 1,000 times the amount of the fungicide Iprodione than their UK equivalents.

For Australian grapes the safety limit for Iprodione is 6,000 times the UK limit.

Iprodione is a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor, which means that it is capable of causing cancer and interfering with hormone systems and can lead to birth defects, developmental disorders and reproductive issues.

The problem goes beyond just fruit and vegetables to also affect grains. Wheat from Canada can contain 100 times the amount of the herbicide diuron than its UK equivalent, while for Australian wheat it’s ten times. 

There is also a risk that UK food could soon start containing residues of pesticides that are currently banned. For example, food grown in the majority of CPTPP countries is still allowed to contain residues of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide banned in the UK since 2019 due to evidence that it can harm the cognitive development of foetuses and young children.

What are the risks for the environment?

The risks of joining CPTPP go beyond impacts to consumer health to also threaten the environment.

The UK currently takes a far more precautionary approach to which pesticides it decides to approve for use than any of the CPTPP member countries.

When a pesticide is banned for use in the UK, its residues are no longer allowed to appear in food. This prevents exporters from countries with weaker pesticide rules from selling produce on to the UK market. As a result, many of the UK’s future trading partners have much to gain by pressuring the UK to allow more toxic pesticides to be approved, and even to reverse existing bans. 

There are 119 pesticides allowed for use in one or more CPTPP member countries that have been banned in the UK for health or environmental reasons.

The list includes neonicotinoids which are notorious for driving massive declines in bee populations, but still permitted for use in all eleven CPTPP countries. 

What needs to happen?

The UK Government continues to present trade sovereignty as one of the key benefits of leaving the EU.

However, unlike in our bilateral trade negotiations with the USA, Australia or any other individual country, CPTPP is already finalised leaving the UK with almost no opportunity to change the terms of the agreement.

If the UK does go ahead to become the first non-Pacific member of CPTPP then it’s crucial that the Government finds a way to opt out of provisions that undermine our existing pesticide standards or reduce our ability to introduce new protections in the future. 

The UK Government has promised repeatedly that “it will not sign a trade deal that will compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. But, originally designed by the Obama Administration, CPTPP is a US-style trade deal posing many of the same threats to UK food standards as the Trump deal the British public opposed so vocally in 2020.

However, in contrast to last summer, there is no mass opposition to CPTPP enabling the Government to sign away our hard-won pesticide protections while nobody is watching.

What can you do?

The best hope we have of protecting pesticide standards from being undermined by CPTPP is to make sure that our MPs are aware of what’s at stake so they can keep up pressure on the Government.

Take 2 minutes to email your MP here on the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) website.

For more information on trade and pesticides, visit PAN UK’s website.