Will Brexit affect the UK’s actions to reduce the environmental impacts of pesticides?

The UK's action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides aims to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticide use on the environment and encourage alternative approaches to pest management. How is the UK doing in relation to this aim and how could Brexit change the government’s approach to pesticides?

In a report funded by the RSPB, IEEP and the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) analysed the UK’s progress in achieving its pesticides aims and explored examples of successful approaches in other countries.

The report was written before the Brexit referendum and the UK government’s subsequent commitment to leave the EU and the single market. Leaving the single market will mean EU legislation on pesticides (the Plant Protection Products Regulation, MRL Regulation, Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive, and other associated legislation) will no longer apply in the UK. Furthermore, the Water Framework Directive minimum standards on pesticide levels in freshwater bodies, in particular those used for drinking water, will no longer be mandatory. The government has said that EU legislation will be brought across into UK law but has indicated that about a third of this legislation is problematic in some way: potentially including some pesticide legislation, so this is an area of uncertainty.

The report concludes that the EU water standards and monitoring and reporting requirements are important drivers for reducing pesticides in the UK environment. For example, EU legislation obliges the UK to implement a partial ban on neonicotinoids, despite the UK position against the ban. The ban appears to be supported by accumulating evidence on neonicotinoids’ widespread negative impacts on wildlife.

Although the UK has incorporated most of the EU regulatory requirements into UK law, our report makes clear that compliance with water quality standards and implementation of integrated pest management is weak. While the government said it will transpose the bulk of EU legislation into national law, operational questions such as how to respond with due caution to emerging evidence and how to implement the water policy objectives and standards remain unanswered. Brexit raises many questions about the extent to which future UK governments will meet environmental standards and objectives in the absence of pressure from the European Commission and European Court of Justice to comply with agreed objectives.

In the future, the UK could in principle operate its pesticide authorization procedure independently of the EU and its European Food Safety Authority. Market opportunities for farmers exporting produce to the EU to use pesticides that are not (or will not be) permitted in the EU will be constrained by EU maximum residue requirements and any other EU wide standards that apply to products wherever they are produced. Some European supermarket chains are working with non-EU suppliers to cut out use of pesticides that are not authorized in the EU. The UK may find it needs to continue to ‘mirror’ EU pesticide legislation and decisions in order to avoid trade barriers, and accept the European Food Safety Authority opinions and guidance on environmental risk assessment.

IEEP and PAN UK continue their work on the implications of Brexit and the UK’s departure from the single market for the UK’s environmental policy and ambitions.