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Pesticide Free Primer–Why should Councillors care?

As sent to all councillors before petition debate

What’s the problem with pesticides?

Glyphosate (marketed as RoundUp and other brands) is the world’s best-selling weed killer, whose use in densely populated areas is being challenged after the World Health Organisation identified it as a ‘probable carcinogen’ in 2015.

Besides glyphosate, a further 40 pesticides are being used in UK towns and cities, many of them associated with serious health conditions including diabetes and neurological disorders. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are particularly most vulnerable to the impacts of pesticide exposure. Failures to limit this exposure is leading to what the UN describes as a “silent pandemic” of childhood disease.

The science of pesticide safety is complex and policy makers must weigh up competing evidence. There is often controversy about the agrochemical industry’s influence over regulatory decisions, including the EU’s re-licensing of glyphosate last year (which was opposed by a number of member states).

As a spokesperson for the Soil Association (a PSBA member) says, “Pesticides are not subject to the rigorous checks that our medicines are, yet they pass through our bodies and environments in abundance. Long-term health impacts can be missed in regulatory approval systems, and the playing field is far from balanced, with industry studies given greater recognition than scientific peer-reviewed open literature. We support a ban on the use of glyphosate in public spaces.”

One lesson we can take from history is pesticides are almost always proven to be more dangerous – not less – as scientists develop better techniques for studying them. A precautionary approach is strongly justified.

This is why we call on the Council to adopt a target date for phasing out the routine use of glyphosate city-wide, and to publish full annual data on pesticide use by the Council and its contractors.

How are other cities and governments responding?

Many large cities including Paris and Copenhagen have pesticide-free policies that pre-date the current scandal around glyphosate. The practice of alternative forms of weed control by these cities gives us confidence that similar policies can be adopted in Bristol.

The EU came close to banning glyphosate last year and is keeping its license under review. The French and German governments subsequently decided to adopt national bans. Absent similar action from the UK government, a number of Councils are withdrawing it from streets, housing estates and parks in order to protect public health. This is stimulating market demand for alternative weed control methods, which can be expected to bring down the cost of such alternatives and increase their availability to local authorities.

This is why we call on the the Council and other land managers to undertake a full appraisal of least- or no-harm alternatives to glyphosate and other pesticides.

How is Bristol responding? 

In Bristol, there has been more talk than action. Mayor Marvin Rees and Bristol Labour made manifesto pledges to ‘stop using harmful pesticides’ in 2016. Two years on, these promises have not been delivered – and will be subject to a debate in the Full Council meeting of 15th January 2019, following a petition signed by 3,800+ Bristol residents.

Apart from a short trial of glyphosate-free weed control in Cotham (a project beset by major design flaws as investigated by the Council’s scrutiny commission at the time) there have been no practical steps towards phasing out glyphosate that we know of. Indeed, in a statement to local media in August 2018, a Council spokesperson insisted glyphosate is ‘safe’ and there are ‘no current plans’ to seek alternatives.

Understandably, Alliance members and the public are confused by these contradictory statements, and want to know, is Bristol City Council committed to action on this important public health issue, or not?

We recognise that weed control is a shared responsibility between the Council and other land managers (e.g. universities, hospital trusts, shopping centres).

This is why we call on the Council to bring together land managers together in a Pesticides Task Force as a fair and practical step forwards.

What concerns are there about how glyphosate is being applied in Bristol?

For as long as Bristol City Council chooses to use glyphosate for weed control, we believe it must choose to use it responsibly, i.e. in accordance with best practice guidelines on pesticide safety stipulated by the EU and the UK governments.

However, this does not appear to be the case in several incidents reported to us this year. On at least two occasions, glyphosate was sprayed outside schools just as children arrived (the EU’s official guidance is to minimise use in public spaces, especially those used by children). In others, it was blanket-sprayed along pavements and kerbs (as opposed to targeted ‘spot’ treatments on areas of visible weed growth).

As the party responsible for the majority of glyphosate spraying in Bristol, the Council should be upholding best practice. Not to do so increases the risk to public health, and we note that the GMB Union has called for a glyphosate ban to protect workers who carry out weed control for local authorities.

This is why we call on the Council to provide clear public notices giving warning of pesticide treatments to take place, and to investigate reports of glyphosate not being applied in accordance with best practice guidelines.