A Kashmiri farmer sprays pesticides on an apple orchard in District Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India, April 2021 Photo: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty

Revealed: UK shipped more than 10,000 tonnes of banned pesticides overseas in 2020

The UK government has so far refused to follow Europe’s lead and commit to ending the export of chemicals banned from its own fields

A Kashmiri farmer sprays pesticides on an apple orchard in District Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India, April 2021 Photo: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty

Revealed: UK shipped more than 10,000 tonnes of banned pesticides overseas in 2020

The UK government has so far refused to follow Europe’s lead and commit to ending the export of chemicals banned from its own fields

A Kashmiri farmer sprays pesticides on an apple orchard in District Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India, April 2021 Photo: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty

The United Kingdom exported thousands of tonnes of banned pesticides in 2020, with shipments including a wider range of toxic substances than ever previously revealed, a new Unearthed and Public Eye investigation has found.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which regulates UK exports of prohibited chemicals, has confirmed that in that year British exporters shipped pesticide products overseas containing 12,240 tonnes of chemicals banned from use in this country’s own fields.

The exports included a weedkiller that has caused tens of thousands of deaths from acute poisoning, a controversial ‘neonicotinoid’ insecticide banned because of the damage it does to bee populations, and a fungicide banned after it was found capable of harming babies in the womb

Unearthed and Public Eye found that UK companies shipped products containing seven different banned agrochemicals and applied for permissions to export a further six – a much wider range of banned pesticides being exported from this country than previously seen

These exports are legal because loopholes in UK law allow companies to continue producing pesticides for export long after they have been prohibited from domestic use in order to protect human health or the environment. 

The human rights responsibilities of governments do not end at the border

The news comes as the UK government’s counterparts in the European Commission (EC) are drawing up proposals for a European Union-wide ban on the manufacture for export of chemicals that are banned in the EU. However, the UK – which prior to Brexit was by far the EU’s biggest exporter of banned pesticides – has made no commitment to follow the Commission’s lead and bring an end to its own cross-border trade in these prohibited chemicals. 

The findings drew sharp condemnation from human rights experts and campaigners, who warned that the UK should not use Brexit as an opportunity to let its standards fall behind those of the EU. 

Marcos Orellana, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, said there was “simply no excuse for the UK to ignore the science and fail to adopt the evolving EC standards on health, safety and environment”. 

Continuing to allow the export of banned and hazardous pesticides “poses a direct assault on the human rights of the most vulnerable, which are often the poor that work the fields in developing countries,” he told Unearthed. Meanwhile the export of pesticides that harm pollinating insects “poses a direct threat to food security in already poor countries experiencing food challenges”. 

The department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) argues that the government “takes its international commitments to environmental protection very seriously”. 

A Defra spokesperson told Unearthed: “In the case of neonicotinoids and and other chemicals, the UK goes above the international standard, requiring exporting companies to confirm with countries that they have accepted any imports before they are shipped. 

“This allows the importing countries to make informed decisions on the import of those chemicals and how to handle and use them safely.”

A Tunisian woman harvests tomatoes. Tunisia was one destination for UK exports of imidacloprid, a pesticide banned here because of the danger it poses to bees Photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty

This approach is in fact one that the UK inherited from EU regulations, which require exporters in most cases to get “prior informed consent” from importing countries before they can ship banned chemicals.

Government officials argue that the UK’s export trade policy respects the “regulatory autonomy” of trading partners, and that, through information sharing about these exports, importing countries are able to make their own decisions about whether they should be used. 

However, Orellana countered that the “human rights responsibilities of Governments do not end at the border”. 

“There is ample evidence showing how the export of banned pesticides will cause harm to people in other countries,” he said. “Allowing [these exports] in the face of such knowledge is a form of complicity in environmental harm.”

Corporate interests

The details of the UK’s trade in banned pesticides have always been shrouded in commercial confidentiality. While the HSE agreed to provide the overall weight of banned pesticide exports shipped in 2020, it declined to give details about which companies exported these chemicals, how much of each chemical was sent, or the countries to which they were exported. All of this, the agency says, is “confidential commercial information”. 

However, using freedom of information rules, Unearthed and the Swiss NGO Public Eye have obtained paperwork covering all of the banned pesticide exports shipped from the UK in 2020. 

Under UK and EU regulations, any company that wants to export a banned chemical needs to produce an “export notification” detailing the reasons the product is banned, its intended uses, and the amount the company intends to export. This document must be sent to authorities in the importing country before the export can be shipped. 

These documents are not a perfect record – the quantity a company actually exports may end up being greater or less than estimated on the notification, and some notified exports are not shipped at all – but they are the most precise paper trail available for the cross-border trail in banned agrochemicals. 

Through a series of freedom of information requests, Unearthed and Public Eye managed to obtain and analyze data from all of the 2020 export notifications issued by UK companies for agricultural pesticides. Together, they show that the UK’s trade in banned pesticides now encompasses a much wider range of chemicals and destination countries than previously known. 

The investigation found:

  • The UK exported seven different agrochemicals in 2020 the use of which is banned in UK agriculture – the weedkillers paraquat, diquat, and asulam, the insecticides imidacloprid and cyhalothrin, and the fungicides chlorothalonil and propiconazole;
  • UK-based companies notified exports of agricultural products containing those chemicals to 20 different countries; four fifths of those intended destinations were low- or middle-income countries (LMICs) such as Brazil, Colombia and India, where experts say hazardous pesticide use poses the greatest risks;
  • The vast bulk of the notified exports were shipments of paraquat by the agrochemical giant Syngenta. The company still manufactures the weedkiller at its factory in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, although its use has been banned in this country since 2007; Paraquat is one of the most acutely toxic herbicides in the world. It has caused tens of thousands of poisoning deaths worldwide, and has been found by scientists to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease through low-level chronic exposure;
  • By far the main intended destination for Syngenta’s paraquat exports was the United States, where the company is currently facing hundreds of lawsuits from farmers who developed Parkinson’s disease after using the weedkiller in their fields;

When they are harmful in the UK, and banned because their harm is established, they do not become ‘safe’ in India

  • Syngenta also notified paraquat shipments to five different LMICs, including Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and India, where in late 2019 doctors in Odisha went on hunger strike to demand a ban on the weedkiller after seeing 170 people die in their hospital from paraquat poisoning in just two years;  
  • However, the UK’s exports also included much newer pesticides: sale of the fungicide propiconazole was only banned here in 2019, after it was classified as a “toxic to reproduction” – a chemical capable of harming babies in the womb. European experts also raised concerns about the threat of groundwater contamination by breakdown products of propiconazole, and concluded that the chemical caused “toxic effects on the endocrine organs”; Syngenta notified planned exports of propiconazole to Kenya and Tunisia, in mixtures also containing chlorothalonil, a fungicide banned at the same time due to concerns including groundwater contamination, damage to DNA, and a “high risk to amphibians and fish”; Propiconazole was also notified for export to Algeria by a company called Hockley International;
  • The UK also exported imidacloprid in 2020, one of three ‘neonicotinoids’ that was banned from outdoor use in 2018 because of the dangers they pose to bee populations we depend upon to pollinate crops. The World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN have warned that there is  a “rapidly growing body of evidence” which strongly suggests that “existing levels of environmental contamination” by imidacloprid and other neonics are “causing large-scale adverse effects on bees and other beneficial insects”; the pesticide multinational NuFarm notified agricultural imidacloprid exports to countries including Russia, Sudan, Belarus, Georgia and Tunisia, as well as a chlorothalonil export to Turkey;
  • In addition, the investigation found UK-based companies sought permissions to export half a dozen other banned pesticides that were not ultimately shipped in 2020; these included the products containing the chemicals 1,3-dichloropropene, desmedipham, propanil, chlorpropham, dichlobenil, and iprodione; 
  • While the vast bulk of planned exports were notified by Syngenta, the investigation identified four other companies involved in the export of banned agricultural pesticides out of the UK; these ranged from the pesticide multinationals UPL and NuFarm, to chemicals manufacturer Inovyn, to Hockley International, a family business based in Stockport, Greater Manchester ; Hockley sought permission for exports of propiconazole and iprodione in 2020, but the company offers a wide range of banned pesticides for sale to overseas customers, including the notorious highly hazardous pesticides carbofuran and chlorpyrifos.
A farmer sprays insecticide in a paddy field near the India-Pakistan Wagah border post, 2021. India is one of the main intended destinations for UK banned pesticide exports Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty

In a statement to Unearthed, Syngenta said that its products were safe and effective when used as intended, that the exports were needed by the countries that imported them, and that without “modern crop protection products” farmers would face catastrophic crop losses to pests and disease. 

“The export process is fully transparent: publicly-available data demonstrates that the products we export are necessary and required by the destination country (through prior informed consent),” Syngenta’s spokesperson said. 

“The climatic and pest pressures farmers face vary around the world. This means that the products farmers require in the Americas or Asia, with their tropical zones, are very different from those needed in Europe. Crops like coffee, cocoa, bananas, rice and soy are not grown in the UK; there is no UK registration for crop protection products for them.”

This argument is rejected by campaigners in importing countries, who counter that these pesticides were not prohibited in the UK because British farmers did not find them useful. 

If the Government is serious about being a global leader on the environment, then it urgently needs to commit to ending these exports

Narasimha Reddy Donthi, a strategic advisor to Pesticide Action Network India, told Unearthed that the banning of these products in the UK was “about the harm, not about the lack of beneficial impact”. 

He added: “When they are harmful in the UK, and banned because their harm is established, they do not become ‘safe’ in India.”

UN special rapporteur Marcos Orellana added that the fact that an importing country had consented to import a banned pesticide did not make the UK’s exports acceptable. “Countries that import banned pesticides also have human rights duties to their people,” he told Unearthed. “But often importing countries are captured by corruption or corporate interests that make a profit out of legalised exploitation of farmers.”

UPL and Hockley International gave no response to questions from Unearthed other than to say they complied with the laws and regulations in force in all countries in which they did business.

NuFarm, which notified exports of imidacloprid and chlorothalonil, told Unearthed that the company operated a “global supply chain that supports our presence in multiple markets with different regulatory regimes”. 

The company said in a statement: “Nufarm manufacturing facilities in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States of America, Malaysia, and Indonesia supplying customers predominantly in Europe, the Americas and Asia Pacific. 

“Imidacloprid is exported via our entities in France, the UK and Austria to various Nufarm operations. All our products comply with the registration requirements of the jurisdictions into which they are sold.”

Nufarm’s spokesman added that the company’s actual export of chlorothalonil had been less than anticipated in its export notification. Nufarm had requested permission to ship 30 tonnes of a chlorothalonil-based fungicide called Mediator 340 to Turkey – the spokesman said it had “only used about 60% of the requested capacity”. 

Rotterdam rules

Both Nufarm and Inovyn voiced support for the United Nation’s Rotterdam Convention, the international agreement on cross-border trade in hazardous chemicals upon which the EU and UK’s “prior informed consent” regulations are based.

“Countries receiving products that are banned in other countries have to agree to receiving them,” Nufarm’s spokesperson said. “The PIC regulation intends to protect human health and the environment by providing developing countries with information on how to store, transport, use and dispose of hazardous chemicals safely. We support this reporting requirement that is fully transparent, and we are glad that it is properly enforced.”

At the European Commission, officials have now concluded that these regulations do not go far enough, and there needs to be an end to the export of banned chemicals out of the EU. A Commission source told Unearthed and Public Eye that a ban of exports from the EU may not “automatically lead third countries to stop using such pesticides if they may import them from elsewhere”. 

However, she added: “But we have to show coherence ourselves.” In the chemicals strategy the Commission released in late 2020, it committed to ensuring “that hazardous chemicals banned in the EU cannot be produced for export, including by amending relevant legislation if and as needed”. 

The UK government has promised its own chemicals strategy, to set out how it intends to regulate “chemicals of national concern” post-Brexit, but this work has been delayed. Unearthed understands that DEFRA is looking into a range of chemical issues – including exports – and is following what is happening in the EU but intends to make decisions based on its “own analysis” of these issues. 

Pesticide campaigners in the UK warned that the government should not use Brexit as an opportunity for the UK’s standards on chemical exports to slip behind those of the EU. 

“This Government claims to be leading international efforts to deal with the nature and climate crises and has also promised repeatedly that environmental standards won’t slip as a result of Brexit,” said Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at Pesticide Action Network UK. “Meanwhile, the UK’s hypocritical practice of exporting highly hazardous pesticides which are banned for use domestically because of their impact on human health and the environment continues unabated.”

She added: “The European Commission recently promised to end its exports of banned pesticides but the UK has remained silent. If the Government is serious about being a global leader on the environment, then it urgently needs to commit to ending these exports and encourage companies manufacturing highly hazardous pesticides in the UK to transition to less harmful alternatives such as biopesticides.”

The HSE spokesperson added: “In the coming months HSE will publish a report of PIC activity for 2020 and later in the year will publish a report for 2021. In these reports details of the exact tonnages of the listed chemicals will be aggregated and anonymised to avoid disclosing information.”

He added that some of the chemicals identified as banned agricultural pesticides were “not entirely banned in the UK”. “For example the chemical imidacloprid, whilst not approved for use as an agricultural pesticide, is approved for use in biocides and veterinary uses.”

Inovyn only issued one export notification in 2020, for a shipment of 1,3-dichloropropene to Japan. 

However, an HSE spokesperson later confirmed to Unearthed that no shipments of that chemical were actually exported from the UK in 2020.

How we did it

It took Unearthed and Public Eye around six months to collect all of the “export notifications” used in this investigation, using freedom of information requests. We obtained this data from the 

European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which acts as a kind of clearing house for these notifications in the EU, collecting them from national regulators and sending them to destination countries. Until the end of 2020, it also continued to provide this role for the United Kingdom, under the terms of the Brexit transition deal.

Through these requests, we sought to obtain a complete set of all export notifications issued for the UK’s 2020 exports of agricultural pesticides that were banned from use as agricultural pesticides in the UK. In some cases, we achieved this by phrasing the request to exclude exports of banned pesticides that are sold for explicitly non-agricultural purposes (e.g. flea collars, or indoor-use bait traps). In others, we reviewed summary data that is made public by ECHA to focus our requests on chemicals we could tell were being exported for agricultural purposes. Upon obtaining the data, we ran further checks to identify and remove any notifications that were not intended for crop protection.

Through this process we built a dataset of banned pesticides notified for export as crop protection products.

Export notifications are – by definition – estimates that are issued prior to the product being shipped, so they are not a perfect record. The actual quantities exported may end up being greater or less than estimated, and some notified exports do not take place in a given year. However, they are the most precise paper trail available for the EU’s trade in banned agrochemicals. 

After we had assembled the data we sent our figures to the exporting companies and to the HSE, to give them the opportunity to review them, and flag any exports that were significantly different to the amounts declared by the notifications. Most companies declined to comment on the numbers. The HSE refused to give precise figures, but confirmed to us that six of the chemicals notified for agricultural export in 2020 – chlorpropham, desmedipham, propanil, iprodione, dichlobenil, and 1,3-dichloropropene – were not actually exported in 2020. It also confirmed that the total exported weight of the chemicals that were shipped – paraquat, diquat, asulam, imidacloprid, cyhalothrin, chlorothalonil and propiconazole – was 12,240 tonnes. 

For a number of the banned pesticides exported from the UK in 2020, the notifications only cover the exports intended for the final four months of the year: September 1 – December 31. This is because the active ingredients in these exports – including chlorothalonil, propiconazole, imidacloprid, diquat, desmedipham and chlorpropham – were only recently banned. This meant that these chemicals only became subject to “prior informed consent” rules – the requirement to notify a foreign country if you intend to ship them a pesticide that you have banned domestically – on 1 September 2020. For all other 2020 exports identified by this investigation – those containing the ingredients 1,3-dichloropropene, paraquat, propanil, asulam, cyhalothrin, iprodione, and dichlobenil – the export notifications covered the full year of anticipated exports.