Is exporting death good for the economy?



We are told, repeatedly, that one of the main reasons why the UK should stay in the European Union, is because we have access to the single market. And this argument is being used in particular for agriculture.

But some agricultural products made in the UK are not exported to the EU, because they have been banned there. In fact some products made here are so toxic that they have been banned for use in the UK, as well as the EU. One such product is the herbicide Paraquat.

Paraquat is exceedingly toxic – and easily ingested. It has been blamed for thousands of deaths across the world, including suicides and murders. Sri Lanka banned it as a agrochemical because of the number of people using it to commit suicide. A study last year in Indian tea plantations found paraquat being widely misused and the BBC reported pesticide exposure causing illness and hospitalisation.

Paraquat is manufactured in Huddersfield by Syngenta, the same company who make a range of neonicotinoid insecticides, blamed for killing pollinators like bees. Last year, thanks to what appeared to be a combination of poor maintenance and human error, nearly four tonnes of paraquat was accidentally released from a tanker at the Huddersfield plant. To give you an idea of how much this is, the entire consumption of paraquat in India in 2013/14 was 5000 tonnes. It’s estimated that a lethal dose for a human is 14ml. A quick fag packet calculation would suggest that enough paraquat was released in the accident to kill over one hundred thousand people. Fortunately the wind was blowing in the right direction and the paraquat stayed inside the factory boundary. Syngenta was fined £200,000 yesterday for health and safety breaches – and would like everyone to “move on”, as they have vowed to do.

A couple of things come to mind, from this story.

First off, is that, far from being “red tape” that needs to be removed, regulations such as those on health and safety, are a vital part of society. Regulations are needed to ensure that businesses don’t just focus on the profit and ignore everything else. And as we can see from the story of the Paraquat use in India, where regulations are weak, bypassed or ignored, people and the environment suffer.

Secondly, what on earth are we, as a society, doing allowing businesses like Syngenta to produce agrochemicals in the UK that are so lethal they have been banned across Europe and in many other parts of the world? Is this really the sort of economy we want to support, and are these really the sort of products we want to be exporting? This Government (and previous ones) have done all they can to prevent EU agencies such as the European Food Safety Authority from restricting the use of agrochemicals such as herbicides and insecticides. EFSA recommended that Neonicotinoid use should be phased out, but the UK Government allowed farmers to continue using it.

We need to stay in an EU which will,  strengthen protection for people and nature, through regulation.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agrochemicals, deregulation, EU referendum, European Commission, European environment policy, Neonicotinoids and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is exporting death good for the economy?

  1. Reblogged this on Medway Green Party's Blog and commented:
    Excellent article which makes a strong case for our need to stay in the EU. We can’t trust our current government to protect us.

  2. John Stone says:

    The ethics of some of these companies are deeply questionable.

  3. I agree with the gist of this article and it’s only a small point but paraquat is not easy to ingest. If you commit suicide by using it you have to be pretty determined. I only recently realised that it had been withdrawn in the UK. If it was on the strength of its human toxicity then I think it might have been a mistake. I mean oven cleaner will take the skin off your hands and bleach will kill you but we have those under most domestic kitchen sinks and as far as I am aware no one is attacking companies for making those. I used paraquat in the past and it was a useful chemical which did not persist in the environment.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Charles.

      While some who try are determined but unsuccessful, and there may be others who are not determined but succeed anyway, I think it’s fair to say that most people who commit suicide are determined to do so.

      I’m only quoting from the evidence that Sri Lanka banned Paraquat (and other pesticides) because of the number of people using it to commit suicide – an estimated 300,000 suicides a year across Asia are as a result of pesticide ingestion, accounting for 2/3 of Sri Lanka suicides. Paraquat was an especially “popular” pesticide to use at it was so effective (60% fatality rate).

      But it wasnt withdrawn in the EU and UK because of suicides but because of its toxicity to human and animal health. Contrary to industry claims, Paraquat is highly persistent in soils and in water.

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on the #Glyphosate Saga | a new nature blog

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