Existing agencies in the United Kingdom are unprepared to handle pesticide issues after Brexit, according to the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK).

A briefing paper, written by Josie Cohen, Nick Mole and Keith Tyrell from the UK charity, said the way the UK chooses to govern pesticides after leaving the European Union next year will have implications for the health of UK citizens. It was published as part of the Food Research Collaboration’s Brexit series.

The EU’s pesticide regulations are considered to be the strongest in the world to protect human health and for decades the way the UK regulates and uses pesticides has been largely decided at European level.

PAN UK said the government could choose to mirror the relatively high standards of the EU or introduce additional measures to reduce pesticide use. However, it could use Brexit as a chance to deregulate, allowing a greater variety of pesticides to be used on UK farms and permitting larger quantities in domestically grown and imported food.

Key pieces of EU pesticide legislation will be transposed into UK law but the institutions, capacity and expertise required to implement them may take years to develop. The UK will remain aligned with EU pesticide decisions until the end of the transition period but it is not known what will happen afterwards.

PAN UK said the UK could lose the scientific support and advice currently provided by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as checks and balances by EU institutions, which play a scrutiny role to ensure decisions are unbiased.

A UK standalone system will need to take on functions previously done by the EU. This includes setting Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) of pesticides permitted to be in food and deciding which active substances – the active component of a pesticide product – can be used in the country.

Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at PAN UK, said investment is needed to ensure any UK system is fit for purpose otherwise pesticide standards could be weakened.

“The UK will either need to create new institutions and bodies that can fill this ‘governance gap’ after Brexit or at least ensure that there are systems and staff in place to fulfil the functions previously carried out by EU bodies.”

PAN UK said domestic rules risk being undermined by future trade deals with non-EU countries that have weaker pesticide standards. The group cited the United States, claiming the U.S. has almost three times the number of active substances authorized for use than the UK. Upholding pesticide standards is also key if the UK wants to continue exporting agricultural products to the EU.

Nick Mole, policy officer at PAN UK, said a future trade deal with the U.S. is concerning based on comments made about the EU’s pesticide standards in previous negotiations.

“The EU has had the power and negotiating experience to resist these attempts, but whether the UK will be able to do the same is highly questionable. If the government is serious about delivering a ‘Green Brexit’, then it must ensure that no weakening of standards occurs through trade deals with non-EU countries.”

Environment and agriculture are policy areas decided by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which adds more complexities and uncertainties.

The authors said Brexit is an opportunity to adopt additional measures proven to reduce pesticide use in other countries such as a pesticide reduction target, a pesticide tax and creation of a body designed to help farmers switch to non-chemical alternatives.

PAN UK listed recommendations for the government including maintaining the EU’s hazard-based approach instead of a risk-based approach to pesticide regulation.

The ‘hazard-based approach’ to pesticide regulation means if an active substance is judged to be dangerous then use should be banned with no further assessment. The ‘risk-based approach’ is the idea that risks can be assessed, quantified and managed, so carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting substances can be permitted if associated risks are deemed low and manageable.

The group also called for a clear, quantitative target for reducing the overall use of pesticides in agriculture and creation of a government body to support Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques.

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