Why are pesticides banned overseas still used in Australia and what does it mean for the environment?

Environmental campaigners in the UK have expressed concern that a trade deal could result in the importation of Australian food that is produced with pesticides banned there.

The Australia-UK free trade agreement, which was signed last December, has been criticised in the UK as being too liberalised on pesticides. A bill to implement the trade deal has not yet been passed by the UK parliament.

Josie Cohen of Pesticide Action UK told the Guardian last week that Australia uses toxic pesticides that are banned in the UK on health and environmental grounds. “They also permit residue levels many times more than in the UK,” she said.

According to the organisation, Australia authorises the use of 144 highly hazardous pesticides, compared with 73 permitted in the UK.

How do Australia’s pesticide regulations differ from the UK, what pesticides are used in Australia but banned overseas, and what health and environmental impacts do they have?

Banned overseas, permitted in Australia
All pesticides approved for use in Australia are regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). Certain pesticides that are available in Australia are no longer in use overseas.

For example, paraquat, a herbicide used since the 1950s, has been banned in more than 50 countries including the UK. Research has linked it to negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and it is highly toxic to humans. But in Australia paraquat has been under review by the APVMA since the 1990s and is still used commercially.

A class of substances called neonicotinoids have been used on Australian crops – including cotton, canola and fruit and vegetables – since 1994. Common neonicotinoid substances have been banned in the EU and UK, and restricted in the US and Canada, out of concern for negative impacts on insects – specifically European honeybee populations.

Fipronil, an insect nerve agent, is also banned in the EU and UK to protect honeybees but is approved for use in Australia.

“The scientific information available indicates that managed and wild honeybee populations are not in decline in Australia,” the APVMA stated in 2019, when it began a review into neonicotinoids. But honeybee populations may now be at risk if the deadly varroa mite, detected in the past fortnight in New South Wales, establishes itself in Australia.

Different regulatory approaches
“The risks and benefits of the same pesticide can differ markedly between countries, and this may lead to different regulations,” says Nicholas Buckley, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Sydney. “Various things drive stricter regulation – there’s environmental concerns, chronic effects on human health, from use or food residues, and acute poisoning risks.”

“For some of the pesticides, the concerns relate to the environment and not humans. People are worried about bee toxicity, for example with neonicotinoids and fipronil, which are not very dangerous substances for humans, but kill bees with tiny, tiny exposures,” Buckley says.

“The reason they’re called neonicotinoids is because they act like nicotine, but they’re selective for insects over humans, so they’re less toxic than nicotine [to humans].”

Dr Tanzim Afroz, a lecturer at Edith Cowan University, says Australia’s approach to pesticide regulation is “incautious” compared with UK legislation, which has been influenced by EU policy. “The EU approach is to adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ – where there is scientific uncertainty, take precaution,” she says.

“Australia doesn’t implement the precautionary principle when we’re talking about pesticide management, at the legislative nor at executive level,” Afroz says. Instead, Australia has taken a regulatory approach, which Afroz says stemmed from a belief that “pesticides improve competitiveness and [productivity] of farm businesses”.

“The central purpose of Australian pesticide policy is usually to make pesticides available to those who wish to use them,” Afroz says, noting that approval takes into account specific criteria such as environmental impacts, residues, toxicology and occupational health and safety.

In contrast, a briefing published by the UK parliamentary office of science and technology last September says: “Although pesticides have not yet been established as a definite cause for any chronic health effects, regulatory authorities may withdraw pesticides for use if there is evidence of correlation with health or environmental concerns or significant scientific uncertainty about potential impacts, without the need to prove causality.”

Different environmental factors
Experts have pointed out that pesticide use has benefits in Australia. “Agricultural pesticides have undoubtedly reduced food loss and helped farmers provide the unblemished produce we have grown so used to,” researchers previously wrote in The Conversation.

​​Nigel Andrew, a professor of entomology at the University of New England, describes pesticide use as a “conundrum”, particularly in light of extreme weather events due to climate change.

“If you don’t use pesticides, you do actually have to have a reduction in the quality of food. But also, if you’re using pesticides which are very generalised, they will have unexpected impacts,” he says.

Warming temperatures may result in pest species spreading in Australia from tropical areas, Andrew says. “We will find more species that will become more problematic because their populations might not be pushed back over winter.”

Farming practices differ between the UK and Australia as the result of different environmental factors, he says. “We can have a bigger issue with pest species in terms of taking out major crops … It’s a bigger landscape with more diverse environments.”