Following two years of behind-the-scenes advocacy work and an in-depth survey, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) today released its 2021 ranking which scores the UK’s top ten supermarkets on their efforts to tackle pesticides.
The ranking scores supermarkets against eight criteria related to pesticides, including their efforts to protect bees and pollinators, the work they do to monitor and reduce residues in food, and what support they provide to their suppliers to use nonchemical alternatives.
The results published echo those of PAN UK’s previous supermarket ranking in 2019, but with some key changes. M&S and Waitrose continue to be ‘best in class’, with Co-op and Sainsbury’s swapping third and fourth positions, but still close behind. Morrisons has jumped up two places since 2019 to take fifth, while both Tesco and Asda’s positions remained static in sixth and eighth place respectively. Lidl, which did not respond to the survey in 2019, came in seventh. Iceland dropped one position since 2019 to come in last.
PAN UK’s most critical finding is that highly toxic pesticides (known as ‘Highly Hazardous Pesticides’ or ‘HHPs’) continue to be used within the global supply chains of all of the UK’s largest ten supermarkets. The chemicals in question include water contaminants shown to harm aquatic species and bee-toxic chemicals such as neonicotinoids.
While PAN UK acknowledges that some supermarkets are doing much better than others, and that the sector as a whole has made progress since the previous ranking in 2019, the organisation highlights the following additional concerns:
- Pesticides which are highly toxic to human health continue to be used within the supply chains of all of the UK’s top ten supermarkets. The list includes chemicals which are acutely toxic and can therefore cause serious harms to farmers and workers after just a single instance of exposure. It also includes pesticides which have been linked to a range of chronic diseases including cancer, birth defects and developmental disorders.
- While all supermarkets conduct residue testing on food items to check that pesticide levels don’t exceed legal limits, only two supermarkets have recently started publishing this information in detail (M&S and Co-op). Customers of the other eight supermarkets have no way of finding out which specific food items contain the most residues, making it impossible for them to make shopping decisions aimed at avoiding pesticides in their diets (other than choosing organic).
- Six of the top ten supermarkets (Asda, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) continue to sell high-risk pesticide products (such as weedkillers), providing little or no information to customers beyond what is on the label on the potential risks to human health and the environment, or how best to avoid them. The list excludes Iceland and M&S which don’t have gardening ranges. Co-op and Waitrose both took the hugely positive step of announcing an end to their sale of pesticides in 2021.
- In general, the higher-end supermarkets are doing more to reduce pesticide-related harms linked to their global supply chains. As a result, shoppers concerned about pesticides who are on lower incomes are often left with little choice but to shop at supermarkets with weaker standards.
The ranking is likely to boost the attention paid to pesticide issues by UK supermarkets. This mirrors consumers who, due to the global environmental crisis, are increasingly thinking about how their eating habits are impacting nature. More and more people want to be sure they aren’t driving serious health or environmental problems in the UK or beyond, and are increasingly deciding where to shop based on these types of concerns.
PAN UK points out that UK supermarkets could have a key role to play in securing a healthier and more sustainable future but that this is being undermined by the ongoing use of toxic pesticides. Josie Cohen, the organisation’s Head of Policy and Campaigns said, “Most of the pesticides used in global agriculture are entirely unnecessary. There are tried and tested non-chemical alternatives which protect human health and don’t trash the environment while still producing the amount of food we need. If we are to have any chance of reversing the current biodiversity and public health crises, then all supermarkets need to step up and do more to prevent pesticide-related harms.”
PAN UK is calling on UK supermarkets to take a range of actions including:
- Increase efforts to phase out the most hazardous pesticides from their global supply chains and, wherever possible, replace them with nonchemical alternatives.
- Support their suppliers to use non-chemical alternatives.
- Require their suppliers to adopt pollinator-friendly practices and monitor pollinator activity.
- End the use of pesticides known to be particularly harmful to bees and other pollinators throughout their global supply chains.
- Introduce additional safety requirements designed to protect workers using pesticides known to be particularly harmful to human health.
- Immediately end the sale of all synthetic pesticide products.
- Put in place measures to reduce pesticide residues in food, including broad testing programmes and stringent action plans for tackling the most serious residue problems.
There is also a quick and easy online action to enable members of the public to contact supermarket CEOs.