Pesticides and herbicides have been linked to declines in bees and pollinators, birds, mammals, earthworms and soil fertility. The biggest-selling weedkiller, Roundup, contains glyphosate, which the World Health Organisation has assessed as 'probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)'. There is pressure to ban it in the EU, some European countries already have, and renewal of its approval is currently under discussion. Glyphosate remains approved for use in the UK until at least 2025.
Herbicides are still widely used by councils to control weeds, or wild flowers. Councils do not have to use these chemicals; a natural alternative is to pull the weeds up by hand, or spray hot water foam. This requires some capital investment in equipment, but the technique is being used in many locations around the UK and the world and some enterprising councils are making their money back by hiring out their equipment to other councils (it also removes graffiti). Pesticide Action Network UK reports that cities in Europe using hot foam have found that, after the initial capital outlay, ongoing costs have reduced considerably.
Petersfield Town Council adopted a pesticide policy in February 2021 which aims to limit the impacts of pesticides (including herbicides) on human health, the environment, and local water supplies. The Town Council still use glyphosate on council owned land, but have reduced its usage over the last year. Their policy explains the environmental harms:
The use of pesticides can have a devastating effect on our environment and its biodiversity. When used on hard surfaces, such as pavements, there is a possibility of run off or residues which can contaminate water courses and contaminate aquatic wildlife. They may kill plants which are beneficial and relied upon by birds, insects and other wildlife.
When used on soft surfaces, such as vegetation or grass swards, there is a possibility of spray drift and contamination of adjacent areas.
Many pesticides are highly persistent, meaning that they stay around in the soil for a long time, raising the likelihood that they could enter watercourses or aquifers.
What can we do?