Campaigners warn India free trade deal could result in higher levels of pesticides in UK food

UK consumers could face “dramatic” increases in ‘Highly Hazardous Pesticides’ (HHPs) in food staples if the government rushes through a new trade deal with India, a consortium of experts have today warned.

The UK is currently working to negotiate a new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India in record time in a bid to double trade with the country by 2030.

But according to new research from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Sustain Alliance, and trade expert Dr Emily Lydgate, the negotiations are likely to result in the UK facing considerable pressure from the Indian government to water down pesticide standards.

“Pesticide regulations aren’t bargaining chips, they are there to protect people’s health,” said Josie Cohen, head of policy and campaigns at PAN UK. “Watering them down to secure a new trade deal would create serious public health risks at home whilst also making our farmers less competitive abroad. Deals of this size typically take years to complete – rushing through negotiations without fully thinking through the consequences is a recipe for disaster.”

The report anticipates that any new agreement could significantly increase food exports from India to the UK. But they warn that without stringent environmental standards any deal could result in the import of Indian staples, such as rice, wheat, and tea, that are produced using levels of pesticides that would be illegal in the UK.

“This deal could turn significant health risks to the UK public into a competitive advantage for Indian agribusiness over our own farmers,” said Vicki Hird, head of Sustainable Farming at Sustain. “A deal with one of the world’s largest agri-producers risks undermining the considerable efforts being made to ensure UK farming is more sustainable. We must get the details right.”

The research found that India currently allows the use of 62 per cent more HHPs than the UK, as well as allowing larger amounts of chemicals to appear in food products.

For example, the report stated that common foods such as apples and grapes can contain as much as 200 times the levels of insecticide Malathion, which has been linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects.

A new trade deal with India could also mean an increase in Indian wheat exports to the UK, the report warned. According to the findings, India currently allows wheat to contain 50 times the amount of chlorpyrifos than its UK equivalent. Chlorpyrifos was banned for use in the UK in 2019 due to evidence that it can harm children’s brain development.

The report also cited a study from 2021 which found 200 million tons of Indian rice was rejected globally each month for containing pesticides residues that exceeded the legal limits of importing countries.

“The Indian government has a long record of lobbying to relax levels of permitted pesticide residues, and UK negotiators will inevitably face pressure to weaken domestic regulation,” said Dr Emily Lydgate, reader in Environmental Law at the University of Sussex. “Indian produce regularly contains illegally already high levels of pesticides, and with an under-resourced UK border force following Britain’s exit from the EU, an FTA that weakens the rules could weaken pose a risk to public health.”

It has also been argued that the deal could have “major” impacts on UK agriculture, with Indian farmers able to produce food more cheaply using pesticides that are banned in the UK.

In addition, the UK government’s own expert body has warned that embedding double standards in trade deals threatens to hand foreign agribusiness a competitive advantage and allow them to undercut UK farmers. In a recent impact assessment, the government recognised that a deal with India could result in a fall of around £10m in domestic agricultural output.

The new report outlines a number of recommendations for the UK government moving forwards, including a firm commitment not to allow the weakening of UK poison standards via a UK-India FTA.

It suggests that any deal should ensure no currently banned pesticides are allowed for use in the UK and that no food containing detectable residues of currently banned substances can be imported into the UK.

It also proposes that UK farmers are prevented from being disadvantaged by cheap food imports produced to weaker pesticide standards in India. and it advises that the UK’s border controls are adequately resourced to ensure that products with illegal levels of pesticide residues are not able to circulate in the UK.

According to the report, India is the world’s second-highest user of pesticides as has one of the highest rates of unintentional pesticide poisoning in the world.

“Weaking pesticide standards in the UK have deadly consequences for farmers on the ground in India,” said AD Dileep Kumar, chief executive officer, PAN India

“Over 30,000 people die each year [in India] in pesticide-related deaths and incentivising greater pesticide usage with relaxed laws and an expanded market will compound this problem even further.”

The report echoes concerns expressed by farming and environmental groups ahead of the UK’s FTA with Australia, which saw similar complaints that the government’s desire to rush through the deal had resulted in an agreement that would allow the import of food that had been produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than are required in the UK.

However, a spokesperson for the Department for Trade seeks to downplay the latest concerns. “We have strict statutory limits for pesticide residue levels on imported food and a robust program of monitoring,” they said. “An FTA with India won’t change this – products which don’t meet our requirements won’t be permitted to enter the UK market. Any deal we sign will include protections for the agriculture industry. We will not expose UK farmers to unfair competition or compromise our high standards.”

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