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UK-India trade deal could undermine food standards say experts

Campaigners say food standards in the UK are at risk, as the government is soon set to close a trade deal with India which could lead to huge increases in Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) in foods.

Negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India, which has much weaker pesticide standards, began in January this year and are expected to close in October, as the UK wishes to ‘double trade with India by 2030’.

Research conducted by the Pesticide Action Network UK, Sustain Alliance and trade expert Dr Emily Lydgate found it’s likely the UK will face considerable pressure to water down pesticide standards.

India is one of the largest agricultural exporters and is infamous for its aggressive lobbying against protections, due to its economic interests in weakening pesticide standards.

The report found Indian apples and grapes are permitted to contain 200 times the amount of insecticide malathion than is allowed in the UK.

black farming harvesting machine

The insecticide is a carcinogen and is suspected to interfere with hormone systems, causing birth defects, developmental disorders, and reproductive problems like fertility.

Josie Cohen, Head of Policy and Campaigns at PAN UK, said: ‘Pesticide regulations aren’t bargaining chips, they are there to protect people’s health. 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.’

It’s expected the new agreement will significantly increase food exports of staples like rice, wheat and tea from India to the UK, potentially with illegal levels of pesticides.

PAN and Sustain’s report highlighted how India uses 62% more HHPs than the UK and allows wheat to contain 50 times the amount of chlorpyrifos, a chemical banned in Britain in 2019 due to evidence it can harm children’s brain development.

Last year, 200 tonnes of Indian rice was rejected globally each month due to it containing pesticide residues exceeding legal limits of importing countries. The organisations are concerned rules will be relaxed and this kind of produce will end up on British shelves.

They say British farmers will also be impacted by the trade deal, as it could result in a £10m drop in domestic agricultural output and Indian farmers are able to produce food more cheaply using pesticides banned in the UK

Dr Emily Lydgate, Reader in Environmental Law at the University of Sussex, said: ‘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. Indian produce regularly contains illegally high levels of pesticides, and with an already under-resourced UK border force following Britain’s exit from the EU, an FTA that weakens the rules could pose a significant risk to public health.’

Photo by Robert Wiedemann

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