This story – based on a year-long investigation using cross-border collaboration, freedom of information requests in multiple jurisdictions, and investigative data journalism – revealed for the first time the full scale and scope of the UK and Europe’s exports of banned pesticides to low- or middle-income countries (LMICs). I did this by collaborating with an investigator at the Swiss NGO Public Eye to file multiple, coordinated FOIs to the European Chemicals Agency and authorities in Belgium, Germany, and France. This collaboration was vital, because it allowed us to gather far more data than FOI laws would allow one individual to obtain. Over nine months we managed to obtain paperwork for all proposed exports of banned pesticides from EU countries in 2018. We built a database of these “export notifications”, which I cleaned and analysed. The result was by far the most detailed picture of Europe’s banned pesticide exports ever to reach the public domain.
It revealed that:
- In 2018 EU countries issued plans to export more than 81,000 tonnes of pesticides prohibited in their own fields;
- The exports were destined for 85 different countries, of which more than three quarters were LMICs;
- Dozens of companies and 11 different EU countries were involved in this trade;
- The UK – by virtue of its large scale production of the toxic and long-banned weedkiller paraquat – was by far Europe’s biggest exporter.
According to a July 2020 statement by the UN’s special rapporteur on toxics, the EU’s exports of banned pesticides result in “widespread infringements of human rights to life, dignity and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in LMICs. Prior to this investigation, the key players in that export trade had been shrouded by commercial secrecy.
This story played a decisive role in forcing the issue of banned pesticide exports onto the news and policy agendas across Europe, thereby catalysing a surprise European Commission commitment to bring an end to the practice. Our investigation was prominently reported by national media in all of the EU’s major banned-pesticide-exporting countries, including the BBC and the Guardian (UK); Le Monde (France); Sky Italia, Corriere della Sera and La Stampa (Italy); Süddeutsche Zeitung and ARD’s Monitor (Germany); RTBF and Het Nieuwsblad (Belgium); Trouw (Netherlands); El Pais (Spain); and RTS and Le Courrier (Switzerland). Then, just a month after our story broke, the European Commission issued a new chemicals strategy which committed to ending the practice of manufacturing chemicals for export that are banned within the EU “including by amending relevant legislation if and as needed”. This was an enormous policy shift, given that two months previously EC officials had been briefing that such a ban would have little positive effect. Regulatory sources have told us our investigation played a key part in the decision of some member states to support a ban.
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