Ending the Local Silent Spring

George Richmond looks at how councils can preserve nature and protect the environment, such as by reviewing their use of pesticides. This is the first instalment of the Young Fabians Environment Network’s blog series, Councils and the Climate Crisis: Taking Action Locally.

“Who has decided- who has the right to decide- for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; [they have] made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”

Rachel Carson wrote those words in her ground-breaking book, Silent Spring (1962), 60 years ago this year. At the time Carson was largely referring to US State and Federal governments as the ‘authoritarian’. Now though, too many of our own councils across England have become “authoritarian”, making the “decision” for a “world without insects” on our streets and public green spaces. Over 61,000 kilograms of glyphosate were used by councils and their contractors in one year alone. Glyphosate is a key ingredient for many pesticides, notably Roundup. Though there is still an ongoing debate on the impact and consequences of glyphosate and other specific pesticides, there is clear evidence for their detrimental interference with nature and councils’ use of them being unnecessary. 

We are seeing a major decline in wildlife and the destruction of ecosystems around us. 15% of species in the UK are threatened with extinction. In more detail, 33% of wild pollinators including bees declined between 1980 and 2013, 31% of butterfly species are threatened with extinction, and 13% of beetle species are at risk. The use of both urban and agricultural pesticides has played a major role in these declines.

Agriculture has seen the greatest impacts on farmland wildlife and ecosystems from pesticide-use. Agriculture covers 70% of the UK land-area. Farmland birds alone have declined by 54%- they are dependent on many insects and bugs that are also threatened. 

The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology notes that pesticides used in both urban and agricultural settings have ‘unintended consequences direct and indirect impacts on non-target wildlife, including insects.’ It has been found in wild pollinators that had detectable levels of chemicals, 71% of them were exposed to more than one type of chemical. 

The Role of Councils

Councils need to take serious action on the climate and ecological crisis. Ending a council’s use of pesticides is a clear though basic action which will have a significant impact for nature recovery and be symbolic of a council’s seriousness in responding to the ecological crisis. 

Furthermore, while the government is lacklustre in supporting agriculture to positively contribute to the environment, councils can utilise their central position in localities to support changes on farms that will prompt wider reductions and eliminations of pesticide use in England. When facing agricultural use of pesticides, councils should play local coordinating roles for wider system changes that help encourage farmers to move away from pesticide use. This may include councils supporting and promoting alternative food and farming by embedding it as a strategy across the council.Such strategies could look like:

  • Environmental health departments made aware of animal welfare and conditions that are common within alternative agriculture- particularly issues concerning interactions between farming, the weather and the environment. Example: cows kept outside during the winter can end up in mud during bad weather, nevertheless this does not necessarily mean the animals are in poor condition or there is damage to the environment. 
  • Planning offices support farm diversification and infrastructure where it may help either financially or logistically in the undertaking of agricultural practices that help reduce pesticide-use.
  • Economic development and regeneration- facilitate (facilities, funding, infrastructure provision) for local alternative food production to be better connected to local citizens. 

First though, councils should lead by example and end their own use of pesticides. In order to end use of pesticides, it is important to clarify what pesticides are. A common mistake by some parish and town councils in recent years, has been to assume that they are automatically pesticide-free if they are not using insecticides or formally, DDT. In fact, Pesticide Action Network have stated that pesticides include ‘herbicides (designed to kill plants), insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, molluscicides and nematicides, but also include plant growth regulators, defoliants and desiccants.’ Herbicides make up 94% of pesticides used by councils.

Another confusion is the issue of weeds or other pests being accepted and allowed to flourish or if dealt with in a different way. While there have been some headlines focused on councils that ended the use of pesticides and then saw street pavements made unsafe by weeds, these are rare. Ultimately it should be up to the council to decide both where and how it responds to weeds once it ends pesticide use. There are plenty of alternative ways to get rid of weeds and pests that are safe for the environment if need be, such as hot water, manual or mechanical weeding, and improvements to soil health. There are also huge benefits to allowing some pests and weeds to grow. They often help rebuild natural ecosystems and provide new habitats. 

It is striking that 60 years after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring warning of the danger of the toxic use of pesticides and many speaking of her admiringly,the use of pesticides continues unchanged, even on our streets. The moment of inattention is over and millions no longer want a ‘sterile world’. We expect our councils to play their part to support the ‘ordered world of nature’ and end their use of pesticides. 

You can find out more and take action:

Pesticide Action Network campaign on Pesticide-Free Towns: https://www.pan-uk.org/pesticide-free/

The Land Workers’ Alliance campaign on moving UK agriculture away from pesticides through a transition to agroecology:


My own experience of pesticide use by councils in the Cotswolds:


And of course, read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson!

George Richmond is a Policy Officer for the Young Fabian Environment Network. He was a District Council Candidate in the May 2022 local elections and is now studying a Masters in Agroecology, Water and Food Sovereignty. He is interested in the environment, rural affairs and food policy. He tweets at @ChatwRichmond.

Throughout the week, the blog will continue to post contributions as part of the Young Fabians Environment Network’s blog series, Councils and the Climate Crisis: Taking Action Locally. You can sign up for our networks including the Environment Network here, or contact them at [email protected]

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