Today I’m talking to Nick Mole, who is part of an organisation called ‘The Pesticide Action Network (UK)’ (P.A.N). Hello Danger, (Nick's long term nickname) can you tell me a bit about what you do at P.A.N?
Well, I’ve been working there now for nearly twelve years and I’m still getting my head around the enormity of the work we do. We are a global organisation and we’ve been running now for around thirty years. It was set up originally in Malaysia to protect plantation workers (and palm oil workers at the time) from being poisoned by pesticides and having their land stolen amongst other things and it sort of grew out of that. We now have branches on every continent in the world, although we all remain completely autonomous.
So, at the time it was set up, I suppose it wasn't public knowledge, the damage pesticides cause.. It must have felt like you were banging your heads against a brick wall, so to speak?
Yes, it was hard work. The issue of pesticides, for example, has become much more present in the public conscience only in the past five years. Ten years ago you could inform the public about pesticides and they would ignore the issue… then the bees started dying. Our history with bees goes back as long as we’ve been here and so it seems that just seemed to grab the public’s imagination.
I seem to remember taking part in a march & waving a banner with you on Parliament Square, quite a few years ago to raise awareness of the plight of the bees…
Yes! That was back in 2013. We marched to ask the British government to support an EU proposal to ban the use of 3P toxic pesticides and in fact it was only in April last year when that happened. Back in 2013, the British government were against the idea of banning any pesticides.
Why would that be? Pressure from business?
Yes – pressure from the pesticide industry, which is HUGE. They make billions and billions of pounds every year so it’s a very powerful lobby. Also a sort of ingrained dislike of any rules coming from the EU – so even if it’s a good one, they’ll say no. PLUS pressure from certain interest groups, in particular, the National Farmers Union. The National Farmers Union is NOT actually a union - it’s a land-owners’ society, and they like pesticides.
Can you sympathise with them at all? I mean the farmers are struggling and the profit margins for food have plummeted.
That is an issue, yes, and one which individual farmers have to address independently. Don’t get me wrong – there are some fantastic farmers out there and I have spoken to many farmers over the years who tell me they would love to operate a different way but can’t because, as you say, they’re under a really tight margin. So yeah, it’s an issue, but the actual Farmers Union, which is supposed to be their voice, is very pro-pesticides, because of its links to industry.
Ok, so what stage are we at now then? Do you see the tide turning?
Well, yes, and no. In general, in Europe - and actually across the UK as well, there are encouraging signs of change. I would never have imagined in my life that I would ever say that Michael Gove could be a force for good, but h is proving to be so – or at least his words are saying the right things. It’s up to us to make sure he follows through with them. But yeah, there is change happening. Europe is not perfect, but it does have one of the most precautionary regulatory systems in terms of pesticides and protecting the local environment and we follow their lead and will continue after we leave. So there are many positive signs. The public are more engaged these days. Ten years ago it was just us that were interested in pesticides and now there are loads of both human and environmental organisations that are concerned about them, so yeah; public perception, political awareness and action and measures are increasing. One of the things in terms of increasing public awareness that we’ve been doing is trying to mobilise local groups and citizens to be aware of what’s going on where they live and set their own ‘Pesticide-Free Town’ campaigns up to stop the use of pesticides in their communities, because pesticides aren’t just an agricultural issue. They’re used on our streets, paths, playgrounds, schools, hospitals.
In your previous job you worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and often worked undercover to expose illegal environmental activity – did you ever find yourself in some dangerous situations out in the field?
Yes many times. I was working to try to stop the illegal trade in endangered species and one of our campaigns was in Rajasthan where there are a load of marble mines and a talcum powder mine. Who knew talcum powder was mined? …But it is. The problem was that these mines were right in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary and next door to a tiger reserve that had seen all its tigers wiped out. Also, the effect of the mining on the local people was deplorable. Many saw their houses destroyed by explosions and other mining techniques, it put them out of work and took their land, so we went in and documented all this activity and all the illegal mines inside the wildlife sanctuary. We were working with Partners on Drought, who had been intimidated by the mining lobby so they asked us to give them a hand because, as Westerners, the mining lobby were less likely to do unpleasant things to us and we were chased around these mines by the mine owners. There are parts of Rajasthan that I would NEVER go back to again, due to my experience there, but we won. We got the evidence we needed, took it to the Supreme Court in Delhi and they shut the mines down.
It is great to hear of a success story like that, because I despair when I think of the palm oil situation and the plight of the orangutans.
Well I don’t work in that field, but I would like to reiterate the fact that there is NO SUCH THING as sustainable palm oil. That is just a way of ‘green washing’ it, a bit like these timber certification schemes that are used to launder illegally felled timber.
When did vegetable oil get changed to palm oil in everything? Was it always there but we weren’t made aware of it?
Palm oil was used, but not on the scale it is now. It’s taken off because it’s cheap, it does the job, and part of the issue is international trade.
We've tried to eliminate it in our shopping choices by looking and if it says ‘contains palm oil’ putting it back on the shelf, but we just end up putting everything back.
Yeah it’s in everything. It’s crazy. It’s the growth in processed food that has caused this. Processed food is driving the destruction of vital habitats and is fuelling ill-health everywhere. This disconnect between us and our food - and between us and nature that is growing wider and wider. The idea that you can have strawberries in the winter… A) we shouldn’t be forcing nature like that, and B) it takes all the joy out of having them when they’re naturally in season.
Why do you think we allow this to go on?
I don’t fully understand it myself. We are really bad here… for instance we have all these weekend food magazines and this supposed burgeoning food culture, but the reality is… we’re not like that. Most people in this country eat crap and don’t care much about their food. In Italy, or in France, they know and they CARE about their food. We don’t here. Most people don’t know how to cook, they’re not taught how to cook. My daughter does ‘cooking’ at school. It’s not cooking – it’s assembling things! There’s nobody teaching them about where their food comes from, how food works and what it is. Until we address that, attitudes aren’t going to change. The fact is, food is too cheap.
So have you always been the kind of person that fights for a cause? How did that start?
That’s a good question. Well, I don’t like bullies. I didn’t like people fighting at school and never got involved in any violence. My mum was very active when I was young and used to take me on CND marches. She led a campaign against the lorries where I grew up, we had the miners’ strike when I was a teenager and all this had an impact on me, it was rough. My overarching passion is not necessarily for tigers or for elephants or for forests or for bees, or for any of those things. What drives me to do what I do is, I don’t like bad people doing bad things. If I can stop bad people doing bad things, then that makes me happy, and there are a lot of bad people doing a lot of bad things! That’s what drives me. We don’t win a lot, and you do wake up some mornings and think you might as well smash your head against a wall for the rest of the day, but every now and then you get a little win and it’s just FANTASTIC. I did a lot of crappy jobs when I left school. I worked in a casino for quite a long time until I just thought, enough is enough, I need to do something different. So I left and did a degree in Environmental Science at North London University and did a load of volunteering because at that time I had no relevant experience. I was very lucky to get a place in The Environmental Investigation Agency.
Is volunteering a good way to get into this kind of work? If somebody reading this wanted to get involved, what advice would you give them?
Well things have changed so much now. I’ve been doing this now for over twenty years and it was a lot easier to get a foot in the door back then. We just advertised a job and got over a hundred applications – some with fantastic qualifications. I’m no sure I would stand a chance if I were starting out now, but… my advice would be: Get a degree. It doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant, but it shows the ability to do the research, the writing etc. Much of what we do is communication - clarity and communication and strategy of thought are vital, so you do need a degree. Volunteering shows passion, that you have a passion FOR something and that you can follow it through, so go volunteering anywhere that drives you. Don’t ever think you are going to get rich doing this, you won’t! But if you are passionate about something you can put that across and people will listen to you.
I would like to add a general message to anyone reading this, because not everybody wants to work in this field, but ANYONE can make a CHANGE, from the smallest to the biggest. You can do things on a local level with your immediate community. You are not powerless! We are often made to feel we are powerless, but we are not. This is something I have found really encouraging over the last fifteen or so years – people getting together and doing it themselves, not relying on our politicians who have consistently let us down. They’re short-sighted, self-serving and incompetent for the most part and more and more people are doing it for themselves and that’s actually a very good thing. Whether it’s growing food, campaigning against pesticides in your towns, saving a local park, people are doing it. We have to do it for ourselves. The more people do it, they only make things better, it’s a good thing.
So what’s next on the agenda?
I’ll be carrying on with this – I have work to do. I want to stop the use of all pesticides in our towns and cities, parks, schools, playgrounds. That will happen soon, I promise you. We have to make sure the bees and other insects are safe. There’s a lot of work to do, but we are winning slowly. People have got to learn to love their weeds. Stop killing dandelions!
I was interested to read about London becoming a National Park City
Yes I’ve been chatting with them – this thing’s been going on for quite a while but they’re not giving up. Hopefully this will be another nail in the coffin for pesticide use in London. There are a few London boroughs which have already banned pesticide use and it looks like Camden will soon follow. This would make London the first National Park City. It’s about connecting people with their local green spaces. London is one of the greenest cities in the world, as far as green spaces is concerned, and we should be proud of that.