Young Hackney Rebels stage Town Hall die-in to protest glyphosate use

Hackney Extinction Rebellion protesters on the Town Hall step. Cllr Jon Burke (C) pictured with loudhailer; XR volunteer Alex Armitage (L) pictured in yellow jacket. Photograph: Hackney Citizen.

A group of around 100 children and parents staged a ‘die-in’ at the Town Hall to protest the council’s continued use of the weedkiller glyphosate.

The Hackney Extinction Rebellion Families group marched under the banner of “NO INSECTS, NO FUTURE” in a variety of costumes ranging from bees and butterflies to hazmat-suited weed-sprayers on stilts.

Hackney Council has reduced the use of the controversial chemical in the borough by 50 per cent since 2017, but campaigners are calling for its use to end entirely, as it did in Hammersmith and Fulham three years ago.

Sarah Bentley, a member of the Pesticide Free Hackney campaign, said: “Continued use of toxic weedkillers is incompatible with the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

“Other councils with equally tight budgets have successfully stopped using glyphosate and switched to safer alternatives, so why can’t Hackney?”

Demonstrators covered the Town Hall steps, first with chalk slogans and drawings and then with their own bodies as the die-in was staged.

The protest came as a continuation of organised Extinction Rebellion protests across the city across the year.

Photograph: Hackney Citizen.

Local parent Lara Bowen said: “I’ve always cared about the environment but I’ve never previously acted.

“Within two weeks of joining a Hackney Families Extinction Rebellion group, we have mobilised on to the streets for the first time with our families to challenge our local authority to act fast.

“I am deeply inspired and motivated by finding like-minded people to act together, combining the skills and energy of creative, professionals, the young, the old, educators, academics and every type of person in our community to drive change from the grassroots up.

“Extinction Rebellion has taught me that we can’t wait any longer for those in authority to act on our behalf. The time is now!”

According to research published this year, 40 per cent of insect species around the world are at risk of extinction.

Glyphosate itself has also sparked health concerns globally, with recent court cases resulting in biotech corporation Monsanto having to pay billions in damages after rulings found that one of its products, Roundup, caused cancer in people who were exposed to the chemical.

Glyphosate is also linked to the decline in populations of bees in recent decades.

Bees and other insects are vital for survival of many species including humans, as they act as pollinators for the plants that we eat.

Hackney Council, having declared a climate emergency in February 2019, released a statement last month explaining that it had reduced on-street spraying of glyphosate and that it was committed to a “managed reduction” in its use.

Rebels met at the demonstration with Cllr Jon Burke (Lab, Woodberry Down), cabinet member for energy, sustainability and community services, who addressed the protesters via loudspeaker as they lay at his feet on Hackney Town Hall’s steps.

Cllr Burke said that he “welcomed active citizens challenging the council on this issue”, and that he and Extinction Rebellion shared the same goal of an “overwhelmingly glyphosate-free borough”, differing only on how to retreat from its use.

Paediatric registrar Dr Alex Armitage, who volunteers for Extinction Rebellion between A&E shifts, said: “Hackney Council uses glyphosate because it’s cheaper but costs to nature do not come into the equation.

“Given the emergency situation that we’re living in, it’s fair enough for people to welcome more greenery growing in unexpected places in Hackney.

“In the rare circumstances that plants cause expensive infrastructural damage, the council can hand-weed or use a non-toxic alternative.”

Hackney has reduced its spraying of glyphosate by approximately 600 litres a year since May 2018.

Cllr Burke said: “The council has reduced its glyphosate use by removing weeds in town centres by hand instead of chemically and stopping spraying in more than 100km of high streets.

“It has also reduced the number of sprays per season from four to three; and, changing the way it’s applied – it’s now sprayed by operatives with knapsacks, rather than by operatives from vehicles.

“The European variant of glyphosate, which we use, remains declared safe and licensed for use by Defra, the Health and Safety Executive, and the EU.

“However, we are committed to eliminating the vast majority of glyphosate because, by allowing plants to remain in the public realm, we retain an important food source for pollinating insects, which promotes biodiversity.

“Some have suggested that we replace glyphosate with a biodegradable alternative. Not only is that prohibitively expensive, it would also undermine our ambitions to support insect populations and diversity by targeting plants that will remain in the public realm under our current approach.

“The latest development in our glyphosate reduction programme is the creation of a large no-spray area in the borough comprising streets, estates, and green spaces.

“This pilot, which we committed to last year, will teach us more about the challenges and benefits of withdrawing from spraying glyphosate altogether while ensuring appearance of roads and pavements still meet the high standards our residents expect.”