Sales of counterfeit pesticides rising in EU

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Fraudulent pesticides that account for up to 25% of supplies in some European countries are threatening farmers, land and produce, warns the European Union law enforcement agency Europol.

Sales of counterfeit pesticides amount to billions of euros annually and are rising globally.

Organised crime groups are “so well structured and so professional” that wholesalers are unaware they are buying counterfeit products, Søren Pederse, a spokesman for Europol, said yesterday (16 January).

US environmental and law enforcement authorities recently issued similar advisories about widespread availability in some states of untested pesticides and insecticides, saying the fraudulent products pose a potential threat to public health.

Many counterfeit pesticides sold in EU countries appear to violate safety standards and may include banned chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system that produces hormones.

The illicit pesticides “threaten the health of farmers and consumers and pose a risk to the natural environment”, The Hague-based Europol said in a statement. It said fraudulent products account for up to a quarter of pesticide sales in some states without specifying which.

But some farmers may knowingly use counterfeits because they are less expensive and more powerful, said Hans Muilerman, chemicals officer for the Brussels office of Pesticide Action Network, a global organisation that campaigns against harmful weed and insect killers.

“The enforcement is so unbelievably weak in some countries and doesn’t exist in others,” he said of the EU, “and the farmers keep going on buying it.”

In the 1980s, the European Community took coordinated steps to ban pesticides, such as DDT that were shown to be toxic to people, animals and the land. Other measures have followed, including the EU’s 2008 regulation on pesticide residues.

Possible source of illicit trade

Europol did not provide details of specific cases or investigations, but China is believed to be a prime source of illicit pesticide production. Russia is cited as a transshipment source, though the Association of European Businesses in Moscow says Russia is also a victim, with some counterfeit supplies sold there originating in western European ports.

The association reported that illicit suppliers are fraudulently using packaging and trademarks from agribusiness and chemicals companies that include Syngenta, BASF, DuPont and Dow to mask sales of fraudulent agricultural products.

Ulrich Vollmer, chairman of the Moscow business group, said in a November statement that the illegal pesticides trade “could be compared to the narcotic drugs market. It is very difficult to assess its real volumes in Russia, but experts estimate illegal market from 15% to 30% of total pesticides industry turnover.”

Police in Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain have all run targeted operations against sellers of counterfeit pesticides. Authorities in Pakistan, Vietnam and the United States recently led sting operations against the counterfeit pesticide trade.

In the 1980s, the European Community took coordinated steps to ban pesticides, such as DDT that were shown to be toxic to people, animals and the land. Other measures have followed, including the EU’s 2008 regulation on pesticide residues. 

To combat counterfeit pesticides, Europol recommends:

  • Cross-border investigations, including controlled deliveries and financial investigations.
  • Adoption of a comprehensive response to address health and environmental threats associated with illegal pesticides through increased cooperation of law enforcement, pesticide regulators, and private-sector partners.
  • A study on improving the traceability of hazardous materials used in the illegal production of pesticides.

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