Illegal pesticides: A growing concern that needs attention

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Counterfeit pesticides are currently slipping through the regulatory net and need to be addressed, argues Phil Newton, senior communications manager at the European Crop Protection Association, in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

The following commentary was authored exclusively for EURACTIV by Phil Newton, senior communications manager at the European Crop Protection Association.

"If someone mentions counterfeit goods, what comes to mind? Certainly fake currency, fashion bags, sunglasses, DVDs and T-shirts. But fake pesticides? Not usually and not until recently.  As a result, EU and national legal frameworks are behind the trend and not coping very well.

Advances in manufacturing technology, the relaxation of trade laws and customs inspection loopholes are facilitating the production and trafficking of these potentially dangerous products. Illegal herbicides, insecticides or fungicides are now being manufactured clandestinely and distributed globally by organised crime for big returns: over a billion euros annually is estimated in Europe alone.

Unlike registered products, which undergo rigorous independent testing before being placed on the market, illegal pesticides are neither tested nor suitable for use. Nothing guarantees that a counterfeit product contains what is described on the label; a reality that can have damaging consequences for crops and human health. They pose threats to farmers through crop and reputation destruction, as well as dangerous exposure during application. 

Residues may be carried on food to consumers. These products do not have a responsible company to stand behind them and are therefore not designed to provide the highest level of human health and environmental protection. This is why the global trade in illegal pesticides is of growing concern for customs, enforcement authorities, farmers, the food chain and the crop protection industry.

A case study

The province of Almeria, in southern Spain, has lived through the consequences first hand.  Almeria is one of Europe's main producing regions for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables.  Agriculture generates 30% of the region's income and employs 150,000 people. Almeria's reputation is golden and must be carefully guarded. 

In 2007 an unauthorised pesticide was detected in pepper shipments from Almeria exported throughout Europe. This caused major economic damage to Almeria's agricultural sector: European retailers reduced purchases from the region and pepper exports declined by 19% over the first six months of 2007.

Three years later, after a major investigation, clean-up and strict enforcement, growers are proud to say that illegal pesticide use belongs to the past. Fruit producers from the region are sending a very clear message that they wouldn't have a second chance. Indeed, the entire sector is at stake, including farmers' incomes and the reputation of their fruit and vegetable production.

Almeria's example proves that reducing the traffic in illegal pesticides is possible. Likewise, their experience has meant that agricultural regions throughout Europe are beginning to take this problem very seriously. Farmers, cooperatives and trade associations emphasise that collaboration and a well-designed legal framework are the keys to the success.

The distribution network

In 2009, seizures of counterfeit herbicides were conducted at Budapest airport and on the road elsewhere in Hungary. Investigation determined that much of the material was imported through Hamburg, Germany and was bound for customs clearance at a small customs post near the Ukraine border. Indifferent to the threat to human life, the counterfeiters had shipped counterfeit pesticides with an explosive flashpoint of only 24 degrees by aircraft, endangering crews and the public.

Collaboration with the Hamburg authorities has revealed that tonnes of similar 'material' passed through this port in 2009. The evidence suggests that the illegal pesticides are manufactured in China, enter through Hamburg and other ports, are collected at a central warehouse in Eastern Europe for repackaging, labelling and distribution throughout Western Europe.

The enterprise is conducted as an organised crime in the same pattern as the illicit drug trade. Enforcement agencies are continuing to identify diverse supply routes and are working hard to shut down the trade, but they are hampered by a lack of applicable and effective legislation.

Legal considerations

In Europe, pesticides are strictly regulated to ensure the highest standards of health and environmental protection. However, to be effective these tough regulations need to be monitored, applied effectively and enforced. Illegal pesticides are entering with the help of weaknesses in the legal framework governing customs and shipping.  

As a result, the illegal pesticide traffic is largely beyond the reach of existing legislation. This is, in part, because anti-counterfeiting measures are mainly focused on intellectual property infringement, which may be good for handbags but not for chemicals. It is of critical importance to develop a broader legislative approach to encompass illegal chemicals, ensuring not only the highest level of human health and environmental protection but also swift seizure, investigation and prosecution.

Customs, regulatory and enforcement agencies also need an effective platform to facilitate the sharing of intelligence, experience and best practices across the EU. All the relevant players from industry, regulatory, customs and enforcement agencies need to be brought together to determine the best ways solve the problem. In turn, governments must be prepared to listen and to act.

Finally, shipping companies who knowingly or negligently work with counterfeiters and other illegal product sources in delivering these materials to Europe must take steps to stop the practice.

Spain has shown how unified action among growers, distributors, industry, customs and enforcement agencies working within a facilitative legal framework can stop the problem.  It's time for this example to become the norm across Europe."

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