A data search by the Swiss NGO “Public Eye” and the investigative department of Greenpeace UK, “Unearthed”, shows the masses in which the European Union exports pesticides that are banned on their soil. Agrochemical companies supply the dangerous products mainly to countries with weaker pesticide regulations, where the health risks are high.
Switzerland is also involved: between 2012 and 2019, it exported a total of more than 180 tons of pesticides, which are banned in Switzerland because of their danger. According to information from the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), six banned plant protection products were exported from Switzerland to around 15 countries in Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe. In both Switzerland and the EU, the Basel-based agrochemicals group Syngenta is the export king of these dangerous products.
Swiss poisons for the world
Chemical giant Syngenta also exports outdated and highly toxic products from Switzerland, which have been on the market for years (Infosperber reported). “Public Eye” refers to figures from the FOEN: These show that Syngenta exported around six tons of Gesagard from Switzerland to Georgia in 2019. A herbicide that is produced on the basis of prometry and is mainly used in carrot, celery and cotton cultivation. Prometryn has been on the market since 1962 and belongs to the same family as atrazine, which can affect the reproduction and development of fetuses. Melamine can also be produced when prometryn is broken down. A substance classified as ‘probably carcinogenic’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
In 2018, the Basel-based group distributed around 37 tons Profenofos from Switzerland to Brazil, where the insecticide is one of the most commonly detected substances in drinking water. Profenofos has been on the market since 1975. It is related to the poison gas sarin and can damage children’s brain development even in low doses during chronic exposure. Profenofos can also cause severe poisoning in farmers.
In 2017, around 125 tons of diafenthiuron were exported from Switzerland to South Africa and India. In the same year, the fabric was involved in a severe wave of poisoning by cotton farmers in the Indian state of Maharashtra. (> ‘The Scandal of Yavatmal’). Diafenthiuron has been on the market since 1990 and is considered “toxic when inhaled” according to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). In addition, it can cause organ damage if exposed to it for a long time or repeatedly.
Before 2017: few substances on the list of hazardous chemicals
By far the largest amount of banned pesticides – a total of 173 tonnes – was exported from Switzerland between 2017 and 2019. According to the Public Eye, this is due to the fact that before 2017 only a few banned pesticides were on the list of particularly hazardous chemicals (PIC Regulation). If pesticides are on this list, their export is subject to a notification obligation.
In 2017, the PIC list was expanded to include 87 pesticides banned in Swiss agriculture, including Profenofos, Diafenthiuron and Prometryn. As “Public Eye” writes, these substances may have been exported earlier. However, as they were not subject to an export notification obligation before 2017, they do not appear in the FOEN documents.
Until and with 2016, almost all exports of banned pesticides would have affected only two substances: atrazine, a hormone-active substance that pollutes drinking water sources, and paraquat, one of the world’s most acutely toxic pesticides. In most cases, very small quantities were exported for field tests. But there were also exceptions: 12 tonnes of paraquat were delivered to Cameroon in 2012 and one and a half tonnes of atrazine were exported to Georgia in 2014. Syngenta produces the majority of paraquat in the UK and China, and atrazine is produced in the USA and France.
Motion written off untreated
In December 2017, a motion was submitted to the National Council for a ban on the export of pesticides banned in Switzerland. After the two-year deadline expired, the motion was written off untreated. At the time, the Federal Council considered the export ban to be “disproportionate”, sent the draft amendment to the regulation to the consultation in 2019 and proposed that the export of certain pesticides banned in Switzerland should in future be subject to the consent of the importing state.
Last November, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxic Substances, Baskut Tuncak, described this proposal as ‘totally inadequate’. It is “highly unlikely” that this would “reduce or eliminate exposure to dangerous pesticides.” Instead, he called on Switzerland to completely ban the export of banned pesticides. It is “difficult to imagine” that dangerous pesticides banned in Switzerland “can be used absolutely safely in target countries with weaker state structures.”
Currently, the FOEN is carrying out “further clarifications” because the export licence is rejected by both non-governmental organisations and “affected business circles”.
EU as a hub
For months, “Public Eye” and “Unearthed” researched the EU’s role in the production and export of dangerous pesticides. Since the manufacturers could not look into the cards, “Public Eye” and “Unearthed” submitted applications to the European Chemicals Agency and to national authorities, citing the Public Information Act. For the first time, the results of the research shed light on the extent of exports of agricultural pesticides, which are banned in their European countries of origin.
In 2018, EU countries have authorised the export of 81,615 tonnes of pesticides containing ingredients that are banned to protect people or the environment within the EU. More than 90 percent of these exports come from the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium and Spain.
Three quarters of the 85 countries targeting toxic pesticides “Made in Europe” are developing and emerging countries where the use of such substances is associated with high risks. Major importers include Brazil, Ukraine, Morocco, Mexico and South Africa.
EU: Basel Syngenta is a lone leader
In 2018, around 30 companies exported substances from the EU that are banned in their production countries. These include Bayer and BASF. But Basel-based Syngenta is also the number one exporter in the EU.
In 2018, the Basel-based group reported almost three times more exports than its next largest competitor, the US seed and agrochemicals group Corteva. Syngenta has numerous production facilities in Europe, including the UK and France, from where the group exports controversial substances such as paraquat and atrazine.
The herbicide paraquat accounts for more than a third of the total export volume – although it has already been banned in more than 50 countries.
Rich countries must plug loopholes
More recently, 36 UN human rights experts appealed to the EU and called for a halt to the “pathetic practice” regarding the export of products banned in countries of origin. Rich countries would have to plug the loopholes that allow the export of banned substances to countries where the risks could not be controlled. Exports in the target countries have led to “violations of the right to life and human dignity,” the experts wrote in a joint statement. This is matched by an estimate by the UN: more than 200,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of pesticide poisoning.
But instead of stopping exports, the EU authorises even higher export volumes every year. According to research by Public Eye and Unearthed, the authorities approved the export of an additional 8000 tons of pesticide products in 2019, which contain a total of nine recently banned active substances.
In France, a ban on such exports will come into force in 2022. However, it was only after the pesticide producers had vigorously opposed the ban and a corresponding action had been dismissed by the Constitutional Court that the restriction of the freedom to do so was justified in view of the “potential damage to human health and the environment”.