26.02.2020 |

Pesticide giants making billions from highly hazardous products, report

A worker sprays pesticides (Photo: CC0)

The world’s biggest pesticide manufacturers earn more than a third of their income from selling products that pose serious hazards to human health, the environment and bees, new research shows. Most of these sales are made in low- and middle-income countries and often with substances which have long been banned in Europe. This was revealed by a joint investigation conducted by Public Eye, a non-governmental organisation based in Switzerland, and “Unearthed”, the investigative unit of Greenpeace UK. It is based on a huge dataset from the leading agribusiness analyst company Phillips McDougall and focuses on pesticide sales of the world’s biggest agrochemical giants BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, FMC and Syngenta. They control 65% of the global pesticide market, estimated at 57.6 billion US dollars in 2018. The data covers $23.3bn in pesticide sales of the top-selling products in the most important markets. Since the data only amounts to 40% of the global pesticide market, the NGOs describe their estimates as “highly conservative”. The organisations analysed the data using the highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) list compiled by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International, which is based on assessments performed by regulators.

The results of the analysis show that in 2018, the five agrochemical giants made 13.4 billion dollars in sales with their leading products in the world’s highest-spending pesticide markets. More than a third (35%) of these sales or $4.8bn involved pesticides classified by regulators as “highly hazardous” to people, animals or ecosystems. The companies made around half of their highly hazardous pesticide sales in low- and middle-income countries like Brazil and India. In 2018, the five companies made almost $3bn (22% of sales) from chemicals found by regulators to pose chronic health hazards. Pesticides classified as probable human carcinogens alone constituted 13% of the five CropLife members’ sales that year. Among the top sellers were BASF’s weedkiller glufosinate and Corteva’s fungicide cyproconazole, both classed by EU regulators as damaging to fertility, sexual function or the unborn child.

In addition, the five firms made 4% or 600 million US dollars of sales from pesticides classified as highly toxic. Such substances cause 25 million severe farmer poisonings each year, resulting in 220,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries. These estimates date back to 1990, but according to experts, the situation might now be even worse due to the massive increase in pesticide use in developing countries over the past 30 years. Syngenta is responsible for two-thirds of the sales in this category. Its top seller is an insecticide marketed as lambda-cyhalothrin, which is still permitted in the EU, but it is classified as “fatal if inhaled” by the European chemical agency (ECHA). Second comes Syngenta’s paraquat, a herbicide so toxic that even small amounts can be fatal and which has long been banned in Europe.

The investigation also found that the five companies made 10% of their leading products income ($1.3bn) from chemicals classed as highly toxic to bees. These include neonicotinoids which are adversely affecting bees and other pollinators on a large scale. According to Baskut Tuncak, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights, the threat neonicotinoid pesticides “present to our food security and our biodiversity is a human rights concern, in and of itself”. Syngenta accounted for almost half of CropLife’s bee-toxic pesticide sales. The neonicotinoid thiamethoxam was Syngenta’s best-selling HHP in 2018, while imidacloprid was in Bayer’s top-selling list. Brazil was their main market for these chemicals which in 2018 were permanently banned from outdoor use in the EU. Unearthed and Public Eye identified a further 37 chemicals sold by the CropLife companies that are classed as highly toxic to bees. “This practice of the agrochemical giants is irresponsible and contradicts their public commitment to a more sustainable agricultural model,” said Tuncak.

The companies made the majority of its highly hazardous pesticide sales in low- and middle-income countries like Brazil and India, where experts say the risks posed by using these chemicals are greatest. “We are in the midst of an invisible explosion of pesticide use in low-and middle-income countries that are ill-equipped to manage such hazards,” Tuncak commented. “Governments do not have enough capacity to monitor conditions on countless farms and plantations, analyse food and environmental samples, track the health of seasonal and migrant workers, investigate allegations of gross misconduct on farms and plantations, or verify the integrity of the information being provided by industry-funded scientists.” The two NGOs are calling for an international legally binding treaty to phase out highly hazardous pesticides and replace them with safer alternatives. Given the refusal of the pesticide manufacturers to act voluntarily, countries in which these companies are based should enact strict measures to guarantee that the companies respect human rights and the environment in all the countries where they operate. (ab)

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