Alarm at flood of bogus pesticides

von Andrew Bounds and Roman Olearchyk

A new counterfeit phenomenon is putting public health in danger - a special taskforce has found traces if illegal and dangerous chemicals in pesticides in 14 European countries.


While few outside the luxury goods sector might have sleepless nights over the fake Gucci handbags that have been circulating for years, the new phenomenon of counterfeit pesticides is a different matter.

The use of fake or illegal substances to treat crops is growing at an alarming rate, according to agriculture experts, putting people's health - and farmers' livelihoods - at risk.

The European Crop Protection Association recently set up a taskforce to fight the trade, uncovering a vast business run by criminal gangs, according to Rocky Rowe, the Briton who heads it. The biggest scare to date came in late 2006, when German authorities conducting random tests found isofenphos methyl, an illegal pesticide, in peppers from southern Spain. They issued an alert and authorities in 14 European countries, including Russia, found the same problem.

Unlicensed products

Spanish police detained the president of the local co-operative on suspicion of selling the cheaper unlicensed product to farmers desperate to produce more peppers at lower cost. With further raids in December, they have arrested 15 people and seized 4,000kg of illegal pesticides among the greenhouses of Almeria, centre of Spain's huge fruit and vegetable industry.

Fresh, but are they healthy? Spanish farmers were prosecuted for spraying their peppers with banned pesticidesBut there is a big disincentive to such action, says Mr Rowe. Pepper orders have fallen by a fifth and prices almost halved. "Nobody wants to talk about it. Export markets would be shut. No one wants to engage publicly. That is a major issue," he said.

He says that 5-7 per cent of Europe's supply of crop protection products - pesticides, herbicides and fungicides - is fake, representing up to EUR500m of a EUR10bn market. Almost 90 per cent of the fakes come from China from where imports of crop protection products as a whole have almost doubled between 2000 and 2005.

Ukraine has become a crucial crossroads in this trade, he says. "We have only seen the tip of the iceberg," says Mr Rowe. "Lots of fake product from China comes through Ukraine and is then distributed throughout the European Union." About a quarter of the products used in Ukraine are fake, he estimates.

Unlicensed products

The evidence is sitting in a warehouse on a desolate airbase south of Kiev, the capital, guarded round the clock by the SBU secret police, the successor to the KGB.

It houses 500 tonnes of fake products, packaged as big brands such as Dow Chemical of the US and Bayer of Germany, that would fetch about EUR2m on the market.

The Ukraine shipment was intercepted in November 2006 after a random check by customs at Odessa. Accompanying documents led the authorities to the cache at the Uzin airbase. Tests proved the 21 containers held fake product.

The European industry, fearful that the pesticides could leak out on to the -market, is trying to pressure Kiev to dispose of it.

No response from officials

ECPA has written several times to Julia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister, offering help to destroy it. She has yet to reply.

Maryna Ostopenko, a spokeswoman for the SBU, told the Financial Times it was "investigating a criminal case of contraband chemical products of Chinese origin". She said the shipment would be "held under guard until a final ruling on the case is made and cannot be transferred for use or destruction outside of the territory of Ukraine".

Ukraine had the expertise to destroy the pesticides, she said, and fight the trade: "The SBU regularly combats the illegal import and transit of chemical industry products through the territory of Ukraine."

Industry officials, however, privately worry that Ukraine lacks lacks the capacity to destroy the pesticide and that it could find their way on to the black market.

Mr Rowe said the authorities in Brussels and elsewhere were belatedly waking up to the trade. Poland's security services recently seized two tonnes of fake product from China. Other routes include shipments over land through Turkey or direct flights into the EU.

Mr Rowe warned that while Brussels had tightened standards for genuine manufacturers, weak controls have enabled cheap, often dangerous, imports to undercut them. "It is no good regulating and regulating if you are not applying enforcement at the other end."

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kiev ... 77663.html