The multi-million dollar market in fake crop protection products is spreading across Europe, putting UK farmers at risk of unwittingly using ineffective pesticides, agrochemical company DuPont, has warned.

Criminal gangs are increasingly targeting crop protection products, believing the industry to be a soft target, according to DuPont’s European anti-illegal activity product manager Tom McHale.

Unfortunately for growers, spotting fake products was pretty difficult, he said. “It looks like the genuine article – you’re talking about very small differences in packaging. The first a grower will know is when the crop dies.”

That was because the contents bore no resemblance to the genuine product in most cases, he said. “Fakes have either very poor quality active ingredient, sometimes at a very much reduced rate, or even none at all.”

DuPont estimates suggested six per cent of the global pesticide market could be affected, amounting to $530m (300m) in Europe, the Middle-East and Africa. In the Ukraine alone the estimated value of the market is 20m (13.5m), Dr McHale said.

But it was not just a problem in Eastern European countries. Examples of damage caused from growers using counterfeit materials, particularly fake sulfonylurea herbicides, had been seen in France, Italy and Spain in recent years, he said.

So far, DuPont wasn’t aware of any specific problems with their products in the UK, he admitted.

But the UK’s rules on parallel trade imports could potentially be a route in for illegal products, DuPont managing director Roger Doig said. “We’re worried we could see some illegal imports under the umbrella of parallel imports. The controls in place are almost non-existent, and we see people abusing that.”

Parallel imports were perfectly legal, Dr McHale noted. But criminals could potentially use a loophole where importers could repackage material in new containers as a method of getting counterfeiting pesticides onto the market. “The issue is don’t allow re-packing [as happens in France], don’t allow that potential weakness.”

To combat the threat across Europe DuPont had added a security marker to protect its sulfonylurea products in high risk countries.

The firm had also put into place laboratories to analyse suspicious materials.