When is a good deal not such a good deal?
Some arable growers could be forgiven for asking themselves that question last spring after buying, albeit in good faith, some cheap pesticide products.
The problem was the “good deal” turned out to be illegal pesticide, which in some cases jammed up sprayer nozzles, and potentially lost far more in yield than could be saved on input costs.
And worse, perhaps, it could have resulted in a whole farm’s produce for that year being classified as non-assured.
“There is no compromise,” warned Tony Pexton, chairman of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme.
“If you are caught using illegal pesticides you cannot get assured.
It is as simple as that.”
That said, it is a threat that doesn’t appear to have been carried out yet, probably not least because it is as difficult for the certification bodies to spot some illegal products as it is for the farmer.
The first sign of trouble may not come until the product doesn’t perform as expected, BASF marketing manager Jochen Boeringer told FW.
“While farmers would be enticed by the prospect of buying cheap product, the potential difference in performance between illegal and legal products is alarming,” Mr Boeringer warned.
Yield penalties of 0.8t/ha had been recorded in BASF trials comparing an illegal product containing epoxiconazole and the approved brand Opus.
Essentially it meant you could be given the illegal epoxiconazole for free and still be seriously out of pocket, the BASF trial found.
“With those sorts of results the damage done to a farmer’s business could be huge,” Mr Boeringer concluded.
But pinpointing the exact scale of the problem is far from easy.
Figures generated by the European Crop Protection Association put the impact on the European market at between €375-€550m, or 5-7% of the total market.
In the UK the size of the problem is even less well known although the amounts of product involved can be substantial, the Pesticide Safety Directorate admitted.
“In the past few months we have seized thousands of tonnes of suspect material,” the PSD told Farmers Weekly.
“The evidence points to imports of significant quantities of product with a potential market value of hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
And most of the major pesticide manufacturers believe the problem is increasing.
“Five years ago we were not aware of any significant traffic in any of our products,” DuPont’s anti-illegal activity product manager Tom McHale says.
“But since 2001/2, we’ve seen more problems.”
Within the UK, the PSD said evidence pointed towards a small number of well-organised and persistent offenders.
“The products targeted vary but are more likely to be older chemicals, which farmers are familiar with, but have had recent restrictions.
An important feature is they are usually for common pest and disease problems with a high demand and high potential profits.”
Some of the products are obtained from bulk wholesalers in the EU, while others are manufactured for illegal sale and supply in the EU from active substances brought in, quite legally, from China and India, the PSD believed.
But while some of the trade might be legal, the leading manufacturers are still concerned over the import of material from the Far East, not least over possible breaches of UK patents.
That was highlighted by the flurry of legal activity at last November’s BCPC International Congress in Glasgow, where lawyers acting for BASF and two other big agrochemical companies served 37 injunctions on 19 separate Chinese companies.
The firms had to remove material advertising products that breached UK patent rights, at the event, Mr Boeringer said.
Once inside the UK the products are targeted at farmers through a number of different routes.
“In some cases it could be through internet sales, e.g. via generic resale websites or specialist websites, which offer an easy route for direct sales to farmers or other users,” the PSD has warned.
“The ease and lack of traceability of setting up a website is particularly attractive route for some dealers,” directorate officials said.
Farmers have also been targeted via text messages offering apparently legitimate product for sale while, probably most worryingly for farmers is that some product purporting to be genuine, approved pesticides may come via otherwise reliable distributors, who have unknowingly purchased the material.
But growers buying product through the normal distribution network should be at low risk, Dr McHale believes.
“The firms in it are credible long-term operators.”
Buying from an Agricultural Industries Confederation distributor member would be a good first step, the confederation’s Hazel Doonan suggests.
“We strive to ensure products are what they should be, and are stored and transported correctly.”
“Growers should also demand genuine crop protection products from their supplier, and check its colour, for sediment, and its readiness of use,” said Mr Boeringer.
All products for sale in the UK should be labelled in English, PSD noted.
A product’s approval can be checked using the MAPP number on the label via the PSD website.
But it is where growers are offered products at a price too good to be true, where they should be particularly wary, Dr McHale says.
“If it too good to be true, you probably know you’re not getting what you think.”
And that could be putting not just profits, but also health and safety, the environment and the general public in danger.
“It won’t have been tested, as the original will have been, and really should be considered unsafe,” he concluded.