When customs officers seized 21t of counterfeit and illicit pesticides in Poland earlier this summer, it marked the end of the road for an illegal shipment smuggled more than 9,000 nautical miles from China.
The raid was the result of a joint operation between the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf), Polish customs officials and legitimate right-holders – global agrochemical companies whose products are increasingly counterfeited.
Polish authorities intercepted the shipment at the border checkpoint in Dorohusk. Inside the trucks, they found 10.5t of unauthorised pesticides and 10.5t of insecticide in cans without labels, but packed in boxes bearing well-known brand names.
Battle front lines
Europe’s eastern border with the Ukraine and Russia is the front line in the battle against counterfeit pesticides. It is an illegal trade that generates vast profits and huge losses of tax revenue across the continent – including illicit profits generated in the UK.
Law enforcement agencies are taking a growing interest in the trade – not least because their lack of traceability means illegal and counterfeit pesticides are especially at risk of being used by terrorists as precursors for home-made explosives.
“These are bad people,” says Chris Sambrook, a criminologist with Thames Valley Police. “The people who are doing this are the same people who are illegally importing drugs.”
The cost is more than financial. Subsequent analysis by the Polish state plant health and seed inspection service showed the counterfeit products seized in Poland contained unregistered or illegal active ingredients potentially dangerous to health.
“The smuggling of counterfeit pesticides poses a threat to the food chain, to farmers and, ultimately, to consumers because it allows dangerous products to reach the market,” says Olaf director-general Giovanni Kessler.
Counterfeit pesticides pose an increasing threat to UK agriculture, agree crime experts. Our arable sector is seen as easy pickings by the international criminal gangs involved in illegally traded agrochemicals.
With illegal pesticides found in increasing amounts across the UK and Europe, a Thames Valley Police investigation is probing their distribution and use.
Growers who are unwittingly supplied with counterfeit pesticides – and anyone using them deliberately – are risking their livelihoods as well as lining the pockets of criminal gangs, says Mr Sambrook.
Replacement product ‘smelled suspicious’
Agrochemical firms move fast when they learn illegal pesticides may have reached the market.
When an arable farmer became suspicious about the authenticity of a replacement crop protection product sold to him by his buying group, Makhteshim-Agan (Mauk) launched its own investigation.
The product claimed to be a parallel product to Mauk’s Falcon (propaquizafop). But the grower noticed an unusual, solvent-like smell when opening the packaging, which made him suspect the contents were not Mauk’s genuine pesticide.
The product was sent for laboratory analysis and reported to the UK authorities. The stringent requirements met by agrochemical companies were being put at risk by criminals who produce, import and trade in illegal products, Mauk warned.
Illegal products are often of dubious origin, poorly formulated or manufactured, sometimes incorrectly labelled, and containing little or no active ingredient or even banned substances, says Mauk, which has since renamed Adama UK.
“You don’t know what the effects are going to be on your health, your crops or your land. And if you get caught, you can forget all your farm assurance-type schemes and any premium payments – they’re all going to go.
“The farmer is never going to make a profit by buying this stuff. You can save a few pennies here and there, but usually the prices are not that much lower. They’re low enough for you to be tempted, but they’re not so low that it raises suspicion.”
Despite the risks, the potential profits are so high that European Union law enforcement agency Europol recently estimated that global revenues associated with the trade in counterfeit and other illegal pesticides are worth more than €4.4bn (£3.5bn) annually.
But the exact size of the market remains unknown. As with any illegal activity, it is difficult to determine the size of the problem – and by its nature, the trade in counterfeit pesticide products is often hard to detect.
Trade in illegal pesticides in Europe is said to represent more than 10% of the total worldwide market, with more than 25% of the pesticides in circulation in some EU member states said by Europol to be illicit or counterfeit.
In the UK, the proportion is believed to be much smaller – but still significant. “Some industry experts have put the figure at up to 10%, but I would probably say about 2%.That’s probably worth between £9m and £10m.”
The modern-day organised criminal is hugely entrepreneurial, says Mr Sambrook. “They will have the contacts to exploit opportunities far quicker than a legitimate agrochemical company could ever do.”
An agrochemical company that plays by the rules often needs months to ratchet up pesticide production. But a counterfeiter can get a product to market within days.
This is one of the reasons why Syngenta is sponsoring Mr Sambrook to undertake a PhD at Harper Adams University. Identifying the risk factors associated with illegal pesticides will help the industry fight back against the trade, believes the company.
“We have seen an increased tendency for illegal products posing as legitimate parallels to arrive in the UK,” says Thierry Yvon, Syngenta’s head of investigation and product security. “This is a problem that should be seriously considered not only by growers, but also by the relevant authorities.”
Mr Sambrook says: “We are trying to help protect a valuable and important industry by considering why we have escaped the worst of the problem up until now and then learn lessons from this as to how we can then protect ourselves in the future.”
For now, though, the chances of a rogue trader being caught remain low. Pesticides are valuable commodities in small neat containers that are easily transportable. And it can be difficult to tell a counterfeit pesticide from the genuine product.
“Sometimes, it can be a matter of hours from an agronomist recommending a product and the grower applying it to a crop. And once you’ve disposed of the containers, you’ve destroyed the evidence from a policing point of view.”
This lack of evidence makes it almost impossible to prove an offence occurred – and is another reason that criminals counterfeit pesticides. “Even though the market appears to be relatively small, we are extraordinarily vulnerable,” says Mr Sambrook.
“If a crop fails, there is usually no way of proving it was down to a particular product because there are so many other variables at play from an agricultural point of view that are likely to affect crop yield.”
So how do counterfeit pesticides get into the country? Remarkably easily, it seems, as counterfeiters take advantage of rules which allow legitimate “parallel” pesticide products to be imported into the UK, even when in unfamiliar packaging.
Law-abiding agrochemical companies go to great lengths to ensure their products are genuine. But while the trade in parallel products is legitimate, it also provides a loophole that criminal gangs are only too keen to exploit.
Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the Crop Protection Association, says: “We are concerned about the potential for abuse of legitimate parallel trade permits to place illegal pesticides on the UK market. Under the current system repackaging is allowed.”
Once the original package is opened and the manufacturer’s seal is broken, it is hard to verify that the product inside is genuine. “While legitimate parallel importers may repack for good reasons, this provides a loophole that unscrupulous dealers can exploit.”
In some cases it can be increasingly difficult to tell what is an original product and what is not.
The best way to ensure a product is genuine is to deal with a reputable supplier, says independent agronomist Sean Sparling. “Counterfeit pesticides could contain anything – you’ve no idea what you’re buying. It isn’t worth the risk.
“If someone is touting illegal chemicals on farms, the best thing to do is walk away and report them,” says Mr Sparling. “They do the industry no good, they do the grower no good and ultimately they do your crops no good either.”
Watch Out! for illegal pesticides
Simple precautions can help minimise the risks of buying and using illegal pesticides – highlighted by a year-long nationwide campaign.
The Watch Out! for illegal pesticides campaign is supported by the Voluntary Initiative and Red Tractor Assurance, with funding from the Crop Protection Association, NFU and Agricultural Industries Confederation.
Voluntary Initiative chairman and Wiltshire grower Richard Butler says: “Responsible pesticide use starts with using an approved product – and following the information on the label and the advice of a Basis-registered agronomist.”
Farmers, operators and agronomists are being urged to help guard against illegal and counterfeit pesticides. They are advised to:
- Buy only known and reputable pesticides from known and reputable suppliers
- Check that packaging is professional, tamper-proof and securely sealed and it has a full label written in English
- Check the product on the invoice and delivery note matches the product ordered and delivered
- Check that the product looks as expected
- Ensure “parallel import” products are genuine – ask for confirmation of the company that made the product and the country it came from
- Report suspicious products and suppliers to the Defra helpline – 08459 335 577 (calls charged at a local rate).
Mr Butler says: “It is sad that farmers now have to be aware of the danger posed by unscrupulous professional counterfeiters who want to undermine the professionalism and competence of UK farmers and sprayer operators.”