EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides recently proposed a major Sustainable Use of Pesticides law (SUR), calling for the use of pesticides as the “last resort” measure. The bill aims to set new binding pesticides targets for member states to cut their use within the EU by 50%.
Limiting the tools of European farmers at a time when global food systems are struggling to cope with the consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine, is inhumane to say the least. It will not be long before we see another spike in illicit trade of pesticides.
Banning or overregulating products that consumers, or farmers (in the case of pesticides) need and want to use, especially during this challenging time in world history, does more harm than good
Pesticides are some of the most regulated products both in the EU and globally. If illegal pesticide producers were a single company they would be the 4th largest in the world in terms of value. In 2018, the EU Intellectual Property Office stated that €1.3 billion is lost every year due to fake pesticides. This translates to €299 million and 500 jobs lost per year in Germany, €240 million and 500 jobs each year lost in France, and €185 million and 270 jobs lost annually in Italy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated this trend in agriculture too, among other areas, such as alcohol. The more regulated the product is, the higher chances are that criminal networks will exploit the regulation to their benefit. For European consumers, illicit trade means trading product safety for more access to restricted goods. As the demand for illicit products such as alcohol, pesticides, and tobacco, to name a few, shifts to the black market, it seems that access is more important than safety.
Over the period 2011- 2018, the sales of pesticides remained stable at around 360 million kilograms per year in the EU. In France, for example, despite the government’s ambition to drive down the use of pesticides, demand for pesticides have risen considerably in the past years. In Poland, the sale of pesticides in 2016 increased by 12.3% compared to 2011. What this shows is that overregulating pesticides only boosts illicit trade.
A quick look at the role of pesticides in farming explains why demand for them persists. Pesticides are instrumental in helping farmers prevent and/or manage pests such as weeds, insects, and plant pathogens. Substantial increases in yields recorded over the past 80 years can be mainly attributed to the use of pesticides.
When it comes to the illicit trade in any product, not just pesticides, increasing the customs control and penalty for counterfeiting activities seems like a straightforward solution. Neither of these can fully fix the issue which, however, does not undermine their significance as a tool to tackle illicit trade. Very few illicit trade crimes are taken to courts. For example, in Slovenia, 27.1 tons of illegal pesticides have been detected and seized since 2003, and yet not a single court case was initiated. In Belgium and Italy, the situation is not any better. The justice system should take illicit trade more seriously.
Along with increasing the punishment for illicit trade, it is also necessary to re-evaluate the vices of prohibition as a policy. Banning or overregulating products that consumers, or farmers (in the case of pesticides) need and want to use, especially during this challenging time in world history, does more harm than good. The EU’s approach to pesticides should be less rushed and more forward-looking.