Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Syngenta’s hazardous pesticides are oh so profitable

Emily Marquez's picture
Spraying pesticides soy

A report released in May from a PAN International Swiss partner organization called Public Eye analyzed the sales of highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) globally, with a focus on sales by the agrichemical corporation Syngenta. The findings? Syngenta (and other pesticide companies) are making a lot of money selling dangerous pesticides, and low to middle income countries (LMICs) are bearing the brunt of the hazards.

Aren’t all pesticides highly hazardous?

Using proprietary data on global pesticide sales from a private market research firm, Public Eye analyzed data from 2017, and used the 2019 PAN International HHP list to analyze the data. The HHP list added additional context to the report, as it uses a number of government or international bodies’ classifications to determine whether a pesticide is regarded as highly hazardous.

For example, the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Union, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all have criteria for pesticides’ various toxicities, such as carcinogenicity and endocrine disruption, both of which PAN chose as the benchmarks for whether a pesticide falls into the highly hazardous category.

Top HHPs sales — making money globally

Public Eye’s analysis of global pesticide industry sales indicated that 12 of the 20 most widely sold pesticides were on PAN’s HHP list. These accounted for USD 13.6 billion in sales, representing over 60% of global HHP use.

The most widely sold pesticide globally was glyphosate, at a value of USD 5.1 billion, comprising about 10% of the entire global pesticide market. This herbicide is on the PAN Int HHP list because it was classified in 2015 by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen.

Good for the EU . . . but what about the rest of the world?

Additionally, the report found that low to middle income countries (LMICs) represent 60% of the global market in HHP sales, which was USD 13.2 billion in 2017. LMICs often have weaker regulations than higher income countries, and that translates to an environmental justice issue.

Public Eye highlighted that “three quarters of the pesticides classified by PAN as highly hazardous are not authorized for use in Switzerland or the European Union.” This double standard of hazardous pesticides banned in some countries being exported to others was one of the reasons PAN North America was founded 35 years ago.

Brazilian pesticide problems

The report explored this phenomenon with Brazil in particular. Brazil has become the world’s second largest supplier of food and agricultural products, exporting soybeans, beef, chicken, orange juice, coffee, sugarcane, ethanol and tobacco.

Thirty percent of registered pesticides in Brazil are not authorized in Switzerland and the EU, and with this huge scaling up of agricultural production occurring mostly over the past 20 years, pesticide use in Brazil has risen to nine times higher in 2017 compared to its pesticide use in 1990.

There’s another piece to this double standard about banned pesticides, and that is that high-income countries import agricultural products and other products that have been produced with these banned pesticides.

The report also looked at Brazil’s water monitoring for pesticides, and what contaminants have been found in the analyses that have been done. The findings weren’t great. According to Public Eye, “millions of Brazilians are exposed to a cocktail of pesticides in their drinking water.” One of those pesticides is endocrine disrupting atrazine, detected in 4 out of 5 water samples.

Atrazine is a top selling pesticide for Syngenta, and also is an HHP on the PAN International list.

Global consequences, no oversight

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has an International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management. However, civil society organizations have been saying for years that the Code of Conduct is “constantly violated by the pesticide industry, with no repercussions.”

The report has one recommendation for Syngenta  — that they stop the sale and manufacture of HHPs — which is not likely to happen.

For the Swiss government, Public Eye recommended putting an end to the export of banned pesticides, and requiring certain human rights and environmental due diligence of all Swiss companies.

The group’s final recommendation was that the Swiss government support a binding international treaty to regulate HHPs. Such a treaty will probably take over 10 years to create, even if everyone is on board to do it. But given what the report has revealed, it’s well past time to start the process.

Emily Marquez
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Emily Marquez is PAN's Staff Scientist. She is a biologist with a background in endocrine disruption and environmental toxicology in reptiles. In addition to supporting scientific research for PAN’s campaigns, Emily trains community members in using PAN’s Drift Catcher to monitor for pesticide drift. Follow @EmilyAtPan