The world’s biggest pesticide companies make billions of dollars a year from chemicals found by independent authorities to pose high hazards to human health or the environment, according to an analysis by campaigners.
The research also found a higher proportion of these highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) in the companies’ sales in poorer nations than in rich ones. In India, 59% of sales were of HHPs in contrast to just 11% in the UK, according to the analysis.
The data from Phillips McDougall, the leading agribusiness analysts, are from buyer surveys focused on the most popular products in the 43 nations that buy the most pesticides. It was obtained and analysed by Unearthed, a journalism group funded by Greenpeace UK, and the Swiss NGO Public Eye.
The pesticides market is dominated by five companies – Bayer, BASF, Syngenta, FMC and Corteva (formerly Dow and DuPont). These companies sold $4.8bn of products containing HHPs in 2018, making up more than 36% of all their income, according to the analysis. Bayer said the analysis was “misleading” but declined to provide its own figures. Some companies also disputed the list of HHPs used.
The Unearthed and Public Eye analysis calculated that almost a quarter of sales by the big five were of products containing pesticides linked to human health effects, including known or presumed carcinogens, while 10% came from pesticides toxic to bees. Another 4% of sales were of chemicals that are acutely toxic to humans, the analysis found. About 200,000 suicides each year are attributed to pesticide poisoning, almost all in developing countries.
In rich countries, the average proportion of sales that were HHPs was 27% compared with 45% in low and middle income countries, reaching as high as 65% in South Africa, according to the analysis.
A global survey of pesticide management in 2018 by the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found “various critical shortcomings”, with countries needing to strengthen their rules and enforcement to “minimise their harmful effects on humans and the environment”.
Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and human rights, said: “It is inappropriate for companies to earn such significant income from HHPs in this day and age. The continued use of these products is unsustainable and is causing a multitude of human rights violations around the world.”
A report in 2017 co-authored by Tuncak accused pesticide companies of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and lobbying of governments, which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”. It also said the idea that pesticides were essential to feed a fast-growing global population was “a myth”.
Unearthed used a list of 330 HHPs compiled by Pesticide Action Network International (PAN), based on judgments from authorities such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, European Union bodies, the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
The FAO and WHO classify some but not all of these pesticides as HHPs on their list and a spokesman for BASF said the PAN list was “inflated”. Keith Tyrell, director of PAN UK, said: “Efforts to strengthen the UN’s approach are consistently blocked by the pesticide industry.”
Croplife International, the pesticide industry’s lobby group, has accepted that 15% of the chemicals its members sell are HHPs, but said many of these can be used safely in practice.
“Our members support the [voluntary] FAO International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management,” said a CropLife International spokeswoman. “We support countries to identify, and if necessary, remove HHPs from their markets.” Neither CropLife International nor the five companies responded to a request for an example of the voluntary removal of an HHP.
“Pesticides identified on the PAN list are often classified based on the acute toxicity of the active ingredient rather than the formulated product, which is not consistent with practical use,” said the CropLife International spokeswoman.
Tyrell said: “Pesticide companies refuse to publish information on the ingredients contained in their products so the UN and others, including PAN, are forced to look solely at the toxicity of the active ingredient.”
Bayer also disputes PAN’s list. For example, PAN includes Bayer’s glyphosate on its list based on the 2015 conclusion of the IARC that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. But Bayer says glyphosate should not be on the list, based on the conclusions of other bodies, such as the European Chemical Agency in 2017.
A spokesman for Bayer said the differing sales from nation to nation reflected the different needs of farmers: “Agriculture is very different from region to region due to different climates, pests, diseases and crops. In Brazil, for example, farmers must manage pests such as Asian Soybean Rust or insect pressure which don’t exist in Europe.”
He also disputed the financial analysis by Unearthed and Public Eye: “Bayer finalised the acquisition of Monsanto on 7 June 2018. Before, Bayer had divested parts of its businesses to competitors. Their calculations are therefore misleading.” Asked to provide alternative figures, he said: “Bayer doesn’t break down its sales figures by country, product or active ingredient. These figures are confidential.” Unearthed said its analysis follows standard practice for the financial analysis of merged companies.
A spokeswoman for BASF said: “BASF is convinced of the safety of its products when they are used correctly following the label instructions and stewardship guidelines. All products are extensively tested, evaluated and approved by public authorities in the respective countries. Additionally, all active ingredients in these products are approved in at least one OECD country.”
Tuncak said: “Systemic issues in many low- and middle-income countries prevent any reasonable assurance of proper handling and use of pesticides.”
Juman Kubba, at Greenpeace UK, said: “Keeping the world hooked on an industrial farming model based on crops drenched in toxic pesticides is in these companies’ interests. But these dangerous chemicals have no place in a healthy food system and governments must ban them worldwide.”
FMC referred the Guardian to the response from CropLife International and Syngenta and Corteva did not respond to requests for comment.