Illegal pesticides worth €94m seized in Europol operation

Enforcement agencies led by Europol have seized a massive 1,346 tonnes of counterfeit, banned or unregulated pesticides, twice the amount intercepted in a similar operation last year.

2020’s Operation Silver Axe – the fifth in the series – was carried out in 32 countries between January 13 and April 25 and focused on spot inspections on land and sea borders, inland marketplaces and parcel deliveries.

The crackdown checked more than 3,000 tonnes of pesticides, and the proportion of illegal tonnage uncovered is an indication of just how prevalent the trade in counterfeit and otherwise illicit product is in the supply chain.

Counterfeit pesticides contain chemicals that are either banned or restricted in the EU due to the potential risks they may pose, and are not authorised for sale by authorities. They can lead to crop failures and sometimes contain toxic or flammable ingredients that can make even transport unsafe, according to the European Crop Care Association (ECCA) industry body.

The trade of illegal pesticides varies from trafficking counterfeit or mislabelled products to the irregular import of banned substances such as chlorpyrifos, which was specifically targeted during this year’s operation.

Among the cases uncovered by enforcement was the discovery of 16.9 tonnes of counterfeit pesticides worth €300,000, which were found in a warehouse in the Italian province of Viterbo.

The total volume seized in this year’s Silver Axe would be enough to spray 207,000 square kilometres, equivalent to more than the total farmland in Germany – which accounts for around half the country’s total area.

There were two arrests, and 260 investigations were opened, with eight still ongoing in Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Slovenia and Switzerland.

In 2017, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) published research showing that fake pesticides cost EU businesses 10 to 14 per cent of their revenues each year, and cause an estimated 2,600 direct job losses, with another 11,700 positions lost from knock-on effects.

The report also estimated that criminals can make profit of up to €70 for every kilo of illicit pesticide that is trafficked, and suggested the organised crime groups behind the trade are also involved in other illegal activities such as trafficking counterfeited cigarettes and illegally trading pharmaceuticals. The 2020 haul of illicit pesticide is estimated to be worth around €94m.

“Selling counterfeit pesticides has quietly grown into one of the world’s most lucrative and least understood criminal enterprises,” says Géraldine Kutas, director general of industry group the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA).

“This is not just an issue for our companies, whose products are being counterfeited, but more significantly poses a risk to health and the environment as these illegal substances do not go through the rigorous safety tests that are required to place pesticides on the market,” she added.

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