Illegal agrochemical products. Numbers, risks and solutions

16 Oct, 2020

It is not just about the vegetable soup you might eat once a month, it is also about the wooden table on which you eat the soup, or even the cotton shirt you are wearing every day. Now think about all the staple crops in different areas of the world and the ones that are grown to feed livestock for milk and meat production. Agriculture has a fundamental role on our everyday life, and apart from being an economic sector that generates wealth, it is our first and most important element of survival.

The world population increased from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion in 2019 (1) and it is expected to grow by 2.3 billion people more until 2050. (2) In this scenario the agricultural sector is facing a hard challenge: producing more food in order to feed a growing population with a smaller rural labor force. But as we have seen, it is not just a matter of nutrition. The global agricultural demand is increasing also for non-food products such as oils, resins, fibers, clothing and energy. To satisfy it, technology and innovation are trying to raise productivity by protecting crops and selecting more resistant varieties. For this reason, the size of the agrochemical market is increasing year by year and it reached 250.5 billion USD in 2020 (3).

The research to be done in order to develop a new agricultural product is huge. The creation of a new pesticide, for instance, typically requires ten years of study and trials and hundreds of millions of euros of investment – covering a rigorous process of product tests and authorization. Unfortunately, today all this effort risks to be futile. In fact, the massive volume of crop protection products and the numerous newly selected varieties that are sold annually world-wide, make this sector very appealing for counterfeiters.

It was estimated that the illegal crop protection market was worth 30 billion USD in 2016. (4) Since then the situation did not get better. Within this market, only the share of illegal pesticides increased globally from 5% to 10% between 2007 and 2011. From then on, estimates have ranged from 10% to 15%, up to 25% according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). (5)

Farmers in emerging countries are particularly exposed to illegal pesticides due to a limited regulatory and enforcement system and a partial public awareness of the issue. In China and India, for instance, counterfeited pesticides are estimated to account for approximately 30% of the market. (6) The situation in Africa is critical too. There, fake products are reported to make 15-20% of the whole agricultural inputs. Hotspots of these fake agrochemicals are said to be Egypt, West Africa, and Tanzania, where 40% of products (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) are reported to be fake. (7)

To go in depth, when we talk about illegal agricultural inputs, we generally refer any product that is not legal in the country where it is “placed on the market”. Therefore, we can divide them in 3 main categories:

Counterfeit: characterized by high-quality fake branding and packaging. They may be difficult to distinguish from a legal product. Often even authentic containers are used and refilled with fake content.
Unauthorized: In most countries, crop protection products must be registered by a national government agency, that ensures they match the safety standards in force. The ones that have not been registered are automatically categorized as illegal.
Obsolete: products that are no longer authorized or fit to purpose. They are expired or became obsolete due to deterioration of the packaging/label or deregistration in the country of use.

Of course, the risks related to the spreading and usage of all these three categories of products are plentiful and dangerous, affecting the entire supply chain. Brands’ name and reputation is threatened as fakes are rarely effective and can be easily confused with reals. Farmers could put in danger their crops and their own health when using unknown or banned chemicals. When not approved, agrochemical products could also seriously damage the environment, contaminating ground water and soil and harming beneficial insects. Finally, even the final customer could be involved when unknown and untested residues enter the food chain.

The practices used by farmers communities and regulatory authorities to verify agrochemical inputs authenticity are still poor nowadays and only few of them rely on modern technologies. Beside checking tracking documentation, labels and expirations dates, there are few solutions available on the market that exploit QR codes and similar technologies. However, besides being unreliable and time consuming, all these methods do not prevent authentic packaging from being refilled and put back in secondary markets.

The only solution now available on the market that guarantees authenticity and refilling protection is Authena. Thanks to an NFC tag applied on each single product, Authena blockchain secured technology is able to inform farmers on the open/closed state of the products they purchase, providing them with detailed instructions for use. Brands, at the same time, have the possibility to locate their batches and to alert farmers in case they are dealing with expired and unauthorized products according to the location of use.

Alessandro Tacconelli