Global Counterfeit Pesticide Problems on the Rise

02/01/2009 02:00:00 AM

By Fred Fishel, associate professor, Department of Agronomy, and director, Pesticide Information Office, UF/IFAS

In Europe and other areas of the world counterfeit and illegally traded pesticides are on the increase. These illegal products are produced and distributed by criminal gangs. The products are untested and unregulated, and they threaten the health of farmers and consumers, as well as posing risks to the natural environment. Counterfeit pesticides that make their way into the United States threaten the integrity of those industries which depend on the benefits of pesticide use.

The scale and scope of the illegal manufacture and trade of counterfeit pesticides differs from market to market depending on countries specificities. In a 2008 report, Counterfeit Pesticides across Europe, the European Crop Protection Association  provides a detailed overview of the problem, as well as possible solutions, including information on the overall problem within various European countries.

Fighting counterfeit pesticides is a complex task. In Europe, although regulations governing pesticide use are abundant, inadequate attention is devoted to enforcement of these regulations. This dichotomy has led in recent years to a dramatic increase in illegal, counterfeit pesticides in European countries.

The grave nature of the problem requires urgent actions by all stakeholders, including state regulatory authorities, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, commodity/trade associations, national governments and supranational entities, as well as agricultural producers and the food and pesticide industries.

The Growing Problem

In Europe, the growth of counterfeit plant protection products is worrying. The ECPA estimates that 5 percent to 7 percent of annual turnover is affected by counterfeiting and illegal trade. At the time of the report, in U.S. dollars, this is about $260 million - $370 million of the European pesticide business across Europe. In some regional hot spots, 25 percent or more of the market is estimated to be counterfeit. These estimates are based on statistics, market dynamics, percentage of customs seizures and case-by-case country studies. And the problem is growing.

In China and India, illegal pesticides are deemed to make up about 30 percent and 20 percent of these markets, respectively. The rapid growth of chemical manufacturing capabilities in these countries has made this possible. Pesticide imports from China into the European Union are growing eight times faster than average worldwide pesticide imports into the EU. This is a concern in light of the fact that 86 percent of counterfeited goods seized in 2006 came from China.

In terms of pesticide manufacturing, China has seen big growth in terms of capacity, with an average growth of 12.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2007 in tonnage. There are more than 2,000 Chinese companies formulating pesticides and more than 400 involved in manufacturing. Active substances are readily supplied and exported with no controls to countries around the world where they are formulated and labeled for onward distribution. Likewise, sophisticated copies of proprietary products are manufactured and shipped with fraudulent documentation to countries around the world, with a growing emphasis on Europe.

Types of Counterfeit and Illegal Pesticides

The nature and extent of counterfeit products and illegal trade varies per market and can originate from many different sources in many different forms. The three main areas of illegal activity are:

  • Fakes: containing anything, from water or talc to diluted and outdated or obsolete stocks, including banned or restricted materials. Some fakes may provide a degree of biological control as they sometimes contain an illegal and untested copy of the proprietary active substance. These products are often sold in simple packs, such as plain bottles with minimal labeling describing their use and no health and environmental precautions.
  • Counterfeits: sophisticated copies of legitimate branded products usually with high-quality labeling and packaging. Most will contain a copy of the original active ingredient; however, its biological efficacy is often diminished due to high levels of impurities of manufacturing and process by-products. Such products, which are often so well done that it is difficult for experts to distinguish between legitimate and counterfeit ones, are sold to agricultural producers and only show adverse side effects such as crop damage after application.
  • Illegal parallel imports: legitimate parallel traded products substituted with illegal generic copies, repackaged and sold as legitimate products. Parallel trade of plant protection products has been a contentious issue for several years. However, a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice has led to the re-adoption of “common origin” thus precluding the legitimate substitution of an equivalent registered product. The repackaging of plant protection products is still contested by the plant protection industry. They say repackaging compromises the products’ integrity and allows for contamination and the use of unacceptable packaging leading to an inferior product that may cause harm to crops and pose risks to consumers.

Fake product on left; legitimate product on right.

Fake product on left; legitimate product on right.

Solving the Problem
Pesticide producers are dedicating significant human and financial resources to fighting illegal trade and counterfeits. But pesticide producers cannot succeed alone. Those responsible and affected need to lead -- governments, farmers, the food value chain and the plant protection industry. The growing problem urgently requires increased attention and intensified human and financial resources. Pesticides and plant protection products sold and used in Europe are extremely well regulated through EU and national regulations and legislation and as such are thoroughly tested to ensure the maximum safety to farmers, the environment and consumers purchasing and eating fresh produce treated with any pesticide. In the United States, laws and regulations governing pesticides and their use are well-established, serving to protect human and animal health while minimizing impacts on the environment.


Fred Fishel is the UF/IFAS PIO Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Agronomy. E-mail is

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