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Definition and consequences of illegal trade in pesticides

MAP Jaime Brenes Madriz, Agric. Eng.
Technological Institute of Costa Rica
School of Biology, Biocontrol Laboratory
October, 2017*

Year after year, demand for agricultural food increases, as the population increases in number of people, and the area available for crops is reduced, which is why it is necessary to optimize production techniques, such as soil conservation, use of certified seeds, doses and types of fertilizers and agrochemicals that facilitate the development of crops and protect them against the attack of different pathogens, such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes, aphids, mites and weeds.

It is considered that Latin America can become a vegetable garden, for the export of fruits, vegetables and grains to the rest of the world. Therefore, it has become an objective for the illegal trade of pesticides. Since the number of countries with fairly large borders, of difficult access and with many rural roads is very high, it becomes very complicated for the authorities to control the smuggling of agrochemicals not registered in the countries.

The different types of agriculture that occur in countries, whether intensive, traditional agriculture, or agriculture in controlled environments, need agrochemicals to protect them against diseases, insect pests or weeds. If they are not treated in an efficient manner, they would cause farmers to go bankrupt or leave them without their food. To counteract the presence of these phytopathogens and weeds, the companies dedicated to the production of agrochemicals, through their research units, work on the creation of new pesticide or fertilizer molecules that allow producers to reach their production goals.

Pesticides have been created to help farmers produce more efficiently, optimizing the resources available, as they have developed very specific molecules, friendly to the environment, to address very specific problems of agriculture.

What is a pesticide or agrochemical?

It is any substance or mixture of substances that is intended to control any pests, including vectors that transmit human and animal diseases, unwanted species that cause harm or that interfere with agricultural and forestry production, for example, those that cause harm during the storage or transportation of food or other material goods, as well as those that interfere with the welfare of man and animals. Defoliants and desiccants are also included in this definition (

For the production of a pesticide, many very specific and rigorous standards must be followed, which must be fulfilled, so that a product can be registered and sold in a country. Between the identification of a molecule with a biocidal potential and laboratory tests and field tests, there may be a period of 11 years, during which investigations are carried out on Toxicological Safety, Environmental Safety and Agronomic Efficiency, all these studies can add up to around 120 evaluations, before the market launch, with an investment that can oscillate at a range of US$ 286 million per molecule (

However, while companies invest in innovation and search for new alternatives, a global problem arises, which is the illegal trade in pesticides, in which products are presented in the market, which contravene the countries' legislations and guidelines proposed by global organizations that ensure environmental health and safety. All the socioeconomic activity arising from transactions of purchase and sale of goods and products that come from plagiarism, smuggling, or even stolen goods, are considered illegal. (

According to the United Nations Interregional Institute for Crime and Justice Research (UNICRI), illicit pesticides are composed of five (5) types:

  • Unauthorized, obsolete or prohibited products and substances: products that are not allowed or that are on lists of products that are prohibited due to their level of toxicity are introduced in a country. Moreover, in the countries where it is marketed, the necessary studies have not been carried out. They do not have the proper registration for trading.
  • Parallel imports: the parallel import of pesticides that can go to different distribution centers can be submitted.
  • Counterfeit or pirated products: the product may contain part of the active ingredient, not having the active ingredient indicated on the label or may bring it in another concentration, and it may also contain active unadvised ingredients.
  • Products re-labeled or with a disguise label: re-labeled products or those with labels containing information on another pesticide added may be presented.
  • Filled containers: often, products are opened and diluted. So, when they are applied, they do not carry out the necessary control over the pest. Another possibility is that containers are filled with other substances that are not what the label indicates.
  • Product theft: the theft of pesticides may occur in a state or province, so as to sell them in another agricultural area, in order for them to be applied in crops where they are not allowed.

Counterfeit pesticides are sold in copies of packages, with counterfeit labels, which appear identical to the original legitimate products and infringe the intellectual property rights. The content of the containers is unknown and may consist of a variety of active ingredients of different quality levels. Besides, illegal pesticides are products that do not even try to copy an authentic product. Illegal pesticides may or may not contain the ingredients indicated on the package label. The quality of illegal pesticides can pose a risk to human health and to the environment (

Since 2011, Europol has quantified the size of the global agrochemical market by 10%, equivalent to 4.4 billion euros ( While the United Nations Agency against Interregional Crime (Unicri) indicated in a report that up to 15 percent of the trade in pesticides is illegal, that is, in its distribution and sale processes there are illegal practices entailed ( Europol considered that the migration of other offenses to counterfeiting, adulteration and smuggling of pesticides is due, among other reasons, to the wide margin of profit and the relative low risk of incurring in an illicit activity. In Latin America, the laws must be modified to sanction this type of crime by means of a more severe legislation. Low or nonexistent penalties, failure to criminalize it as a particular crime, absence of specialized judicial units that are intended to combat, are some causes that make the illegal trade in pesticides, a desired business. Even criminal activity can be used to legitimize capital or launder money for the causes exposed ( If an illegal trade of pesticides is reported in Europe, where the laws are very strict, the situation in Latin America must be very complex, where we find a great offer of products at a very low price, with low quality, not guaranteeing their effect for the pest that one wishes to control, offered to farmers in very rural areas and of scarce economic resources.

A recent study carried out by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimates that 30% of the total pesticide market in that country is captured by illegal products. The price of a counterfeit product can be 30% to 40% lower than the price of the original brand product, which convinces farmers to opt for counterfeit products, although many farmers have already manifested the total loss of their crops due to the use of adulterated products (

 Consequences of illegal trade in pesticides

The illegal trade in pesticides is a global problem that affects farmers, the crop protection industry and generates multiple risks to human health, crops, environment and the economy; this is reiterated by a report in which it is estimated that at least 15% of the global trade in pesticides corresponds to illegal products.

In Latin America, illegal trade in pesticides is a concern for countries like Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico and Guatemala, which are countries with great vocation and extensive agricultural areas, where these markets demand large volumes for the control of pests and diseases.

Among the consequences for farmers when buying and applying these illegal products, are: loss of efficiency in pest control, disease or husbandry. Health problems can occur, because the composition of the pesticide is not known, farmers do not know the effects on their health or on their workers' health. When the composition of the product is unknown, it can cause crop toxicity problems, and plantings are lost.

As for the environment, they can contaminate water sources, soils, since their residual effect is unknown, and they are not subjected to very rigorous evaluations in each country where they will be registered.

Furthermore, this illegal trade discourages research into new molecules, since the intellectual property of the manufacturers is not respected. Additionally, they hinder trade as they impact agricultural exports, as they might end up being banned due to the use of counterfeit pesticides. There is also an impact on state finances, given that illegal trade in pesticides forces states to invest resources in inspections, seizures, warehousing and occasional destructions of seized products.

Another problem that has arisen with illegal trade is that the smugglers do not declare their components. In 2014, the International Chamber of Commerce highlighted the danger of transporting illegal products on a commercial passenger flight from Beijing to Budapest. Later, analyzes discovered that the product could have burned at any time at only 24 degrees Celsius (

Despite the fact that European Union legislation on the use of pesticides is the most restrictive in the world, it is estimated that around 10% of pesticides marketed in their member countries are illegal and are not subject to mandatory sanitary controls. China is the authorities' biggest concern. There, 98% of the chemical substances of the 1,150 recognized by the United Nations are manufactured, many of them banned in Spain for use in agriculture (  

Recommendations for farmers

  • Buying agrochemicals with authorized distributors: Unknown distributors and the proliferation of unregistered distributors (season) are warning signs.
  • Product price: Unusual low prices are warning signs. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is not.
    • When purchasing a product, check the label:
    • It must have legible instructions in English 
    • It must be permanently adhered to the container and the package must be sealed
    • Production date and expiration date: These periods are two years on average
    • It must have the name of the manufacturer and the registration data
    • The lid must have a safety seal
  • Always request your invoice. The invoice must have the fiscal requirements, the seller's information, contact information, the description of the items purchased, that is: the name of the registered trademark product (or the product brand) that was provided to them clearly, and the quantity bought. If the invoice shows the name of a product other than the one delivered, insist that a new invoice is sent to you or return the product to the retailer.
  • Report to the authorities immediately (