The European Union is exporting more than 10,000 tons of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides a year to megadiverse countries despite having banned these chemicals from its own farms to protect pollinators according to research by Public Eye & Unearthed. Interview with Laurent Gaberell.
June 2023 / Produced by Lynn Fries / GPEnewsdocs
LYNN FRIES: Hello and welcome. I’m Lynn Fries, producer of Global Political Economy or GPEnewsdocs. In this segment, guest Laurent Gaberell will discuss the new Public Eye investigative report that puts the crucial role of pollination and the global threat to biodiversity and food security posed by bee killing pesticides in the spotlight.
A report that for the first time reveals the full scale of the European Union export trade in bee killing pesticides. The report sheds light on the double standard that’s been at play as the EU continues to export huge quantities of this pesticide despite having banned the use of these chemicals in their own fields.
Our guest, Laurent Gaberell, joins us from Public Eye in Lausanne where he’s an agriculture and food expert on the research and policy team. Public Eye is a Swiss not-for-profit organization with a longstanding record of fighting against injustice that has a significant link to Switzerland. Welcome, Laurent.
LAURENT GABERELL: Hello.
FRIES: So Laurent, we’ll be talking about key findings of this new Public Eye report. Start briefly by first telling us something about Public Eye and also your own area of expertise on the research and policy team. And from there, the collaboration between Public Eye and Unearthed in investigating Europe’s export trade in banned pesticides. Which I understand this report is the most recent collaboration.
GABERELL: Yes, indeed. So you summarized it pretty well. Public Eye is a Swiss NGO acting as a watchdog. Looking at what Swiss multinational companies and in general Swiss politics are doing abroad mainly in poor countries of the Global South.
We look at all the sectors, the economic sectors that are key in Switzerland such as the banking sector, the trading sector, the pharmaceutical companies and pesticides because in Switzerland we have the number one in the market which is called Syngenta. This is the reason why we are interested in the topic of pesticides. It’s because in Switzerland we have the number one of the market.
I’m the food and agriculture expert at Public Eye dealing with this topic of pesticides, looking at Syngenta and its activities in developing countries. We’ve been looking now for several years at the topic of banned pesticides being sold abroad by Swiss companies or banned pesticides being exported from Switzerland or the European Union to poor countries.
This new investigation on the export of banned neonicotinoids from Europe is the latest in a series of investigations that we’ve done as a collaboration with Unearthed, which is the investigative unit of Greenpeace UK, looking at the export of banned pesticides from Europe.
FRIES: So this banned pesticide that we’re talking about, I understand, is chemically related to nicotine. And you get a clue of that from the name. Is that right?
GABERELL: Completely right. Yeah. It’s from the same family. So we’re talking about neonicotinoids derived from the same family as nicotine. But in this case developed to act as insecticides to protect crops.
FRIES: This new investigation has for the first time revealed the full scale of the European Union’s export trade in neonicotinoids or neonics foor short. Start by talking about what has been called out as the double standard in the EU export trade of these neonics and from there we’ll get into key findings of your investigation
GABERELL: This case of the neonics is really the strongest example of the double standard at play when it comes to regulating dangerous pesticides in the EU.
Those insecticides were banned from all outdoor users in the Union <European Union> in 2018. And then they were finally taken out of the market in 2020 because of the danger they pose to pollinators and bees. There was like huge evidence, overwhelming evidence of the impact that they can have on bees and pollinators.
So, the European Union decided to take them out of the market a few years ago already. But they keep allowing companies to produce those chemicals in Europe to export them to third countries.
It’s really the classic example of this double standard where you ban dangerous pesticides in your own country because you consider it too dangerous but you keep exporting it to other countries. That’s the double standard at play.
But, I was saying this is the strongest example of this double standard because in this specific case of the neonicotinoids, the European Commission considered them such a threat to pollinators worldwide and to food security that they even decided to act on the import of food made with those chemicals.
So in February this year, the European Commission decided to ban, to lower down to zero the residue limits for neonicotinoids in food. And what does that mean? It means basically that you’re not allowed anymore to export to the European Union foods that contain residue of neonicotinoids.
And the European Commission in its own decision to ban those residues said that there’s a big problem with the decline of pollinators worldwide. That the decline of pollinators represents a threat to food security. Because they’re pollinating crops and that there’s large evidence that neonicotinoids play a key role in the decline of bees and pollinators worldwide.
And so the European Union needs to take action and it’s not enough to ban those pesticides in the Union, the European Union. The threat is so big that the Union needs also to act on the import to make sure that no food that is consumed in the European Union was made with those bee-killing pesticides.
So that was quite a strong decision that was made by the European Commission in February this year (2023). It shows you how big a threat those neonics represent in the view of the Commission. But at the same time, what we are showing in this investigation is that the European Union keeps exporting those pesticides to third countries.
So they ban the use of those pesticides in the Union to protect bees. They even ban the import of foods made with those pesticides to protect bees and pollinators but they keep allowing their export from the European Union to other countries.
FRIES: Laurent, what kind of volume are we are talking about here? And what companies and countries have you identified as involved in this EU export of banned bee killing pesticides.
GABERELL: What we found is that in 2021, the European Union approved the export of more than 13,000 tons of banned neonicotinoids. To give you an idea of what this represents, this is massive. It amounts to about 15% to 20% of the global use of those chemicals. So the amount that was exported from the EU in 2021 represents about 15% to 20% of the global use of those chemicals.
So what are the key companies? What we found is that you have a number of companies involved but there’s one single company that alone accounts for more than 80% of the exports. And this company is Syngenta, Swiss based Syngenta. But you have also a number of other companies like Bayer and BASF. And smaller or medium size companies like Gowan, FMC, NuFarm, UPL, Berluga and others. So we’re talking about a dozen of companies that are shipping banned neonics from the European Union.
And in terms of countries, exporting countries, it’s basically coming from everywhere. We could identify thirteen thirteen different countries, members of the European Union that have notified exports of banned neonics in 2021.
Now I’m saying thirteen countries, but there are a small number of countries, again that are responsible for most of the exports. Belgium is the number one exporter followed by France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. And together those five countries account for the vast majority of the volumes coming out of the Union in 2021.
FRIES In terms of EU exporting countries, as you say five countries exported the vast bulk of banned neonics. And on the import side, where did these EU exports go?
GABERELL: What we found is that the vast majority of those exports were going to low or middle income countries such as Brazil, Ukraine, Indonesia, South Africa, Argentina but also a number of African countries.
FRIES: Talk about the case of Brazil as an importing country at the receiving end of these EU exports.
GABERELL: Well, Brazil was the main destination of the EU exports of banned pesticides. In fact, Brazil alone received about half of the volumes exported from the EU. More than 6,000 tons of banned neonics were exported by the EU to Brazil in 2021.
In fact, the vast majority of those 6,000 tons was one single export made by Syngenta from Belgium of a product called Engeo Pleno S. Just to give you an idea what this represents, this 6,000 tons represents enough to spray the entire area of New Zealand. It’s also enough to spray seven to ten times the entire surface of Belgium. So it’s huge. We’re talking about huge amounts.
Those neonics were banned in Europe, considered too dangerous here, right? So it is in our view, wrong to send them abroad. But in this case, there are two aggravating factors. The aggravating factor is that we’re shipping it to low and middle income countries where we know the regulations are weaker and the risks will be higher, right? So, the risk of pollinators and bees dying because of exposure to neonics will be even higher in those countries like Brazil, Argentina, or South Africa or Ghana, than in the EU.
Another aggravating factor is that those countries are also home to some of the largest amount of biodiversity. So we’re talking about countries that are megadiverse. That’s the word they’re using. We’re talking about megadiverse countries that have a lot of insects of pollinating insects or bees, a variety of bees. That makes them more sensitive. That makes them more vulnerable. And so the impact in those countries will be much higher. No?
So just to summarize again, two aggravating factors. One, the countries to which the EU is exporting those pesticides have weaker regulation, weaker control measures in place and the risks will be higher. But second, those are countries that are like the main reservoir of biodiversity on Earth. Like Brazil, which is home of more than 20% of the world biodiversity. So shipping bee killing pesticides to those countries is really irresponsible.
FRIES: How are people in the importing countries responding to your findings? Given this the first time the full scale and extent of EU exports of banned neonics and where they are going has been made public.
GABERELL: So we’ve contacted beekeepers and campaigners in importing countries to get their view. To see what they were thinking about those findings that the EU keeps exporting those banned neonics. And they were quite shocked because the EU has this reputation of being a leading player when it comes to chemical safety.
The EU says that it wants to lead by example globally. And it is believed to be the global standard when it comes to chemical regulation globally. So there’s a sense of hypocrisy and also a double standard that the EU is shipping to their countries pesticides that the EU knows will kill bees.
When we talk to bee-keepers in Argentina, in Argentina there’s really a serious problem with the decline of pollinators and bees. It seems they’ve lost about 30% of their bees in the past decade. It’s really massive. You have a number of cases of millions of be dying in several parts of the country. And they’ve been able to link those cases, most of the cases at least, with the use of neonics in the country.
So when asked the Society for Beekeepers in Argentina what they were thinking about the findings of our research they were quite shocked by the fact that the EU was involved in the massive decline of pollinators that they’re facing in Argentina.
They said that neonics represent a very serious threat to their food security. And they call the EU to immediately stop the export of those hazardous chemicals. So most of the NGOs and experts that we’ve interviewed in South Africa or Argentina or Brazil, they call this a double standard. And they call this an irresponsible practice from the EU. And they hope the EU will take the lead in that regard and stop those exports.
FRIES: I’ll just briefly refer for a moment to the map of Europe provided in the report. In that map, the thirteen EU countries you identified as exporting banned neonicotinoids in 2021 are indicated by a color coding of pink. And to recap your earlier comment: five of those countries were responsible for most neonics exported in 2021 from the EU. Belgium was the number one exporting country followed by France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain.
As you noted, one single export made by Syngenta from Belgium was big enough to cover the surface of New Zealand. Talk more about what your investigation of EU exports of neonics reveals about Syngenta. As we know from your opening comments, pesticides are an important topic at Public Eye because Syngenta is headquartered in Switzerland.
And since Switzerland is not a member state of the European Union, we should note that like other non-EU countries Switzerland as an exporter or non-exporter of neonics is not covered in this study. As so as a non-EU country Switzerland is color coded in gray in this map.
GABERELL: Yeah. Switzerland is, indeed is in gray in this map because it’s not an EU member but also because in Switzerland, in fact, neonicotinoids are not yet subject to this regulation on the export of banned pesticides. So basically companies can export neonics from Switzerland freely without even notifying the importing country. But yes, the investigation was really focused on the EU as a group, on the EU’s exports of banned neonics.
And again, the company alone accounted for more than 80% of the volumes. But what I want to say is that, in fact, those numbers might well be an underestimate of the real Syngenta exports of banned neonics from Europe. Because it doesn’t include exports from Switzerland which might play a leading role in this trade.
But we have no clue about the exact scale and extent of those exports because neonics are not yet subject to the PIC (Prior Informed Consent) regulation in Switzerland.
FRIES: Explain how Prior Informed Consent or PIC regulation works so that we can all understand why you were able to analyze neonics that were produced and exported out of Syngenta’s EU based factories like its EU subsidiary in Belgium but not by Syngenta Switzerland. So start with how PIC regulation works in the European Union and then we can get into the point that neonics are not yet subject to the PIC regulation in Switzerland.
GABERELL: So what happens in the European Union, but also in Switzerland, is that when a pesticide is judged too dangerous for use in its own territory the chemical will be banned. Right?
But the ban will only apply to the use in the European Union and companies remain free to produce the chemical for export. But in that situation there is a piece of legislation called the PIC Regulation which is the Prior Informed Consent regulation.
This is the regulation implementing the Rotterdam Convention in the European Union. This regulation places some obligation on companies wanting to export banned chemicals abroad. It doesn’t apply only to pesticides but it applies in general to hazardous chemicals that have been banned in the European Union or in Switzerland.
So if a company wants to export a pesticide that has been banned in the European Union, it can do so. But it needs to file a formula which is called an “export notification” in which it will basically indicate the name of the countries to which it is shipping those pesticides, the volumes but also the intended use that will be made of those chemicals. And those notifications are then sent by the company to the country, to the government in the Union who will transmit those documents to the importing country.
And the idea behind the system is that countries abroad are informed about the export of dangerous pesticides or dangerous chemicals to their country. So the reasoning behind this legislation is that at the minimum countries need to be informed.
So those exports have remained secret for a long time. Because there is no public data allowing someone to just trace those exports, see the volumes at stake, and where they’re going.
So last year together with Unearthed, which is the investigative unit of Greenpeace UK, what we did was to send requests, Freedom of Information requests, to the European Chemical Agency but also to several national governments requesting basically all the export notifications that were sent in 2021 for export of one of those three neonicotinoids that were banned in EU.
And it took us several months to get all of those documents because you have hundreds of them. And each time the regulator needs to get the consent of the company before releasing the data. At least they need to consult them and allow them sufficient time to reply. So that is why it takes such a long time.
But after several months of work, we were able to obtain all the export notifications for one single year, 2021, for those banned neonics. And what we did then was to analyze the notifications one by one. And keep only those exports for use in agriculture in those countries.
Because you have to be aware that pesticides can have multiple uses; one, is the most famous one, which is crop protection, plant protection, agriculture. But pesticides can also be used in other contexts. Such as vector control for malaria control, or for example as collar for dogs or biocides. Okay. And those uses might be still allowed in the EU.
So what we had to do as a second step was to basically identify those notifications in which the intended use was crop protection. After several months of work, we were able for the first time to reveal the full scale of one year of exports of banned neonics from the EU.
FRIES: That then explains the long story behind the source credited on maps you produced. That source being <quote> Public Eye and Unearthed analysis of data submitted to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA), 2021. You have yet to do an equivalent analysis on Swiss exports of neonicotinoids. So explain that.
GABERELL: Yeah. So, Switzerland has banned the use of the neonics but what they haven’t done is to list the neonics in the export regulation; in the regulation dealing with the export of hazardous chemicals. And as neonics are not listed in that regulation, they’re not subject to the regulation.
And therefore they can be exported without any control from Switzerland. So we have basically no clue what’s coming out of Switzerland. And it’s possible that Switzerland plays a key role in this trade.
Syngenta has in Switzerland one of its biggest factories in the world, in Monthey. And we know that they are making neonics in Monthey but we have no clue about the scale and the volumes that go out of Monthey because basically the list of chemicals subject to the export regulation in Switzerland is outdated. The last time it was updated was three years ago. So all of the pesticides that were banned in the last <inaud> four years have not yet been listed in this regulation and can still be exported freely out of Switzerland. That’s the mechanism. That’s how it works.
In the EU, you have a regulation as well dealing with the export of hazardous chemicals. This is the PIC regulation. But if you want a chemical to be subject to that regulation, you need to include it in the list of chemicals subject to the regulation. Right?
And in the EU this is done every year quite mechanically. So every year, basically what they do is they take all the pesticides and other chemicals that were banned during the last twelve months and they include them in the list of chemicals subject to the PIC regulation.
In Switzerland we have a problem in that regard which is that the update of the list is not being done every year as in the EU but but it’s being done every four, five, or even six years. Meaning that during all this period of time, the pesticides can still be exported without any control.
The obligation for companies to send export notification applies only if the chemical is listed in the PIC regulation. And you need to list it. But if you don’t do that, then the chemical can still freely be exported.
In Switzerland, what they told us is that they’re planning to update the list soon. But soon in Swiss time, meaning that they plan to release a draft update for the end of this year that would come into force in 2025.
So what that means is that during the next two years companies will be able to keep exporting freely those chemicals from Switzerland without any control. And without even needing to notify those exports to the Swiss government.
We know that a number of other countries around the world are also exploring those neonics like the USA, China, or even India. But we don’t have any data. Because in order to get the data, you need to have this regulation in place, which is in place in the European Union.
And that’s a positive thing that the European Union has this legislation in place that at least puts some minimum obligation on the company wanting to export. Because it enables us to get the data. If you don’t have this obligation, then companies do not need to send export notifications and then you don’t get to see the volumes that go out of the countries.
So with this investigation, we’re not saying that the EU is the only bad guy in the world, is the only exporter of banned neonics. No. There are a number of countries that play a leading role in this trade, including probably Switzerland. But the EU is the only region for which we were able to get strong and comprehensive data for one single year.
FRIES: Having said that it is a positive thing the EU has this legislation in place for the reasons you stated, explain why in your view this is not enough.
GABERELL: So in our view, this does not go far enough. Of course, it’s a first interesting step to inform the country. I’d say, it’s the minimum. No? It’s a pesticide that was banned in the European Union. So at the minimum, you inform the country that you are exporting to its territory. That’s to me the minimum.
But it’s not enough because what we are seeing is that, in fact, it’s a mechanism that allows the export under certain conditions. And those chemicals that were considered too dangerous for use in the Union, they will provoke in those countries the same harm that they have provoked in the European Union.
So in our view, there should be no such system. Because if the EU considers those chemicals too dangerous for use in the Union, they should not ship them outside. Because they know, they are aware of the risk and they are aware of the fact that those risks are not manageable. In fact, whatever you do, they’re not manageable. And that’s the reason why they were taken out of the market in the European Union.
So, being aware of those risks and being aware of the fact that whatever the capacities, the control measures, the resource that you put in place, you will not be able to mitigate those risks and ensure that the pesticides can be safely used. If you’re aware of this, you should just stop the export.
FRIES: So what’s the state of play at the European Commission on all this?
GABERELL: The current practice is to inform countries. Right? That’s the defense that the European Commission used to have and also that many companies exporting companies use. They’re basically saying: oh, but we provide them the information and there are sovereign countries and they have the right to decide what they want to import or what they want to use in the countries.
The mood has change a lot in the EU because governments and the European Commission used to hide behind this argument that we are providing information to those countries and they are sovereign countries that have a right to decide what they want to use and import. Right?
But that has changed a lot and I think partly because of the scandal that the past investigation created in EU. Because I think EU citizens just do not accept this practice. And people in importing countries don’t accept this double standard.
So, the European Commission has committed to end this practice. This commitment came in 2020 in October. In the chemical strategy, they said that they want to come up with a proposal to prohibit this practice of companies exporting abroad chemicals that are banned in the EU.
So that was really a good step that was made in 2020 by the Commission. The European Commission has said that it would come up at the end of this year 2023 with a proposal to ban those exports. In fact, the Commission has just launched public consultation and impact assessment, to identify different scenarios for this export ban. And we expect the Commission to publish a proposal in autumn this year.
FRIES: As these public consultations and impact assessments are underway in the EU, what in your view are some key things to bear in mind on when assessing the impact of of an EU export ban on neonics? First, from the perspective of the exporting countries so the EU. Let’s take the impact on jobs and the economy in Europe will be a big topic. What are some of your thoughts there?
GABERELL: Now what we have seen is that, in fact, the impact of an export ban in Europe on employment and on the economy will be pretty limited. And there’s one main piece of evidence for that which is the French export ban. So France has an export ban for banned pesticides which is in place since last year.
It came into force in January 2022. We did an investigation last year to look at the impact of this export ban. The export ban managed to stop most of the exports. Although some exports are still taking place because of two loopholes in the export ban. But I’d say that about three quarters of the volumes that were previously exported from France were no longer exported last year. Right? So the export ban had an impact in France.
Now, there was a study looking at the impact on employment and jobs. And in fact, during the hot phase when the French export ban was discussed, the industry released very exaggerated figures about the impact that this would have on employment. Speaking about I think 2,700 jobs that would be at risk if France would ban the export of banned pesticides.
And then one year later, one investigative journalist took a look at the impact and found absolutely no impact. No evidence of any job that was lost because of the French export ban. And a group of NGOs now filed a complaint to the Senate, to the French Senate. And the French Senate sent a warning to the pesticide industry in France. Recognizing that in fact, the numbers that were provided by the industry were very exaggerated.
So that is basically the same strategy that the industry now is using at the EU level. They are exaggerating a lot the potential impact this export ban could have on the industry providing huge figures that the number of jobs that are at risk.
FRIES: And from the perspective of the importing countries, what’s your assessment of how big an impact an EU export ban on neonics would be there?
GABERELL: The impact in importing countries will be quite large, in fact. Because the EU is one of the main producing place for chemicals around the world. And the EU is even one of the main pesticide exporters around the world.
So if you change the rules here, this will have quite some impact in those countries. Of course, you could argue that those countries will still be free to buy from somewhere else, right? But it gives a strong signal, right?
It gives a strong signal, a political signal, that other countries will follow and ultimately those chemicals will be hopefully taken out of the market globally. It’s a first step, so we’re not pretending that we are going to resolve all the problems with this export ban, right?
It’s a first step. But it’s the first very important step. It’s about getting things right. Doing things in an ethical manner. Leading by example. That is what the EU wants to do, lead by example. And then lead other countries to follow its own example. And ultimately this will be very beneficial for the environment.
FRIES: And a concluding thought?
GABERELL: The findings of this investigation are very serious because we are facing a mass extinction of insects globally. Really a massive decline of insects and pollinators that the Food and Agricultural Organization has called a massive threat to food security. Because two-thirds of the world’s food crops are pollinated by bees and other insects. It’s not just about bees or insects. But it’s about food security and food production. And we’re facing this massive wave of extinction. And we know that one of the key factors behind this decline are neonics.
FRIES: Laurent Gaberell, thank you.
GABERELL: Thank you
FRIES: And from Geneva Switzerland thank you for viewing this segment of GPEnewsdocs with guest Laurent Gaberell discussing Public Eye’s 2023 investigative report on EU exports of banned bee killing pesticides. The report published by Public Eye in collaboration with Unearthed was published May 17th, and is available online at www.publiceye.ch.
Laurent Gaberell is a member of the research and policy team at Public Eye, Switzerland. Gaberell has published extensive investigations in his capacity as agriculture and food expert at Public Eye. Public Eye fights against injustice that has a significant link to Switzerland. A non-governmental organization, Public Eye (formerly Berne Declaration) has for fifty years offered critical analysis of the impact that Switzerland, and its companies, has in low-and middle income countries.