Bayer has hit back at research that claims it is developing and selling highly hazardous pesticide-active ingredients that are damaging the health of farmworkers and farmers in South Africa, Brazil and Mexico.
Responding to enquiries by Food For Mzansi the chief executive of Bayer Southern Africa and cluster head for Crop Science Africa, Dr Klaus Eckstein, affirmed its commitment to “developing and stewarding products that both fulfil high safety standards and meet the unique needs of farmers”.
This, after the shocking findings of a 2020 report by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the INKOTA-netzwerk and PAN Germany. The researchers include Peter Clausing, Lena Luig and Jan Urhahn.
They found that Bayer and BASF are both responsible for the marketing, and in some cases, also the development of at least 33 pesticide-active ingredients that pose a distinct threat to human health.
Many of these active ingredients are lethal even at low doses, and others are considered likely to be cancer-causing, interfering with human production and capable of inducing heritable genetic defects or increasing their incidence.
In Mzansi, as well as the two South American countries, at least eight of these active ingredients can be found in the pesticide portfolios of Bayer and BASF.
Banned in the EU, but still sold in SA
This includes glufosinate and spirodiclofen. Glufosinate has a reprotoxic classification due to it causing still births, miscarriages, and premature births in animal studies that were legally conducted by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
Spirodiclofen was classified as carcinogenic by the ECHA in 2016 for causing liver tumours in a cancer study on mice as well as testicular tumours and carcinoma of the uterus in a study on rats.
In South Africa, the two German agrochemical companies market at least 28 active ingredients in South Africa and Brazil that are not approved in the European Union (EU) because of the severe associated health risks. Of this, BASF sells 13 and Bayer 15, found the researchers.
Among them are epoxiconazole, ethoprophos, glufosinate, and thiacloprid which are imported from China, and fenamiphos from the United States. Each of these either affect the reproductive system or the embryo or cause difficult or laboured breathing and slowness of the heart.
However, Eckstein tells Food For Mzansi “to take specific country requirements into account, we cannot take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to developing, registering, and selling our agricultural solutions around the world.
“And when it comes to crop protection, our commitment is to only sell products that clear our own robust internal safety assessments and also meet the safety standards of the respective local regulators, including South Africa.”
According to Eckstein “it is not automatically a double standard if we export crop protection products that are manufactured, but not registered in Europe to other countries”.
Lethal even in small doses
The German researchers found that many Western Cape wine farms use Bayer’s Tempo SC, an insecticide, on large scale. The product contains the highly hazardous active ingredient (beta-cyfluthrin), which is lethal even in small doses. Symptoms may include irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.
On some farms, farmworkers are sent into the vineyards while these highly hazardous pesticides are being sprayed in the fields.
According to the researchers the mixing of pesticides at many farms takes place without any protective equipment, and the pesticides often spill and are not disposed of properly. The authors of this study were told that some farmers force workers to remove the labels from the packaging. This then makes it difficult for the inspectors to establish misuse of pesticides when they come.
“Please note that Tempo SC is an insecticide commercialised by our environmental science business in South Africa for the control of indoor and outdoor hygiene pests. It is also commercialised in other countries like the US,” says Eckstein.
Although Bayer made a public commitment in 2013 to no longer market active ingredients of high acute toxicity, this continues to happen. In South Africa 9 000 different pesticide products are registered in the country, according to Luig et. al.
SA is a global pesticide hub
In recent years, the number of pesticide products and active ingredients that were imported to South Africa, as well as the number exported from South Africa to neighbouring countries, dramatically increased. Between 2008 and 2018, the value of imports has nearly doubled from approximately $239 million to more than $465 million.
The annual volume of pesticides imported to South Africa grew from approximately 37 900 tonnes to 74 800 tonnes. Over the same period, the value of pesticide exports from South Africa grew from $122 million to $266 million. This indicates an increase from approximately 23 400 tonnes to 45 400 tonnes
“It is a misleading assumption that products not registered in the EU are unsafe to use outside the EU,” says Eckstein. “We have different pest and disease spectrums in Africa as well as climatic and environmental conditions which requires to take local circumstances into account when providing solutions to farmers which are in many ways different to that in the EU.”
‘Safe if properly applied’
Eckstein says Bayer’s crop protection products are tested, developed and registered across the globe and found to be safe, if used according to the label instructions.
“It is important that these products are available to ensure the development of farmers (smallholders and commercial) in Africa and making them part of food value chains as part of a sustainable and profitable business where they can grow and contribute to communities and countries.”
Currently, the EU forbids the manufacturing, storage and marketing of pesticide products that contain active ingredients that are not approved in its 27 member states due to health or environmental concerns.
The researchers believe these pesticide products are still being exported to South Africa because the regulations regarding imported hazardous pesticides in the country are considered “relaxed”.
While both Bayer and BASF maintain that their products are safe if they are properly applied, it does not bear in mind that, in many cases, the necessary protective equipment is not available or often expensive and/or considered impractical for South African conditions. Farmworkers have described their protective clothing merely decorative, say the researchers.
Some farmers are unable to understand the information listed on the packaging regarding the application of the products.
The pesticide manufacturers are well aware of all this, warn the researchers. Ultimately, they take advantage of the weaker regulations in the countries of the global South in order to make profits with highly hazardous pesticides at the expense of humans and the environment.
A poisonous sector
To date, 385 million people worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning annually, compared to an estimated 25 million cases in 1990. This means that approximately 44% of the people who work in agriculture worldwide, including farmers and their workers, suffer from poisoning every year.
Meanwhile Eckstein tells Food For Mzansi the Bayer Crop Science Division recently published its internal safety standards for crop protection products.
“We are the first company to make these criteria available to the public. We are calling for industry-wide self-regulation and transparency to increase the impact of the initiative.”
The global team of researchers recommend that the South African government pass a law prohibiting the import of active ingredients and pesticide products that are not approved in the EU or other countries. Also, they believe should ban the trade and use of highly hazardous pesticides, as defined by the Pesticide Action Network.