In the wake of a Chinese takeover of the Swiss agribusiness group Syngenta, a Swiss advocacy group raises concerns about Switzerland's regulatory role.
Switzerland exports two powerful herbicides, atrazine and paraquat, to developing countries. However, these products, manufactured by Basel giant Syngenta, are prohibited in the Swiss territory. It's a situation that the Swiss non-governmental organization Public Eye condemns.
Between 2012 and 2016, four exports of paraquat and thirteen of atrazine were recorded from Switzerland. The countries of destination are Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. However, these herbicides are banned in Switzerland and the European Union because of their danger to health and the environment. The explanations of Laurent Gaberell, responsible for the file with Public Eyeexternal link.
swissinfo.ch: You denounce the export of atrazine and paraquat from Switzerland to developing countries. What exactly do you know about these two products?
"Syngenta is lobbying and promoting very aggressively in the South to continue selling these two pesticides"
Laurent Gaberell, Public Eye
Laurent Gaberell: Paraquat and atrazine are among the most toxic pesticides in the world. Paraquat causes thousands of acute poisonings each year and is linked to several chronic diseases, including Parkinson's. As for atrazine, it is a powerful endocrine disruptor that affects the reproductive system and causes many cancers.
swissinfo.ch: Why do we continue to produce them?
L.G.: Producers, most notably the giant Swiss agro-chemical company Syngenta, are lobbying and promoting very aggressively in developing countries to continue to sell these two pesticides. There is also a severe lack of information on alternatives to these chemicals, whether they be chemical or natural, and whether they work very well.
swissinfo.ch: How is it that these pesticides, banned in Switzerland and the European Union, are found in developing countries?
L.G.: Unfortunately, this practice is perfectly legal under Swiss law. Marketing authorizations for pesticides are made only at national level. However, if a product is considered too hazardous for use in Switzerland, it should not be exported. We know very well that the conditions for the safe use of these pesticides are not met in developing countries.
swissinfo.ch: You clearly point the finger at Syngenta. But where is the proof?
L.G.: The documents in our possession come from the federal administration and the names of the shippers have been deleted. But there is no doubt that it is Syngenta: the Basel giant, the world leader in pesticides, has between 40% and 50% of the global paraquat and atrazine markets, and has several production sites in Switzerland. It is a quasi-monopoly, since Syngenta's next-most competitor does not even reach 1% of this market.
swissinfo.ch: How do you plan to address this issue?
"The mega-mergers currently underway in the agro-chemical sector will further strengthen the power of large groups"
Laurent Gaberell, Public Eye
L.G.: Green parliamentarian Lisa Mazzone filed an inquiryexternal link seeking clarification from the cabinet. We will then consider asking the government to legislate on this issue. In addition, under the Basel Convention, Switzerland has an obligation to prohibit the export of hazardous waste to signatory countries.
However, several African countries, including Cameroon, where these two pesticides were exported, are included in this definition of hazardous substances that are prohibited in the countries of production. However, several African countries, including Cameroon, where these two pesticides were exported, have included in their definition of toxic wastes those hazardous substances that are prohibited in the countries of production. That is why we are asking the Confederation to honor its commitments and put an end to these illegal exports.
swissinfo.ch: You denounce the negative role of Switzerland. But these countries could very well ban on their own initiative the use of these substances on their territory.
L.G .: The responsibility is of course shared. But it should not be forgotten that the capacity for regulation and control is often very low in developing countries.
And with regard to the protection of human rights, Switzerland has a clear responsibility when it exposes whole populations to products that it knows to be toxic.
swissinfo.ch: Can ChemChina's takeover of Syngenta make a difference?
L.G .: This buyback will further strengthen the concentration in the pesticide market and the power of influence of large groups. When the current mega-mergers are completed, three companies will control almost 70% of the market. At a time when Switzerland and the international community are aiming for a transition to more sustainable food and agricultural systems, this trend causes concern.
In the eyes of Syngenta, paraquat and atrazine are not dangerous
"Paraquat has been one of the most effective and environmentally beneficial herbicides in the world for half a century. It has helped millions of farmers to remain productive and competitive. Today, paraquat is registered for use in many developed and developing countries around the world, including in major agricultural markets, with some of the most demanding regulatory systems, such as the United States, Australia and Japan.
Atrazine is one of the most widely studied substances of all time, with nearly 7,000 studies conducted over the past 50 years. It is now used in more than 60 countries. During this period, atrazine has established itself as an important and effective tool for farmers. No scientific review in the European Union has raised concerns about the safety of atrazine for users, consumers and the environment.
The Bamako and Basel Conventions deal with the export of toxic waste. Since paraquat and atrazine are crop protection products registered in many countries and are certainly not classified as 'wastes', these conventions do not apply to these products. "
Violaine Delli, spokesperson for Syngentaexternal link