Pesticide ‘pseudo-black market’ fueled by disconnect with agricultural authorities

Each year, Egypt’s Agriculture and Land Reclamation Ministry modifies and publishes a list of pesticides that are banned from agricultural use for a variety of reasons, generally revolving around their potency, safety and toxicity levels.

But despite the list being available on the ministry’s website, the use of such pesticides continues to run rampant throughout the countryside, particularly among the majority of small farmers. According to experts, banned pesticides are still widely used because of the stark disconnect between farmers and policymakers.

Concerned that they may disrupt current progress toward resolving such issues, most sources for this story wished to remain anonymous.

"Farmers will grow used to using a certain, legal pesticide for years, obtaining it from informal sources, which works wonders as they are usually unnecessarily strong," says Mahmoud al-Mansy, media spokesperson for the farmers' rights NGO, the Sons of the Soil.

"But then the next year, an updated list banning this particular pesticide will not deter the majority of farmers to keep using it to grow their crops, because most probably they won’t even be aware of this new ban," says Mansy. "News will break out that they’re using an illegal chemical years later."

This situation has led to a black market that some experts call a “pseudo-black market” — since the majority of its traders are unaware that their products are even illegal — in the pesticide trade. The market arises from a toxic mix of factors: distant socioeconomic classes; a lack of accessible inputs — seeds, fertilizers and pesticides — and an exponentially growing informal market for these; a lack of awareness of which products are harmful due to government miscommunication; and the ongoing smuggling in of illegal pesticides from Israel and Libya. But the lack of awareness, experts say, is what really propagates the problem.

"In most cases, farmers will be using pesticides that are extremely toxic to the environment and to human health, without being aware," continues Mansy.

According to a study by an independent research organization that wishes to remain anonymous, but whose findings were validated by Nabil Mansour, a professor of pesticide chemistry and toxicology at Alexandria University, this pseudo-black market has allowed for the continued use of toxic pesticides. As a result, many Egyptian-grown products have been prevented from export to European Union countries. In 2010, for example, 80 percent of Egypt's pomegranate exports were returned to its market untraced after the EU refused to import them, leading to potential health concerns in Egypt.

"Many exports have been returned for this reason, and the problem is there isn’t really a qualitative organization with a system that is able to trace the pesticide source, nor perform follow-up market analyses to ensure that these products haven’t re-entered the local market," says Mansour.

The responsibility of the Agricultural Pesticide Committee (APC) under the supervision of the Agriculture and Land Reclamation Ministry, is to "independently evaluate the efficacy, safety and performance of pesticides … ensuring that the health and safety of people, crops, environment and trade are well-protected," according to its website mission statement. But according to experts, years of inefficient management has rendered the committee pragmatically obsolete.

However, Mohamed Abdel Mageed, the current head of the committee, tells Al-Masry Al-Youm that his team is working very hard to increase awareness among farmers.

"We have many ongoing, comprehensive awareness campaigns, as well as books and pamphlets that we provide to farmers to tell them which fertilizers are proper to use and which are not, and we also explain to them each fertilizer’s specific use," says Abdel Mageed. “If the farmers still choose to use banned pesticides, then you must sympathize with the APC because obviously the farmers are practicing willful ignorance.”

“We also have professional teams which analyze any rejected export batch for pesticide residue, which can trace it to the source immediately,” he adds.

But despite the ministry’s and the APC’s well-intentioned agenda, Mansour confides that unfortunately, this is "not entirely accurate," and that "regardless of whether they are distributing books or pamphlets, it reveals the lack of a common language between decision-makers and farmers, because most farmers don’t even know how to read."

"The committee is there, as an entity, but it is handicapped as it isn't aware of how to actually communicate at the farmers' levels," adds Mansour.

Obviously, farmers' views on the issue vary from being actively aware of the dangers of the pesticides they use to ignoring the threats these products may pose for years on end. The minority of farmers who do know which pesticides are banned belong to a small group of large farming organizations that have strong relationships with the Agriculture and Land Reclamation Ministry.

"The ministry gives out fake pesticides that are very expensive," says Mohamed al-Minshawy, a farmer who works off the Cairo-Alexandria road near the Sadat City district. "I tried them once, and they did nothing at all; we cannot trust the ministry for our livelihood," he adds.

Mahmoud al-Mansy says that Minshawy's misunderstanding of how to use the government-approved pesticides reflects its poor awareness campaigns.

"There are new [government-approved] biopesticides available from certain outlets ― generally large private farming organizations — but the majority of Egypt’s millions of farmers have no idea about them," he says. "But sometimes, a smaller farmer might finally obtain a quality biopesticide, but conclude and spread word that the government is conning them because they don’t know how to use it, and it doesn’t appear to work well."

Mansour, the university professor, however, says that aside from the APC, other organizations are working toward creating awareness, such as the internal committee that works within the Kafr El Zeyat Pesticides & Chemicals Company. But effectively treating the problem remains a challenge for the future, he continues.

"The country is currently unstable, and so these issues will remain pressing as their priority remains on the back burner," says Mansour. "Hopefully, if stability is attained, we can attempt to harmonize ground-level farming with international pesticide legislation, but it will take enormous effort and diligence. In the meantime, pesticide toxicity in foods will remain a largely unresolved issue."

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