At the end of 2020, Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture estimated food production growth at 4.9 percent, expecting it to increase to 5.1 percent in 2021. In recent years, agriculture has consolidated as a leading economic activity in the country, demonstrating sustained growth in the primary and agro-industrial sectors.
As in many other, perhaps better-known, markets, such as alcohol beverages, pharmaceutical products or tobacco, the illegal market for agrochemicals has progressively increased in the last few years. According to the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), 15 percent of the world trade in pesticides corresponds to illegal products. This a global phenomenon but it is more evident in developing countries, resulting in a significant menace to agriculture, food production, the environment and economy.
Several clues, such as illegal or noncompliant product seizures conducted by governments, but also the increase in complaints reporting the presence of these products in agricultural communities, let us know that this issue is scaling up at an alarming rate. Ironically and despite all this, the efforts to combat this huge issue are still considered timid across Latin-America, not only because of lack of knowledge and understanding, but also because of weak regulatory frameworks that consider these as minor offences. Unfortunately, Mexico is not the exception.
Why Authenticity is Important
Research and development companies travel a long road from discovering a new molecule that has potential to treat a plant disease to its commercialization. This process costs around US$250 million and takes up to 10 years of several rigorous scientific studies and regulatory clearances.
Once all the rough science is done, companies submit dossiers to local authorities to grant import and commercialization permits that assure that the product is safe for the user, the environment and the final consumer. In Mexico, COFEPRIS, part of the Ministry of Health, oversees the granting of these authorizations and registrations, considering technical opinions from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment. It can take up to three years to thoroughly analyze technical and scientific information.
Mexico’s regulatory system is considered one of the most robust and complex in Latin America, so once a product obtains this authorization it assures its safety and benefits to the growers in the country.
Once innovative active ingredients have lost their patent, generics companies can commercialize the actives. But the local regulatory process isn’t any easier; they also must undergo the solid Mexican regulatory process to assure the safety of the ingredients and formulations they are using.
What We Face
Counterfeit, nonauthorized and adulterated crop protection products do not face any of the controls or regulations mentioned above, and can cause irreversible harm to the health of the person who uses the product. They can also have strong environmental impacts such as soil degradation, air and water pollution, and impact wildlife. The noncontrolled residues left in produce can also affect the final consumers’ health.
In economic terms, the agricultural industry occupies a significant place in our regional economy and is continuously growing. Globally, the crop protection industry is estimated to generate trillions of dollars in revenue each year. Consequently, there are numerous economic implications derived from the growth of markets of illegal pesticides. For governments, this growth in informal markets translates into a reduction in tax collection, since illegal products do not contribute to the tax system, as they are traded outside the registered circuit.
In the end, these products aren’t facing the strong scientific, technical and regulatory control that chemicals of this nature should face to assure complete safety.
What Can Be Done?
Communication, information and awareness creation among crop protection dealers and farmers that use the products are the essential axes in the resolution of this problem. Creating awareness on the impact of using products that haven’t undergone this process is an endeavor of both the innovation industry and the generics associations in Mexico in recent years, but having the government participate in a more active and coordinated way (regulatory, law enforcement, customs) is crucial to respond more effectively to the threat from the illegal agrochemicals market.
Sensitizing the authorities to the importance of treating this illegal market like others that may be more apparent, the impact on the economy, human health and the environment and emphasizing this issue as part of national strategies on food sovereignty and consolidating Mexico as a quality food exporter are the main topics for urgent consideration within the country.
Finally, motivating legal frameworks that consider these crimes as impactful felonies, and implementing greater penalties for those who commit them, is necessary to end the enormous impacts of a market that is, sadly, growing.
Sustainable agriculture is the future. Producing more food for a growing population, and doing it with the same resources and a minimum impact on the environment, is fundamental to assure human survival. Considering every aspect of such a complex issue is our responsibility to assure we reach our bold goal.