Banned pesticides rife on Greek farms

Banned pesticides that are 30 percent cheaper than approved brands are being widely used by farmers across the country, according to a recent survey that found that in 2006, illegal products were sprayed on 3,000-4,000 hectares of rice in Halastra in the prefecture of Thessaloniki, an area that accounts for 30 percent of the country’s rice crop. Just one in three bottles of herbicide used in the rice fields were approved. Olive groves in Halkidiki, cotton, wheat, corn, potato crops and orchards in Macedonia as well as farms in Thessaly, Corinth and even on Crete are being sprayed with these harmful products, according to estimates. Turnover from the sale of just three brands of these herbicides used in rice fields amounted to one million euros in 2006. In Europe as a whole, the trade in illegal and imitation products results in tax revenue losses of 21-30 million euros annually. According to a report by the Greek Association for Plant Protection (ESYF), which represents 35 Greek producers of phyto-pharmaceutical products, non-approved herbicides are imported from Italy and Turkey to the prefecture of Thessaloniki for its rice fields. Bulgarian herbicides are used in wheat and corn fields in Serres, Kilkis and Drama and insecticides on potato crops. In the prefectures of Pella and Imathia, according to the report, illegal imports of insecticides from Bulgaria and Spain are used in orchards and cotton fields. In Halkidiki, illegal insecticides from Turkey that have been withdrawn from European Union markets are being used in olive groves. The association reported a similar situation in Thrace, with illegal imports from Turkey and Bulgaria being used in the prefectures of Evros and Rhodope. «Illegal imports from third countries, specifically from Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania, are mainly those that were withdrawn years ago from the EU, including Greece,» said ESYF’s director Francesca Ydraiou, who added that Greece is believed to be the entry point for Chinese-manufactured plant products into Europe. «The problem is not simply the financial losses to firms making approved products, but the fact that farmers use these products unrestrictedly, endangering their own health as well as risking the loss of their harvests.» Meanwhile, according to Grigoris Nikolaidis, president of the Macedonia-Thrace Agronomists’ Association, the argument that these illegal products are 30 percent cheaper is false economy. «This is the way to give Greek products a bad name; we have already lost the most demanding markets such as Munich, considered the gateway to major retail chains in Europe,» he said. Epidemiological studies by medical schools in Patras and Thessaloniki estimate that 4 percent of farm products in Greece have been contaminated with substances that can, after long-term consumption, even alter genetic material; 2 percent of cancers are caused by chemical compounds found in plant products. These substances have always been circulating in Greece, but the problem became particularly severe, according to Nikolaidis, after a law was passed in November 2005 that allowed the «parallel import» of plant protection products that enables not only commercial firms but private individuals, cooperatives and associations to import products. In practice, this has led to to what are virtually smuggling rackets. Approved firms are calling for inspections at customs points to catch even the smallest amounts of smuggled products, as well as on-the-spot checks of farms by prefectural authorities. They also want faster approvals of plant products so there are no loopholes that could be exploited by smugglers. «Three years ago firms submitted applications for rice field herbicides to the ministry, but approval is still pending. So farmers are forced to use illegal products imported from Italy,» said Ydraiou. «If the ministry wanted to help fight smuggling, it could at least grant temporary sales permits as it did in the case of red rice, which accounts for just 10 percent of the total rice crop,» said Athanasios Papapostolou, head of the Association of Professional Agronomists for Thessaloniki, Kilkis and Halkidiki. «Our association has applied in writing to the ministry to act on this, but we have been waiting for two years for a reply. Unfortunately this year has gone by and we hope the same won’t happen next year.» Nikolaidis also drew attention to the fact that a national register of plant protection products has been pending since 1997. «Ten years later, no presidential decree has been issued; there are no restrictions on the use of illegal plant products,» he said. In Europe, however, there has been a register of approved products for years and special organizations of agronomists authorized to prescribe them.