FAO/WHO fail to asses whether pesticide sales in India breach international standards

India – Pesticides – FAO/WHO

ECCHR and its partner organizations urged the FAO/WHO in an open letter and monitoring report to implement urgently needed changes to effectively address the widespread mismanagement of pesticides worldwide. The report shed light on the deficient labeling of products, the widespread failure to provide protective clothing, and insufficient training of vendors.

The Panel of Experts on Pesticides Management of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Orgnisation assessed the monitoring report during its annual meeting in April 2017 in New Delhi. The experts at the FAO/WHO, however, failed to deliver specific recommentations for business behavior that fully adheres to the International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management. Therefore, ECCHR and its partner organizations urged the FAO/WHO in an open letter to implement urgently needed changes to effectively address the widespread mismanagement of pesticides worldwide.


Based on the evidence from farmers in Punjab, it was possible to show how Bayer and Syngenta sell highly hazardous pesticides but fail to ensure that farmers are adequately informed about the dangers of the products or the necessary protective measures. ECCHR’s report also questions whether the companies do enough to monitor their business practices and the consequences of these practices for human health and the environment in the region.

ECCHR and its partner organizations are calling on Bayer and Syngenta to immediately halt sales of dangerous pesticides such as Confidor and Larvin (Bayer) and Gramoxone and Matador (Syngenta) in India. The FAO Panel of Experts is called on to conduct a comprehensive and independent investigation of the allegations against Bayer.


The International Code of Conduct on Pesticide Management was introduced by the FAO in 1985 to globally regulate the risks associated with pesticides. The current version of the Code of Conduct (2013) is officially supported by the World Health Organization. The code stipulates that risk management is the joint responsibility of governments and pesticide producers.

Bayer and Syngenta have publicly pledged to adhere to the code. The monitoring report was submitted in October 2015. ECCHR compiled the report with support from Brot für die Welt, Germany, Public Eye, Switzerland, the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific, Malaysia, and Kheti Virasat Mission, an organic farming movement based in Punjab, India. The five organizations from Europe and Asia say the report is a clear indication that these companies’ business practices in India are in breach of the FAO/WHO code of conduct.


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Q&A: Pesticide products contain hazardous chemicals that are known to cause severe damage to human health and the environment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pesticide poisoning affects 3 million people around the world and accounts for 20,000 unintentional deaths a year. A large number of the chemicals found in pesticides are internationally recognized as causing serious diseases such as cancer and reproductive disorders.

The Code of Conduct and the accompanying guidelines developed by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) set standards for pesticide management that are aimed at reducing health and environmental risks. The pesticide industry should rely on the Code, particularly when operating in countries that have not yet established or are unable to effectively operate regulatory control over commercial pesticide activity (Art. 3.2); in practice this applies to many countries of the Global South where the most adverse environmental and public health impacts of pesticide use are felt. Where relevant standards cannot be met and pesticide use presents an unacceptable risk to the public, the Code requires pesticide companies to halt sale of these products.

The Code of Conduct addresses the shared responsibility of governments and the pesticides industry to manage the risks associated with pesticide use wherever they are sold. The Code has been adopted by CropLife International, a platform that represents pesticide companies internationally. Bayer and Syngenta have pledged to adhere to the Code both through their membership to CropLife and in commitments contained in their internal management policies.

Pesticide companies voluntarily integrate the standards in the Code of Conduct into their business practices. However, NGOs are invited to monitor observance of the Code and submit ad hoc Monitoring Reports to the FAO/WHO Panel of Experts. In their yearly meeting, the Panel of Experts reviews the reports and makes recommendations for appropriate follow-up actions.

The FAO emphasizes the value of the monitoring mechanism. However, its effectiveness is heavily disputed. First, the mechanism is not widely known and is under-used; to date only three monitoring reports have been submitted, with the last presented in 2007. Second, NGOs that have participated in the monitoring mechanism have observed how the Panel of Experts has consistently failed to effectively address evidence of noncompliance.

The Code of Conduct contains important minimum standards for international pesticide companies to follow, and its standards should be enforced as a means to protect the populations it is designed to serve. The minimum standards in the Code of Conduct are of particular importance in countries where the domestic pesticides legislation and its implementation are ineffective, leaving farmers, who are in direct contact with pesticides as well as the local population who are indirectly exposed, unprotected against the health hazards created by pesticides.
Pesticide manufacturing companies may well be aware of the situation through visits of sales representative on the ground as well as various policies and internal mechanisms designed to safeguard the interests of end users. The Code of Conduct is explicitly accepted by the parent companies such as Bayer CropScience AG as well as Syngenta AG. Violations of the Code of Conduct in countries of the Global South, such as India, can thus be directly linked to the headquarters. The problem of environmental and health damages is assessed in a comprehensive way including the responsibility of parent companies who ultimately benefit economically from the business activities abroad. This role of the parent companies also puts into question the current approach of the home governments of pesticides manufacturing companies.
Finally, the Code of Conduct is the only standard globally accepted by governments and the industry alike. The Code of Conduct aspires to support sustainable agricultural production, while protecting human and animal health and the environment from the harmful effects of pesticides. According to Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, the Code of Conduct in its current form emphasizes minimizing the use of pesticides and, if necessary, removing from use highly hazardous pesticides. In order to live up to its objectives, the Code of Conduct needs monitoring efforts by civil society organization, as this offers the possibility to critically review industry practice and allow the WHO/FAO Joint Meeting of Experts on Pesticides Management to actually influence the industry when it comes to fulfilling its responsibilities under the Code. The Code of Conduct would otherwise be rendered meaningless and lose its credibility. ECCHR believes that it is important that WHO/FAO monitors compliance with the regulatory standards to ensure that health is not put at risk.

In the mid-1960s the so-called Green Revolution introduced new farming techniques to Punjab that relied on increased inputs such as fertilizer and chemical pesticides. After decades of accusations surrounding the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, people are seeing the adverse effects on their health as well as the surrounding environment. This is especially so in the Malwa region or the "cotton belt," where 75% of the pesticides in Punjab are used.
Farmers applying pesticides are directly exposed to them dermally and orally. Dermal exposure occurs through direct contact with the skin, for example by spillage during mixing or pouring or contamination of skin or clothing during spraying. Inhalation exposure can occur when application creates airborne liquid or solid particles that are fine enough that they may be taken in through the nose or mouth. Farmers suffer from acute effects such as skin burning, respiratory problems, blurred vision, nausea, and dizziness as well as long term effects through continued exposure to pesticides in small doses over a long period of time.
Due to the contamination of water, soil and food in Punjab, families, communities and consumers are also at risk of being indirectly exposed to pesticides that can result in serious diseases. The high prevalence of cancer has attracted significant concern from health professionals as well as the government of Punjab and scientific studies have linked reproductive disorders and developmental problems with pesticide exposure. There are also reports of serious side effects caused by direct exposure to pesticides. A study in the cotton belt reported that 94.4% of farm workers suffered from skin rashes and itchiness, and 88.9% experienced nausea and eye itchiness after spraying pesticides.

The Monitoring Report focuses on two major European pesticides manufacturers: Bayer and Syngenta. These two companies were chosen due to the dominant market position they hold in Punjab and internationally. The Report also addresses claims of violations committed by their subsidiary companies in India, as well as their sales representatives, and distributors operating in Punjab.

The Monitoring Report addresses two main areas of claimed (non)adherence to the Code of Conduct. The first concerns adequate labeling whereas the second concerns the provision of protective clothing for users and the training of company representatives. In addition, the Report addresses the question of whether both companies are failing to monitor business practices as well as the adverse impacts of pesticide use in the area studied.
The Monitoring Report analyzed a sample of six products that Bayer and Syngenta currently distribute in Punjab. According to the Code and Guidelines issued by the FAO, companies are required to include appropriate safety advice and health warnings on labels. However the labels of all six products were said to be incomplete. Of particular concern is the omission of  health warnings from the packaging of Nativo, manufactured by Bayer CropScience in Germany. Nativo is sold in Punjab and the UK, and a comparison between the two labels revealed that the warning phrase "suspected of damaging the unborn child" appeared to be missing from product sold in Punjab.
The Code of Conduct requires companies to promote the use of protective equipment, which as a minimum should include boots, gloves, goggles and a long sleeved shirt and trousers. However, Bayer and Syngenta appear to be failing to make such equipment available to customers, either by distributing quality equipment to customers or ensuring that it is available to purchase in outlets. As a result, pesticide users seem to have no choice but to apply pesticides in their everyday clothes, and often barefoot, absorbing the poison directly through the skin. Moreover, when users have experienced burning or itching as a result of coming into contact with a pesticide, it was reported that authorized distributors of Bayer and Syngenta advised them to apply mustard oil against acute skin reactions. This means of protection is demonstrably insufficient to protect users from the exposure to pesticides as compared to the equipment recommended by the FAO.
The Monitoring Report also highlights that company representatives at various levels may be aware of these apparent violations ongoing in Punjab. Given their close ties to their distributors, the companies seem to be in a position to influence the sales practices yet fail to take the monitoring of health and environmental impacts sufficiently seriously.

The Monitoring Report has been submitted by a coalition of NGOs across Europe and Asia, which includes: ECCHR, Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific, Brot für die Welt, Public Eye and Kheti Virasat Mission, an organic farming movement based in Punjab.

In the Monitoring Report the submitting organizations demand effective follow-up actions from Bayer and Syngenta, namely that:

  • They withdraw all pesticide products with inadequate labels from the Punjabi market;
  • They refrain from selling pesticides if the availability of appropriate protective clothing cannot be guaranteed;
  • They guarantee farmers are adequately trained in how to use their pesticides;
  • They train the people who sell their products to market them responsibly;
  • They offer a disposal scheme for empty containers;
  • The submitting organizations also call for an improvement of the visibility of the Code of Conduct and transparency of the monitoring process. They contend that a greater involvement of civil society with more effective results is needed, otherwise the current system is at risk of becoming obsolete.

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