Bee in a sunflower, Photo by Alexas Fotos, via Pexels

EU lobby profile: Syngenta

A toxic ‘world champion’

As agrichemical giant Syngenta hits the news on its extremely toxic herbicide Paraquat, Corporate Europe Observatory reveals the company’s years of lobbying in Europe on behalf of its toxic trade, which involves everything from exporting chemicals banned in the EU, to its defence of bee-killing neonicotinoids, to its all out war on the new Farm to Fork strategy to cut pesticide use by half. Syngenta is a true global toxic lobby champion because it manages to manipulate regulatory science in many countries, increasingly control the international trade in agrochemicals and seeds, and influence the policy debate on the urgently needed greening of the world’s food production.   

The new Syngenta Files co-published by The New Lede and The Guardian reveal the agrochemical company’s true nature. Despite years of costly, global PR-campaigns to give itself an ecological, climate-, and farmer-friendly image, the leaked internal documents show that Syngenta has less noble intentions and wants to preserve a toxic business model above anything else.

As the investigative journalists write: “For decades, Swiss chemical giant Syngenta has manufactured and marketed a widely used weed-killing chemical called paraquat, and for much of that time the company has been dealing with external concerns that long-term exposure to the chemical may be a cause of the incurable brain ailment known as Parkinson’s disease”.

And  “the public narrative put forward by Syngenta and the corporate entities that preceded it has at times contradicted the company’s own research and knowledge. And though the documents reviewed do not show that Syngenta’s scientists and executives accepted and believed that paraquat can cause Parkinson’s, they do show a corporate focus on strategies to protect product sales, refute external scientific research and influence regulators”.

The Swiss based multinational deliberately hid important scientific knowledge about possible serious health effects caused by paraquat, a Syngenta flagship product and herbicide banned in Europe because it is so toxic that a single sip can kill. Syngenta is currently facing litigation in the US because of the link between paraquat and Parkinson’s, just as Monsanto faced many lawsuits based on the link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Paraquat has been banned in the EU since 2007. However, the EU allows corporations to produce toxic products like Paraquat in the EU and export them to the rest of the world. As recent as for the years 2020-21 the EU Chemical Agency ECHA received 12 notifications for export of Paraquat from the EU. The European Commission promised to ban this nefarious practice, just like Germany and France have done, but just this week it became clear that it has disappeared from the Commission’s work programme for the rest of its term.

Five years ago UN experts warned that pesticides have a “catastrophic impact” on many levels: “Excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital  to ensuring food security.” They added that pesticides from a “global human rights concern”, including an estimated 25 million cases of acute poisoning resulting in 220,000 deaths a year.

The contrast between Syngenta’s ‘green messaging’ and its business practices is very stark. For example, research shows that CropLife members like Syngenta make $596m of their sales from pesticides classed as highly toxic or fatal by the World Health Organisation (WHO), mainly to the Global South: “Syngenta accounted for a large majority of these sales, with its top sellers including paraquat”. For Syngenta in particular this figure is much higher, according to research published by Public Eye: “Selling highly hazardous pesticides is at the core of Syngenta’s business model. About one third of Syngenta’s pesticide portfolio – and half of its best sellers – consists of substances listed as “highly hazardous” by PAN.”

Syngenta deliberately hid important scientific knowledge about possible serious health effects caused by paraquat, a product and herbicide banned in Europe because it is so toxic that a single sip can kill

Syngenta's lobby facts

According to LobbyFacts Syngenta self-declared lobby spending in the EU of €1,250,000€ - €1,499,999 for 2021. The company declares only a handful of accredited lobbyists, but they are quite active with 22 high-level Commission meetings since 2015, of which the most recent was in May 2022 with the Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, on Ukraine and the food crisis.

Syngenta does not defend its business interests alone, but also via its membership of the industry associations CropLife Europe, Euroseeds, and the European Biostimulants Industry Council (EBIC), as well as its membership of American Chamber of Commerce to the European Union (AmCham EU) and EconomieSuisse.

And of course Syngenta also hires extra lobby-power via consultancies and PR-firms like Cambre  (between 25,000€ - 49,999€ in 2020), Acumen public affairs (between 50,000€ - 99,999€  in 2019), Fleishman-Hillard (between 10,000€ - 24,999€ in 2020), Steptoe & Johnson LLP (between 50,000€ - 99,999€ in 2019), Vlahovic Group LLC (between 10,000€ - 24,999€ in 2019) and EU Focus Group (between 50,000€ - 99,999€ in 2019) just to mention some of the bigger clients of Syngenta Group.

In addition, Syngenta participates in a number of other bodies in the lobby-sphere, promoting free trade and less regulation such as the Transatlantic Policy Network (TPN), European Technology Platform (ETP) Plants for the Future, the Glyphosate Renewal Group (GRG), and European Risk Forum (ERF).

Syngenta’s large lobbying budget allows it to position itself as a key stakeholder, by for example organising the annual Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA) in Brussels, a hotspot for agribusiness lobbying and networking. The FFA always features presence of several Commissioners and other high-level decision makers.

According to Syngenta self-declared lobby spending in the EU of €1,250,000€ - €1,499,999 for 2021. The company is quite active with 22 high-level Commission meetings since 2015, of which the most recent was in May 2022 with the Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, on Ukraine and the food crisis.

Box 1: The business of killing bees

The world’s five biggest pesticide manufacturers (Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, FMC, Corteva) made their main products income ($1.3bn) from chemicals classed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as highly toxic to bees. These include neonicotinoids – mainly produced by Bayer and Syngenta – which were partly banned for outdoor use by the EU in 2013.

That ban didn’t happen overnight. In 2013 Corporate Europe Observatory outlined: ‘Syngenta and Bayer’s furious lobbying efforts against EU measures to save bees’. Syngenta and Bayer, who produce these substances often used to coat seeds as a ‘preventive way’ of protecting crops against pests, waged an all-out lobbying war against the proposed partial ban of these substances by the European Commission following EFSA’s (European Food Safety Authority) opinion, warning of the risk they pose to bees. The EFSA opinion was in itself based on mounting scientific evidence showing that neonicotinoids were indeed harming pollinators.

Syngenta in particular used some extreme lobby tactics:

  1. Syngenta urged the Commissioner to “resist this pressure” to ban neonicotinoids led by “a small group of activists and hobby beekeepers” for the sake of the credibility of the EU’s regulatory process.
  2. Syngenta’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Mack personally wrote to Commissioner Dalli to remind him that just two weeks before he had lunched at the G8 summit with US President Obama, some high level EU officials and politicians, discussing the contribution of the private sector to global food security and the money Syngenta was committed to spend in Africa.
  3. According to Syngenta, who didn’t provide any references to back up the claim, “the loss of this technology will cost farmers and consumers up to €1 billion and undermine the production of safe and affordable food”. In a letter they sent in November 2012 they stated that according to “independent analysis” there would be significant damage to European agriculture if their product was banned.
  4. Bayer and Syngenta launched a charm offensive to be seen as part of the solution rather than of the problem, using an upgrade of Syngenta’s PR sting ‘Operation Pollinator’, which paid a few farmers to grow flowers and other plants beneficial to bees on their farms. But how many farms exactly? No figures were provided.

Syngenta has a track record of influencing science to justify and greenwash it’s chemicals. In 2013, the Greens/European Free Alliance published a 22-page report titled, “Syngenta, Lies & Pesticides” which “dismantled the most important of Syngenta’s so called ‘scientific claims’ that are in fact based on lies, to protect corporate profits” regarding the company’s use and promotion of neonicotinoids in relation to bee health.

Despite all this, in 2018 the EU upheld the ban on three of these neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) to protect honeybees, from outdoor use. But despite their acute toxicity to bees and other pollinators, emergency authorisations are being granted every year mainly for the sugar beet growing season by at least 10 EU member states. And these neonicotinoids also continue to be exported outside the EU in large quantities, Brazil being the main market.

Influencing EU policy also often happens via expert groups. And as Corporate Europe Observatory and the European Beekeeping Coordination reported ten years ago Syngenta (along with Bayer and BASF) had its representatives inside EU working groups advising the European Commission on policies dealing with the impacts of pesticides on bees.

According to the research, proposed new safety tests for pesticides used in the European Union failed to take into account how systemic pesticides can build up in bees and their food supplies. The report found that a number of “experts” from pesticide companies were involved in defining which tests were required to verify the safety of new pesticides under the EU pesticides directive.

Because the EU institutions do not have their own expertise on bees, the Commission outsourced advice on new guidelines to the International Committee of Plant-Bee Relationship (ICPBR), which set up a working group to look at the impacts of pesticides on bees. Representatives from pesticide manufacturers including Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, and BASF all sit on this group, which is responsible for designing and recommending methodologies for the risk assessments of bees' exposure to pesticides, which are then approved by the EU institutions.

Pesticides Action Network (PAN) revealed recently that the EU guidelines on how to replace toxic pesticides with other solutions were written by the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization ( EPPO) through a series of meetings by its working group on pest resistance. Industry makes up a quarter of the working group’s membership, including two from Syngenta and two from DuPont. Industry organised some meetings, and at times, outnumbered officials by two to one. NGOs were never invited. PAN complained, but nothing changed.

Ladybird on a leaf, photo by Lisa Fotios, via Pexels

Toxic trade

Syngenta is producing large quantities of dangerous pesticides banned in the EU, but nevertheless exporting them to non EU-countries.

In 2019 research by the Swiss NGO Public Eye revealed that Syngenta is one of the main corporations responsible for the flow of some of the most dangerous pesticides, – known as “highly hazardous” ­– used intensively in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), even when those chemicals are banned in the EU.

Moreover, Syngenta made two thirds of this revenue in those countries, “where weak regulations allow the continued sale of numerous pesticides that have been banned in the EU”. Brazil has the highest pesticide use in the world and according to this research is Syngenta’s largest market: “in 2017 the company sold a billion dollars’ worth of highly hazardous pesticides in Brazil alone”.

For example Syngenta produces the highly toxic and bee killing neonicotinoid called thiamétoxam in its main European production hub in Belgium and exports it from there, mainly to Brazil. One such example is the massive European export of pesticides from the neonicotinoid family, which are highly toxic to insects in general, and pollinators in particular, and which have been banned from outdoor use throughout the EU since 30 April 2019. Belgium is a key player concerning these toxic exports. According to a report by the NGO Public Eye, Belgium exports no less than 44.2 per cent of all neonicotinoids that leave the EU for countries where environmental and worker protection rules are sometimes weak or even non-existent.

Syngenta is one of the key players and its flagship thiamethoxam product ‘Engeo Pleno’ is exported mainly to Brazil from its Seneffe plant in the south of Belgium which has Syngenta’s biggest EU production hub. Information requested from the Belgian federal authorities, showed that 153 tonnes of thiamethoxam were exported from Belgium in 2020 alone. Indeed, the Mato Grosso state – the Brazilian industrial agricultural commodity powerhouse with 27 per cent of Brazilian soy, 31 per cent of corn, and 68 per cent of cotton production – many highly toxic and EU-banned pesticides are used in large quantities.

The health implication for children and their parents in large parts of Brazil are disastrous. Larissa Mies Bombardi, a scientist from the Geography Department of the University of São Paulo, wrote about the large number of pesticides poisonings and deaths in the country linked to the expansion of industrial agriculture and exposure to EU-made pesticides: “The peoples of Mercosur’s countries are, to a great extent, also under assault from a kind of chemical violence, evidenced by the large number of people poisoned by substances developed and often sold by countries in the EU,” wrote Bombardi in a study from 2021.

Last year Corporate Europe Observatory published the video ‘Toxic Trade’ which tells the story of toxic pesticides, international trade, and EU Green Deal promises. The European Commission committed to stop this immoral export of highly hazardous pesticides in its new strategy on chemicals but is now dragging its feet

Residues through the back door

In 2020 Corporate Europe Observatory documented how pesticide corporations and trade partners have put immense pressure on the EU to allow residues of certain hazardous pesticides – banned in Europe – to be present in food and feed imports.

EU pesticide rules include a ban on particularly hazardous substances in pesticides, for instance those that are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. These substances are so dangerous that EU regulators believe that, unlike other chemicals, there is no safe level of exposure to them.

Documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory from the European Commission through Freedom of Information laws showed how pesticide corporations and trade partners put immense pressure on the Commission to weaken its approach to these pesticides when it comes to imported food and livestock feed. Facing an endless number of visits, letters and reports, complaints and threats at the WTO by the US, Canada and others, the EU dropped its original plan to ban residues of these substances in imports in order to avoid consumers from being exposed.

Syngenta is producing large quantities of dangerous pesticides banned in the EU, but nevertheless exporting them to non EU-countries.

Box 2: Top heavy - Syngenta and China

ETC Group points out in its Food Barons 2022 report that whereas in the past western countries took a leading role, the markets for industrial agriculture are now truly globalising and getting ever more concentrated. Syngenta is one of just a handful global corporate players who are reordering the industrial food chain together with companies in the global South, especially China, Brazil and India, who are adopting the same extractive model as their Northern counterparts.

ETC Group writes: “The pace and scale of China’s hyper-industrializing agrifood system is without precedent. Chinese Food Barons are catering to colossal domestic as well as global markets: China’s state-owned Syngenta Group is now the world’s largest agrochemical input firm (seeds, pesticides, fertilizers); and China’s newly consolidated COFCO is second only to Cargill as the world’s largest agriculture commodity trader”. With the acquisition of Swiss-based Syngenta in 2017, the Chinese state aims to ensure that a greater proportion of its industrial farm inputs, agribusiness technologies and intellectual property are China-owned and sourced, while simultaneously expanding export markets with a global reach.

US-based scholar Phil Howard shows that only 4 multinationals including Syngenta, control 66 per cent of global trade in agrochemical products: “a small minority of actors globally exercise great control over food system decisions. This means that… the vast majority of farmers, consumers and communities are left out of key decisions about how we farm and what we eat.”

Indeed, Syngenta is one of only two companies controlling an extraordinary 40 per cent of the global commercial seed market; contrast that with 25 years ago, when 10 companies controlled the same proportion of the market, according to ETC Group’s 2022 report on corporate concentration in the industrial food and agriculture chain.

Both in global sales of (patented and pesticide coated) seed and agrochemical product, the Syngenta Group (which includes ChemChina which merged with Sinochem in 2021 and the Israeli company Adama) is in the top three, controlling up to a quarter of global trade.

Syngenta’s Group is active in over 100 countries and its sales went up 25 per cent to $18 billion in the first half of 2022 compared to 2021 (Crop Protection sales grew to $8.6 billion and seeds – often ‘coated’ with bee-killing neonicotinoids – increased 22 per cent to US$2.3 billion.) According to the company’s own declarations “sales in Europe, Africa and the Middle East grew 8 percent and in Asia Pacific with 7 percent. Driven by purchases ahead of the upcoming season, sales in Latin America increased 72 percent.”

syngenta concentration

Future according to Syngenta: ‘End organic farming’

Despite lofty campaigns and slogans like “Helping farmers. Fighting climate change”, Syngenta – together with Corteva, Bayer, and BASF – plays a key role worldwide in maintaining, and intensifying the current destructive agricultural model now augmented with big data, automatisation, pesticide spraying drones, and new gene edited, patented plants (see Box 2).

Dan Burdett, Syngenta’s Head of Digital Agriculture, said in a sponsored post in The New York Times: “Digital technologies are rapidly transforming agriculture: data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and overall farm management help save farmers time and money, and enable unprecedented precision and efficiency.”

In May 2022 Erik Fyrwald, Syngenta’s Chief Executive Officer, called for an end to organic farming to “avoid a worsening food crisis”. This is in contrast to the EU’s 2019 plan to increase the organic farming sector as part of its Green Deal.

As ETC Group writes, just when “the global pesticide economy is undergoing tectonic shifts” and “the world’s largest agrochemical/seed firms are racing to fortify their oligopoly power with ongoing consolidation, and feverish investments in high tech and digital platform technologies that are designed to extend their market share”, the European Commission announced a Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategy, a key pillar of which is the reduction of pesticide use by 50 per cent by 2030.

Syngenta and other agrochemical giants are up in arms and waging a fierce lobby battle – helped by centrist and right-wing politicians – against the EU’s attempt to green the agricultural sector. Meanwhile academics and civil society organisations in March 2022 urged the European Commission to publish the much needed revision of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive (SUD) as soon as possible. 

The European Commission was expected to publish this revision on 23 March 2022, setting the path for the legal implementation of the Farm to Fork. In fact EU law has already obliged member states to reduce the use of pesticides since 2009, but over a decade later, several member states are still trying to undermine the Sustainable Use proposal.

In March 2022 Corporate Europe Observatory exposed such toxic lobby strategies in a comprehensive report 'A loud lobby for a silent spring: the pesticide industry's toxic lobbying tactics against Farm to Fork'. This outlines how the pesticide industry lobby group CropLife Europe (CLE), and their members including Syngenta have staged an immense and well-resourced lobby campaign against the flagship-policy of the EU, the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategy (both pillars of the EU Green Deal).


House of cards

As Investigate Europe wrote in June 2022: “Few Europeans would have believed, a few months ago, that the European Union would be in a political drama on the regulation of pesticides resembling House of Cards. But that has been the situation in Brussels since March, when the EU Commission decided to postpone the presentation of the SUR regulation, which aims to halve European use of pesticides by 2030.”

This happened when the major chemical producers’ lobbying machine, supported by the powerful European federation of farmers’ associations Copa-Cogeca, and the centre-right EPP group of the European Parliament, used the Ukraine War as an argument to scrap all greening ambitions.

When Investigate Europe interviewed EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for Farm to Fork ­– the Green Deal master plan for the greening of agriculture – he replied: “Of course the agro-industrial complex mobilizes, and we have a very, very confrontational debate, as I always seem to have with them.”

But on 22 June 2022 the European Commission finally presented its long awaited proposal for a regulation to reduce pesticide use in Europe by 50 per cent by 2030, in order to avoid ecosystem collapse. The proposal has been cautiously welcomed by food and farming groups as an urgent and welcome first step, but more is needed to put Europe on the path to a sustainable food system, and protect the health of farm workers, citizens, and the environment.

The fact that the proposal is now an EU regulation with binding legal force, not just a directive for individual governments to decide how to implement, is an important improvement but will not be sufficient to ensure proper and prompt implementation by member states. Political decision-makers must remain vigilant to avoid the mistakes of the past that have lost us a decade of action.

Last week the European Commission announced that pesticide reduction targets have a lot of public support, as demonstrated by the extraordinary success of the ‘Save bees and farmers’ European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) backed by over one million EU citizens. The initiative demands a reduction of synthetic pesticides of 80 per cent by 2030, and a full phase-out by 2035. Now it’s up to EU member states and the European Parliament to step up the ambition, and not bow to industry pressure to keep our food system locked in to toxic pesticide use.

Unfortunately MEPs and agricultural ministers are still echoing the self-serving and phoney food security arguments of the pesticide lobby.

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