The spread of counterfeit pesticides and fertilizers that contain dangerous toxic substances is one of the biggest dangers threatening agriculture in the country, and its delicate ecosystem.
While the Agriculture Committee in the Shura Council, the lower house of Parliament, has warned of weak government supervision of the pesticides market and the expansion of its illegal outlets, banned pesticides are still used in large quantities.
“The government has no control or supervision on the import or distribution of pesticides and fertilizers. We are obliged to deal with small pesticide and fertilizer outlets because the Agriculture Ministry doesn’t help us by any means,” says Reda Nassif, a farmer from Monufiya Governorate.
Nassif says many factories produce counterfeit pesticides and fertilizers, carrying the name of famous companies with the same packaging design, to deceive naive farmers. But after analyzing their components, farmers realized they contain dangerous toxic chemicals that paralyze plants and increase the salinity of the soil.
“The owners of these factories make huge profits because they use very cheap materials to produce these pesticides and fertilizers, and then sell them at expensive prices, and that’s how the business goes,” Nassif says. “All types of potassium fertilizers that exist in the Egyptian market, for example, are fake.”
Latest Agriculture Ministry reports put the total amount of pesticides imported last year at about 7 billion tons, with a total value of LE1 billion. This consumption exceeds that of the rest of the region.
Nassif explains that major farming companies import pesticides and fertilizers in large quantities, then distribute them to small shops spread throughout villages nationwide.
No restrictions are imposed on these imports, and because Egyptian farmers tend to be more attracted to imported products than local ones, they flock to buy any new product that enters the market, even without knowing its source.
“We heard recently about some Israeli pesticides that entered the Egyptian market, but because, in general, farmers fail to differentiate between pesticides coming from different sources and countries, they could never discover whether they used them without being aware [of it],” Nassif says.
He says he thinks it’s a foreign scheme aiming to spread disease or destroy crops and plants to force Egyptians to import their crops, “because who doesn’t own his food doesn’t own his dignity,” Nassif bitterly adds.
Osama al-Tayeb, microbiology and immunology professor at 6th of October University, sees another dangerous aspect of the situation. Farmers started to replace the original, natural pest resistors with more advanced and modified products that are hazardous to crops and human health.
Tayeb says over the past decades, farmers have used a natural poison — Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt — produced by bacteria to get rid of pests that attack their crops. It used to be produced by the National Research Centre and was distributed by Kafr El Zayat Pesticides and Chemicals Company, at very cheap prices.
This natural pesticide was safe and could decompose in less than a week without leaving any toxic residues in soil or plants. But now, farmers have started to import genetically engineered seeds that can produce toxic materials by themselves in large quantities. These can cause environmental problems and health dangers, because they can change some genes inside the human body and be harmful to health, Tayeb says.
He says that after the temic type of pesticide — which kills worms in soil — proved to be a very toxic substance causing birth defects and cancer, and after its import was banned, farmers started smuggling it in illegally because they had got so used to it.
Although some farmers do not realise they are using genetically engineered products, Tayeb says he thinks the lack of awareness isn’t the only reason behind the distribution of these products. Another is the strong desire to make higher profits. When farmers hear about products that can save their crops, they insist on buying them without asking whether they are legal.
Facing this situation, which some experts call a “pseudo black market” and in which most traders don’t know their products are illegal, the Agricultural Pesticide Committee, under the supervision of the Agriculture Ministry, launched an awareness campaign a few months ago to teach farmers which pesticides and fertilizers to use and which to avoid.
But many experts think these campaigns won’t achieve their goals because the committee doesn’t know how to communicate at the farmers’ levels.
Natasha Arthur, marine biologist and environmental expert, says it’s important for governments to work closely with agricultural organizations to make sure the public is not exposed to high levels of pesticides that result in adverse health effects.
“Pesticides have the capacity to persist in the soil and water for decades, affecting plant life and animal life, which in turn can affect humans and cause health problems like cancers, nerve damage and birth defects,” Arthur says.
Although it rarely rains in Cairo, she says, pesticides can end up in lakes and rivers through the air, wind and birds, poisoning them.
“Communities that rely on rivers for food are at risk of consuming the toxic active and inactive components of pesticides, as the bio-accumulate in big fish,” Arthur says. Bio-accumulation is the accumulation of chemicals in the tissue of organisms.
Fertilizers can also pollute the marine system and cause environmental disasters, particularly in a country like Egypt where farmers don’t have drainage pipes to get rid of extra irrigation water and dump it in lakes and rivers.
This can lead to a toxic bloom. When farmers use fertilizers for crops, or even areas such as golf courses, then rain, wind or the rest of the irrigation water carries fertilizer rich in nitrates and phosphates to the lakes and oceans. This provides an over supply of nutrients for the growth of algae, and the algae grow very quickly — resulting in the death of fish and plant life in lakes.
A similar occurrence happens in the ocean. Plants and animals die because of the quick overgrowth of algae and other plants, preventing sunlight from penetrating lakes and oceans and decreasing oxygen levels.
Corals also die because they need sunlight and clean water to thrive, and because corals provide a habitat for most sea life, fertilizers in the ocean can kill many species along the food chain.
Ahmed Droubi, biologist at Greenpeace — an international environmental protection association that recently started working in Egypt — says there is a monopoly in the pesticide and fertilizer market in Egypt.
“About seven big farming organizations dominate the whole market as they are the only importers who can manipulate prices as they like and create market need whenever they want,” Droubi says. “Therefore, small farmers resort to smuggling illegal pesticides and manufacturing fake fertilizers as they can buy them at cheaper prices.”
Droubi says the association plans to cooperate with government agriculture authorities to impose laws and regulations to protect farmers’ and consumers’ rights. It also plans to find solutions for problems related to pesticide misuse and the use of wastewater for irrigation, as well as other issues, such as corruption.
“We have some agricultural lands that exist a few meters away from the Nile, but irrigation water doesn’t reach them,” Droubi says. “At the same time, fresh water can reach some golf courses and resorts that contain artificial lakes in deserts, and this is obviously unfair.”
While many experts say farmers don’t trust the government and prefer not to buy from its outlets, Nassif says farmers would buy from them.
“We are sure the government will bring us good types of fertilizers and pesticides. That’s why we beg the Agriculture Ministry and farming associations to start distributing pesticides and fertilizers through specific known outlets at reasonable prices, under government supervision,” says Nassif. “We resort to the black market because we have no other alternative.”
Some steps could be taken to overcome the problem, he says, such as setting up strict restrictions on imports and making an office in every village responsible for inspecting shops.
“Unfortunately, the farmers union still exists as an entity but its role has always been marginalized, and poor farmers have no voice. They need someone to speak on their behalf and express their requests and complaints,” Nassif says. “We need to remember that Egypt is an agricultural country in the first place.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.