Syngenta makes billions selling highly hazardous pesticides

Based on exclusive industry data, Public Eye reveals the key role played by the Swiss agrochemical giant in selling highly hazardous pesticides – above all in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). In Brazil, the world’s number one consumer, studies show high rates of cancers and other chronic diseases linked to the massive use of such substances. In a petition, Public Eye calls on Syngenta to take its most toxic pesticides off the market. Switzerland should also take binding measures to put an end to this illegitimate business.

In a new report, Public Eye sheds light for the first time on the scale of a business as secretive as it is lucrative: highly hazardous pesticides. By cross-referencing data from Philips McDougall* with the list of 310 substances that present the highest levels of acute or chronic hazards to health or the environment issued by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), Public Eye estimates the global sales of highly hazardous pesticides at US$22 billion in 2017. This represents about 1.8 million tonnes of active substances, two thirds of which were sprayed in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).

While Syngenta boasts about its efforts in terms of innovation, Public Eye’s unprecedented investigation reveals that selling highly hazardous pesticides is at the core of its business model. Of the 32 substances which are included in the company’s “key marketed products”, 15 feature on the PAN blacklist of pesticides. According to our calculations, in 2017, the Swiss giant made approx. US$3.9 billion in revenue from highly hazardous pesticides. The multinational takes advantage of weaker standards in countries such as Brazil, Argentina or India to continue selling its toxic ‘blockbusters’, many of which are no longer authorised in Switzerland or the European Union. Baskut Tuncak, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics, says that

“there is an urgent need to end this exploitation of lower standards of protection. This is a morally and ethically unjustifiable situation (…) States should have mandatory human rights due diligence for chemical manufacturers.”

To understand the consequences of the widespread use of highly hazardous pesticides, Public Eye carried out investigations in Brazil, Syngenta’s main market. Scientific studies show disturbing rates of congenital deformities, cancer and other chronic diseases in the regions with the highest levels of pesticide use. In the state of Mato Grosso, at the heart of crop monocultures, we met parents with sick children, agricultural workers and experts. Despite the climate of fear, people are speaking out to denounce a business model whose negative impact on health and the environment are becoming increasingly apparent.

In collaboration with Repórter Brazil, Public Eye also accessed data from the Brazilian national drinking water monitoring programme. Our analysis shows that millions of Brazilians are exposed to a cocktail of pesticides whose long-term effects are unknown. Atrazine is one of the most frequently detected substances. This herbicide is classified as an endocrine disruptor and a reproductive toxicant. It was banned in Switzerland and the European Union over ten years ago because of water contamination. But Syngenta continues to sell it in Brazil, where it is found in 85% of drinking water samples tested. 

In order to protect future generations, the most toxic substances must be taken off the market and replaced with safer alternatives. In a petition, Public Eye is calling on Syngenta to commit to put an end to the production and sale of highly hazardous pesticides. Switzerland should ban the export of pesticides which are banned in its own jurisdiction due to their harmful effects on health or the environment. Given that companies like Syngenta have shown no willingness to act on a voluntary basis, the Swiss government should implement mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence requirements for Swiss companies, as proposed by the Responsible Business Initiative, and should support an international treaty to regulate the business of highly hazardous pesticides.

For more information, click here or contact:

Laurent Gaberell, agriculture and biodiversity expert, +44 21 620 06 15,

Géraldine Viret, Media Officer, +44 21 620 03 05,


*Philips McDougall data

Our investigation is based on data on pesticide sales produced by Philips McDougall, a private market research firm that presents itself as “the market leader in providing business intelligence for the crop protection & seeds industry” and a reference source for the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The data does not cover the entire market but is sufficiently representative to estimate global sales by substance, volumes for the main user countries and Syngenta’s market share.

**PAN’s list of HHPs
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the WHO have concluded that pesticides that present particularly high levels of acute or chronic hazards to human health or the environment – known as ‘highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs)’ – should be taken off the market and replaced by safer alternatives. Although specific criteria had been defined to identify them by 2006, to date no list has ever been compiled. In 2009, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) reviewed some 1,000 substances on the market using the criteria outlined by UN agencies and also accounting for other risks that had been overlooked, such as toxicity to bees or endocrine disruption. Public Eye worked on the basis of that list of 310 pesticides, last updated in 2019.