Brazil bans paraquat and the agribusiness lobby is gearing up for action

In September, Brazil joined the list of countries having banned paraquat because of its acute and chronic toxicity. The ban will enter into force in 2020, following a three-year transition period. But this decision could be called into question if new studies persuade the authorities before then that the product is safe to use. Everything indicates that the agribusiness lobby is already hard at work behind the scenes to try and persuade the Brazilian authorities to reconsider their decision.

On 19 September, Brazil's National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) decided to ban production, import, marketing and use of paraquat. This powerful herbicide has already been banned in more than 50 countries – including Switzerland and the European Union – because of its extreme toxicity. It is the cause of thousands of cases of poisoning every year, especially in countries in the Global South.

Brazil is the world's largest consumer of paraquat. Sales are up, following the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, particularly in soybean crops. The paraquat ban has dealt a major blow to Syngenta, which makes more than half of its paraquat sales in Brazil. The Basel-based giant is the leader in the Brazilian pesticide market, recording sales of USD 2 billion each year, i.e. 20% of its turnover.

Four reasons behind the ban

In 2008, the Brazilian agency ANVISA, which falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, launched a re-assessment of paraquat as numerous studies had demonstrated the herbicide’s "acute and chronic toxicity".

The conclusions, which were presented in 2015, were unequivocal: paraquat causes numerous cases of acute poisoning each year; it has been found to be linked with Parkinson’s disease; it provokes irreversible genome damage; and use of protective equipment does not guarantee adequate protection for workers.

A ubiquitous lobby

As a result of the pressure exerted by the powerful agribusiness lobby, the entry into force of the ban on paraquat has now been postponed until 2020. The Brazilian authorities may also revert their decision if new studies demonstrating the safety of paraquat, particularly with regard to its mutagenic effects, are published.

In a report published in 2017, ANVISA tells of the high levels of pressure it has been subjected to since it presented its findings. The Ministry of Agriculture and the "Parliamentary Front for Agriculture" in particular have allegedly repeatedly prompted it to reconsider its proposal to ban paraquat. In addition, a working group composed primarily of the Pesticide Producers' Association was set up, which subsequently played "an active role in all stages of the paraquat re-assessment process" during "regular meetings" held with ANVISA.

The Front for Agriculture, which protects the interests of agribusiness in parliament, provided a good half of the votes required to impeach Dilma Rousseff and allow Temer to take office in August 2016. This group played a crucial role in pushing ANVISA to scale down its ambitions regarding the ban on paraquat. It also spearheaded a bill seeking, on the one hand, to remove a provision from the regulation that prevents authorisations from being granted with regard to pesticides that are clearly carcinogenic and mutagenic, and, on the other, to take away from ANVISA much of its authority concerning the placing of pesticides on the market in Brazil in order to reassign such authority to the Ministry of Agriculture, headed by the controversial "soybean king" Blairo Maggi.

Syngenta optimistic

In its response with regard to ANVISA’s decision, Syngenta appeared very optimistic, claiming that ANVISA had "decided to continue to issue authorisations for crop protection products containing paraquat for the next three years, during which additional measures to mitigate risks may be implemented and further studies may be conducted to demonstrate the safety of the product for agricultural workers". No doubts Syngenta is already hard at work behind the scenes and will do whatever it takes over the next three years in order to persuade the Brazilian authorities to revert the ban. The battle in Brazil is just beginning.

A tough year for paraquat

The Brazilian authorities’ decision comes after what is an already bad year for paraquat, since China, Vietnam and Thailand have also announced that they would be banning the pesticide. Estimated at USD 1 billion in 2016, the global paraquat market is controlled by Syngenta, which holds a 40% market share, according to various sources. Yet the Basel-based giant’s sales of non-selective herbicides – mainly paraquat and glyphosate – have been in free fall for a few years now. Still standing at nearly USD 1.5 billion in 2014, they dipped to USD 770 million last year, that is to say a 50% drop in sales in just three years.

Find out more

Take a look at our special webpage on paraquat.

O Brasil proíbe o paraquat – o lobby prepara-se (News article in Portuguese)