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Syngenta’s alternative facts

On 18 September, we published a press release entitled “A Syngenta pesticide produced in Switzerland is implicated in deadly poisonings in India” which is based on our report about “The Yavatmal scandal”. In an official counter statement as well as in numerous media reports, Syngenta called our findings and allegations “salacious and incorrect” and denied plainly that its Polo pesticide was involved in the wave of poisoning in Yavatmal, Maharashtra in 2017.

Atul Loke / Panos Pictures

It specifically made the following statements:

Statement 1: There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Syngenta’s product Polo was at all responsible for the incidents that have occurred.

Fact: There has been extensive media coverage in India and, more recently, in Switzerland (SRF 10vor10) showing that Syngenta’s Polo was one of the pesticides involved in the wave of poisoning in Yavatmal. Local NGO reports have also immediately identified Polo as one of the pesticides behind the wave of poisoning (see e.g. the report by PAN India).

In our own investigation in the district of Yavatmal, we have identified over 50 victims that specifically report having used Polo, and about half of them report having used Polo only.

Diafenthiuron formulations (Polo is such a formulation) were one of the five formulations on which the Maharashtra government declared a 60 days temporary ban in November 2017, immediately after the poisoning, precisely because there were indications that Polo was involved. At the same time, the Maharashtra government announced its intention to register a culpable homicide case against Syngenta.

In June 2018, the Maharashtra government declared another 60 days temporary ban on the same five pesticide formulations. At the same time, it forwarded a proposal to the Indian Central Insecticides Board seeking a permanent ban on five pesticides, including diafenthiuron 50% WP formulation (this is Polo, among others).

Statement 2: The report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), appointed by the Maharashtra government, exempted Syngenta and Polo from any responsibility.

Fact: The SIT report (PDF, 11.7 MB) blames mainly farmers and climatic conditions for the wave of poisoning – and was heavily criticized for that. But it also specifically blames the insecticide monocrotophos as well as pesticides for which no antidode is known, because the chances of patients’ mortality increases. The SIT report specifically mentions tiourea compounds as an example of those pesticides for which no antidode is known and diafenthiuron is a tiourea compound. And indeed on the Syngenta Polo label (JPG, 10.1 MB) in India it is written: “No specific antidote is known”. The SIT report recommended the ban of monocrotophos and pesticides for which no antidote is known – such as diafenthiuron. Furthermore, the report criticizes the industry also for its labelling of the products: the letters are so small that the information is “illegible” and the instructions, therefore, can “neither be understood nor followed.” The labels are not even in the language actually spoken in the state of Maharashtra. We witnessed exactly those problems during our field trip in July 2018.

Based on this report, the Maharashtra government forwarded a proposal to the Indian Central Insecticides Board seeking a permanent ban on five pesticides, including diafenthiuron formulations (such as Polo).

Statement 3: Syngenta was the first company to respond to the incident and worked closely with the district administration in ensuring the availability of protective equipment, providing safe handling training and medical treatment to the affected people. “Our mobile health clinics have reached more than 25,000 farmer families since the program began in response to the incidents. We have also distributed more than 10,000 PPE kits for spray men in collaboration with the Panchayats.”

Fact: We interviewed dozens of victims and farmers in numerous villages and could not identify a single person who received training, medical assistance or protective equipment from Syngenta. Local organizations which are regularly monitoring the situation since the tragedy are confirming our field experience. Consequently, we invite Syngenta to specify concretely when and where they have distributed those 10.000 protective suits and who exactly the beneficiaries of their mobile clinical services were.

One year after the poisoning, the conditions of pesticide usage remain the same in Yavatmal: Farm workers applying pesticides are not protected, not aware of the dangers and not trained, as our investigation shows.

We went into a pesticide shop in Yavatmal where a Syngenta “Certificate of Recognition” was hanging on the wall. The shop owner was clear: it never received any protective equipment from the company. In 10vor10, Dewanand Pawar, spokesman of the Yavatmal farmers says:

I have never seen someone from Syngenta out here. Only the pesticide sellers come to the villages.

Moreover, the FAO International Code of Conduct on Pesticides Management, to which Syngenta claims to adhere, is clear that: «Pesticides whose handling and application require the use of personal protective equipment that is uncomfortable, expensive or not readily available should be avoided, especially in the case of small scale users and farm workers in hot climates». If that is not the case in Yavatmal, then where else? In such a context Syngenta should withdraw Polo from the market because it cannot be safely used.

Statement 4: Syngenta’s Polo is neither banned nor suspended from sale in India or in the state of Maharashtra.

Fact: In the State Maharasthra, Polo was temporarily banned during 60 days in November 2017 and again this year in June 2018. In India, state governments are not able to declare permanent bans on pesticides. The Maharashtra government has requested the Indian government to permanently ban five pesticides formulations, including diafenthiuron-based formulations, but without success so far.

Many Indian experts point to the fact that the pesticides lobby in India has a very strong influences on decision-makers at national level and is able to successfully protects itself against bans on highly hazardous but commercially successful pesticides.

Statement 5: Syngenta is not the only company selling Polo

Fact: Syngenta is the only company selling Polo. It is its brand. While it is true that some indigenous manufacturers also sell products that contain the active ingredient diafenthiuron, they sell their diafenthiuron products under other names.

Statement 6: Syngenta stopped producing Polo in Switzerland back in 2016

Fact: The export notifications obtained from BAFU (PDF, 274 KB) prove that 75 tons of diafenthiuron have been exported from Switzerland to India in 2017. Whether or not the production, as claimed by Syngenta, has been moved to China is irrelevant to the fact that the diafenthiuron involved in the wave of poisoning was produced in Switzerland and exported to India in 2017.

Statement 7: Polo is not banned but only not registered and not sold in Switzerland

Fact: Diafenthiuron is listed in the PIC Ordinance as a substance the use of which is “banned” owing to its “effects on human health or on the environment”. Diafenthiuron is also in the BLW’s list of substances that were withdrawn from the market since 2005 (PDF, 124 KB). In other words, it was once registered for use in Switzerland but later banned owing to its effects on human health and on the environment. This happened in Switzerland in 2009, after the EU had banned diafenthiuron in 2002.