Ukraine, dubbed the breadbasket of Europe, is a grain-producing country that feeds people in European markets and beyond. Its fertile great plains stretch as far as the eye can see, undulating grains interlaced with family-owned dachas each with its own fruit and vegetable patch. In 2018, Ukrainian farmers cultivated a total of 30 million hectares of land, an area about the size of Italy.
Viacheslav Dzhulai manages a 370-hectare farm in central Cherkasy: “We grow soybeans and corn, which we then use for feeding livestock,” he says.
Fertile lands require special care to ensure high productivity, resistance to pests and diseases, and maintenance of the soil’s biodiversity. Pesticides—chemicals used in agriculture to control pests—are among the range of measures farmers take to protect their crops.
“We take care of the land all year round,” says Dzhulai, “and we use pesticides to protect our crops. It is very important for us to use the right chemicals, so we work only with original producers. Sometimes farms use poor quality pesticides, which can have negative effects later.”
Currently, Ukraine consumes about 100,000 tons of pesticides every year—an investment of approximately US$2 billion. Such great demand inevitably attracts malefactors. Imperfections in legislation, corruption, lack of experience in combating pesticide turnover, as well as an overall difficult economic situation, makes Ukraine vulnerable to the circulation of illegal crop protection products.
"There are two ways that illicit pesticides enter Ukraine: through import and through domestic production,” says Mykhailo Malkov, coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s development activities in Ukraine.
Illegal trafficking of chemicals in agricultural is already a big cross-border problem which threatens to become even bigger as the world’s food production needs increase. Trafficking of counterfeit products is the most pressing issue. With the global crop protection market valued at US$60 billion, counterfeit pesticides are estimated to make up to 15 per cent of that share-a lucrative business for international organized crime.
As a large-scale pesticide consumer, Ukraine is attractive to criminal groups. In the summer of 2018, Ukrainian police exposed a private enterprise involved in importing and distributing illicit crop protection products from China. The police seized 139 tons of chemicals imported without proper permits; their origin and composition were unclear.
But there is a local dimension to the problem as well. For instance, there are no legal pesticide destruction facilities in Ukraine. Therefore, confiscated counterfeit products, kept in poorly guarded warehouses, often reappear on the market some time later. To address this issue, the Ukrainian government recently allowed the export of unusable or counterfeit pesticides to other countries in Europe for recycling. Similarly, pesticide containers fail to be disposed of properly after use and end up being reused to package counterfeits.
It is estimated that illicit pesticides make up about 25 per cent of the total pesticide market in Ukraine. This includes both imported and locally produced counterfeit products. Illicit pesticides are attractive to farmers because they are cheaper, and because of people’s lack of awareness of how harmful these products can be.
Raising awareness on the risks of illegal trafficking of pesticides and their use in agriculture is one of the goals of UN Environment’s Special Programme project in Ukraine-an initiative designed to help states meet their chemicals and waste management obligations under the Basel, Rotterdam, Minamata and Stockholm conventions and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.
The Ukrainian project, titled Strengthening the Enforcement of the Rotterdam Convention and Building Capacity to Counteract Illegal Trafficking of Chemicals, is supporting the launch of three “farm patrols”: assistance hubs for farmers in the region of Zakarpattya in western Ukraine; the Odessa region; and Kyiv. The hubs are meant to inform farmers of the dangers of illicit pesticide use and how to avoid buying fake products. Farm patrols also provide legal support to farmers that have fallen victim to the use of counterfeit chemicals and serve as centres for collecting real-time information on illegal pesticides for authorities and businesses.
“Big businesses have the ability to conduct analyses, track what comes to them, know their suppliers. They have legal and other services that allow them to solve the problem of being sold illegal pesticides,” says Senior Project Specialist Iarema Hertsyk. “Small and medium-sized farmers may not even be able to identify the problem at all, or, most importantly, they cannot fight and protect their rights. This is how the idea of hubs came up. On the one hand, we needed to run a campaign about buying the right product, on the other hand, we urgently had to help farmers protect themselves," adds Hertsyk.
The harm of using illicit pesticides is complex. At best, they are simply inefficient in protecting crops from pests; at worst, they destroy or spoil them. The environmental damage may be even more widespread. “The use of counterfeit crop protection products may cause long-term pollution of soils, surface and groundwater, and threaten the biodiversity of local agroecosystems,” says Tamara Kutonova, UN Environment’s consultant in Ukraine.
Fake pesticides also damage the reputation of legal national producers, as the most common type of counterfeit pesticides are packaged in containers that look identical to original and well-known crop protection products.
The state loses, too: the clandestine market of counterfeit pesticides results in reduced tax income for the government and reputational damage both as producer and exporter when crops fail because of the application of those products.
UN Environment’s Special Programme contributes to training specialists involved in the control of chemicals trafficking in Ukraine such as customs officers. ‘We train ecologists, including in the regions, and we plan to train criminal profilers within the national police. But it is the customs officers who are dealing with imported pesticides at the border. In Ukraine, there is a single-window system, and the decision-whether or not to let a product into Ukraine-is taken by the customs officer," says Hertsyk.
The Special Programme also assists in implementing the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. The Convention promotes shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among signatories in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals and contributes to the environmentally sound use of those chemicals.
Ukraine signed the Rotterdam Convention in 1998 and ratified it in 2002. Since then, little has been done towards its implementation. One of the project’s goals is to make sure the Rotterdam Convention actually works in Ukraine. With support from the Special Programme project, Ukraine already held a number of inter-sectoral meetings between stakeholders that are responsible for implementing the Convention, to improve their understanding of Ukraine’s obligations with respect to the Convention.
In Ukraine, a nation which faced large scale ecological damage from the Chornobyl disaster in 1986, 93 per cent of citizens consider environmental issues to be an important matter according to recent research. Chemicals and waste management are among the top priorities for the government’s ecological policy—an area where UN Environment’s support is being directed. "Our goal is to improve the chemical safety situation in Ukraine," sums up Hertsyk.