Let’s play a word association game. It is very simple; I say a word and you respond with whatever comes to mind. Ready? If I say the word “illegal”, what do you think about?
Odds are that you thought about the drug market, narcos, perhaps firearms or even specific cities that have a reputation for vice. Highly unlikely, however, is that you thought about pesticides (rightfully so). After all, it is not a particularly sexy topic within criminal activities—I doubt screenwriters are pitching a show on illegal pesticides to HBO—yet it is a very damaging activity with significant implications for the environment and health in North America.
A few days ago, the Mexican-based think-tank Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano published a must-read report on the illegal market for pesticides in the country that diagnoses the scope of the problem and, from a human security and sustainable development perspectives, evaluates the damages to the population.
According to the report, between 2016 and 2020, illegal pesticides used in Mexico ranged between 0.2 percent and 36.2 percent of the national apparent consumption (production plus imports minus exports). Data collected through Freedom of Information Requests for the report also shows that between 2016 and March 2021, 52 percent of vegetable samples analyzed under a national program that monitors food safety contained residues of unauthorized pesticides. Depending on the estimate, the size of the market, between 2018 and 2020, ranged between US $118.6 and US $213.8 million.
Another key finding of the report is the low priority and lack of inter-institutional coordination among Mexican authorities to limit illicit activity in the pesticides market. As a result of budget cuts, COFEPRIS (Mexico’s equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration) is significantly understaffed. That is, in a country where 10 percent of total exports are agricultural goods worth US $39.5 billion, the government has little to no capacity for monitoring the quality of a key production input. Furthermore, because of the lack of coordination, known actors within the illegal market who were identified in 2008 have continued operating. This lack of coordination is well-known within illegal actors who exploit it to continue with their operations.
This matters beyond economic and reputational damages to licit actors within the market for pesticides. Their misuse, including falsified products, directly impacts the health and well-being of populations in developed and developing nations. For example, those involved in food production who are using unregulated products may be exposed to highly toxic substances whereas consumers can develop chronic illnesses as a result of unknowingly ingesting toxic residues.
Arguably, the health and environmental challenges generated by illegal pesticides closely align with the recently announced U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities. As both governments continue to work on the details, if the central goal is pursuing the safety and security of our societies, then how are crops are grown and what we are unknowingly putting in our bodies should also be part of the conversation.