When customs officers seized 21t of counterfeit and illicit pesticides in Poland earlier this summer, it marked the end of the road for an illegal shipment smuggled more than 9,000 nautical miles from China.
The raid was the result of a joint operation between the European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf), Polish customs officials and legitimate right-holders - global agrochemical companies whose products are increasingly counterfeited.
Polish authorities intercepted the shipment at the border checkpoint in Dorohusk. Inside the trucks, they found 10.5t of unauthorised pesticides and 10.5t of insecticide in cans without labels, but packed in boxes bearing well-known brand names.
Battle front lines
Europe's eastern border with the Ukraine and Russia is the front line in the battle against counterfeit pesticides. It is an illegal trade that generates vast profits and huge losses of tax revenue across the continent - including illicit profits generated in the UK.
Law enforcement agencies are taking a growing interest in the trade - not least because their lack of traceability means illegal and counterfeit pesticides are especially at risk of being used by terrorists as precursors for home-made explosives.
"These are bad people," says Chris Sambrook, a criminologist with Thames Valley Police. "The people who are doing this are the same people who are illegally importing drugs."
The cost is more than financial. Subsequent analysis by the Polish state plant health and seed inspection service showed the counterfeit products seized in Poland contained unregistered or illegal active ingredients potentially dangerous to health.
"The smuggling of counterfeit pesticides poses a threat to the food chain, to farmers and, ultimately, to consumers because it allows dangerous products to reach the market," says Olaf director-general Giovanni Kessler.
Counterfeit pesticides pose an increasing threat to UK agriculture, agree crime experts. Our arable sector is seen as easy pickings by the international criminal gangs involved in illegally traded agrochemicals.
With illegal pesticides found in increasing amounts across the UK and Europe, a Thames Valley Police investigation is probing their distribution and use.
Growers who are unwittingly supplied with counterfeit pesticides - and anyone using them deliberately - are risking their livelihoods as well as lining the pockets of criminal gangs, says Mr Sambrook.
"You don't know what the effects are going to be on your health, your crops or your land. And if you get caught, you can forget all your farm assurance-type schemes and any premium payments - they're all going to go.
"The farmer is never going to make a profit by buying this stuff. You can save a few pennies here and there, but usually the prices are not that much lower. They're low enough for you to be tempted, but they're not so low that it raises suspicion."
Despite the risks, the potential profits are so high that European Union law enforcement agency Europol recently estimated that global revenues associated with the trade in counterfeit and other illegal pesticides are worth more than €4.4bn (£3.5bn) annually.
But the exact size of the market remains unknown. As with any illegal activity, it is difficult to determine the size of the problem - and by its nature, the trade in counterfeit pesticide products is often hard to detect.
Trade in illegal pesticides in Europe is said to represent more than 10% of the total worldwide market, with more than 25% of the pesticides in circulation in some EU member states said by Europol to be illicit or counterfeit.
In the UK, the proportion is believed to be much smaller - but still significant. "Some industry experts have put the figure at up to 10%, but I would probably say about 2%.That's probably worth between £9m and £10m."
The modern-day organised criminal is hugely entrepreneurial, says Mr Sambrook. "They will have the contacts to exploit opportunities far quicker than a legitimate agrochemical company could ever do."
An agrochemical company that plays by the rules often needs months to ratchet up pesticide production. But a counterfeiter can get a product to market within days.
This is one of the reasons why Syngenta is sponsoring Mr Sambrook to undertake a PhD at Harper Adams University. Identifying the risk factors associated with illegal pesticides will help the industry fight back against the trade, believes the company.
"We have seen an increased tendency for illegal products posing as legitimate parallels to arrive in the UK," says Thierry Yvon, Syngenta's head of investigation and product security. "This is a problem that should be seriously considered not only by growers, but also by the relevant authorities."
Read the full article from Farmers Weekly here.