Syngenta, a Swiss chemicals company, produces one of America’s most popular herbicides. It is called atrazine, and 73.7 million pounds of the chemical compound were applied in the United States in 2013. It was used on more than half of all corn crops, two-thirds of sorghum and up to 90 percent of sugar cane.
But Syngenta cannot sell atrazine to farms in its own backyard. The weed killer is banned as a pesticide in the European Union as well as in Switzerland over concerns that it is a groundwater contaminant. Syngenta, however, did not get the memo.
Even though the European Union banned atrazine over a decade ago, the company has long insisted that the pesticide was not banned. On one corporate website, Syngenta points to “anti-atrazine activists” who “claim that ‘atrazine’ is banned in the European Union. This is patently false.”
Another Syngenta-backed site, “Saving the Oasis,” also blames “anti-atrazine activists.” And another such site, AGSense, says, “We’ve known it all along, and now you know it too: Atrazine is not banned in the European Union.”
The company has repeated its assertion to reporters.
“It is not banned,” Ann Bryan, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email, though she acknowledged that “countries in the E.U. currently do not use atrazine.”
Companies are perhaps understandably sensitive about revealing too much about the gulf that exists between American and European regulation of pesticides and other chemicals.
Generally speaking, the European approach incorporates the so-called precautionary principle and requires companies to establish that new chemicals are safe before they are put on the market. The American approach puts the onus on regulators to show some evidence of danger before taking action against new chemicals.
Scores of chemicals that are banned or tightly restricted in the European Union are allowed in the United States. One recent analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, a Washington-based advocacy group, found 82 instances of pesticides allowed in the United States but barred or restricted in Europe.
This disparity can make selling products on one side of the Atlantic that are banned on the other uncomfortable, though few companies have tried a semantic maneuver quite like Syngenta’s.
“The use of atrazine as a herbicide/pesticide is banned in the E.U.,” Mikko Vaananen, a spokesman for the European Chemicals Agency, said in an email, adding that it was still allowed as an intermediate substance used in industry to create new chemicals. European Union government documents, from formal filings to informal newsletters, also use the term “banned.”
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