Pesticides lobbyists touted deal to ‘embed’ staff in office of South African pesticides regulator

Lobby group CropLife South Africa said it had reached agreement to have “independent consultants” - paid for by agrochemical manufacturers themselves - “embedded” in the pesticide registrar’s office

Wheat is sprayed with pesticides on a farm in South Africa. Photo: Dewald Kirsten/Shutterstock

A pesticide industry lobby group told its members it had agreed a deal to ‘embed’ contractors paid by the manufacturers themselves within the office of South Africa’s pesticides regulator, leaked documents show.

The news was found in a tranche of leaked documents from within the pesticides lobby group CropLife South Africa, and is revealed by Unearthed as part of a joint investigation with South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper. 

The country is one of the biggest pesticide markets on the African continent, and CropLife SA’s members include both local South African agrochemical companies and powerful multinationals like Syngenta and Bayer. 

Leaked minutes from an August 2020 meeting of CropLife SA’s “regulatory forum” state that the lobby group had agreed a deal with the country’s pesticides registrar whereby CropLife members will pay to have “independent consultants” “embedded at the office of the Registrar”.

South Africa’s pesticides registrar is responsible among other things for assessing applications for new pesticide products to be approved for use on South African farms. 

A company that wants its product to be “registered” for sale in the country needs to submit a “dossier” on the pesticide to the registrar, which includes scientific studies on the safety and effectiveness of the mixture. 

But the pesticide industry has been complaining for some time about a “backlog” of applications waiting to be assessed by the registrar.  

According to minutes from the August 2020 meeting, CropLife members were told that the lobby group had reached an agreement with the regulator on a proposal it made to the department of agriculture to help clear this backlog. 

The minutes state: “An agreement has been reached with the Registrar to form a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with CropLife, where independent consultants will be embedded at the office of the Registrar, work with his team to process applications faster and help create SOP’s [standard operating procedures] and processes aimed at a more efficient system.”

The minutes go on to explain that companies applying to have a product registered for sale will be expected to pay an extra fee – on top of the “gazetted tariffs” they would normally pay for an application – to cover the cost of these embedded consultants.

“Applicants will still be required to pay the gazetted tariffs according to the type of application,” they state.

“Applicants will be required to pay an extra fee, which will go towards funding the PPP.”

However, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian, registrar Maluta Jonathan Mudzunga denied there was any intention to have “people embedded in the department to replace the function of the regulator”. 

“There are no such people who have been embedded by CropLife in the department,” he said. Rather, he suggested, there had been delays in processing some pesticide applications because of increased demand and because some applications had “data gaps”. 

“Therefore, to make sure there’s no delays in the applications, it may be important that such applications should be screened by somebody else,” he continued. “And we said, if there could be such a platform for applications to be screened – when you screen an application you’re simply saying… you’ve looked at this application and all the data required has been submitted – so the registrar [does not have to ] spend so much time going back to trials to request things that were supposed to be there. 

“There is no such intention to then say that there will be people embedded in the department to replace the function of the regulator.”

CropLife SA chief executive Rod Bell said the registrar’s office was “currently immensely under-staffed” and this had resulted in “huge backlogs,” with “dossiers supporting various applications for regulatory approval not being processed for many years”. 

He said “many companies and industry associations” had entered discussions with the registrar to “find public-private partnerships that provide resources to assist in clearing the backlog”. In fact, he claimed, “other industry associations have already embedded independent consultants in the Office of the Registrar to assist with dossier processing under the guidance of the Registrar”. 

“In another example, an industry association entered into a public-private partnership with the Registrar whereby registration applications were pre-screened for completeness and accuracy before being submitted to the Office of the Registrar,” he continued. 

“Therefore, the CropLife SA offer to assist the Office of the Registrar in clearing the backlog by finding independent resources, approved and managed by the Registrar and not the industry, has precedent and in no way can be construed as CropLife SA attempting to be the ‘fox in the henhouse.’”

He added that, under South African law, the only person who has the mandate to approve or reject a pesticide registration application is the registrar. He said the suggestion that efforts to “assist” the registrar with “additional independent resources” would “negatively impact the integrity of the Office of the Registrar, is frankly insulting, not only to the industry but also the Office of the Registrar”.