The case is becoming poison for the reputation of Danish farmers – and may already have poisoned Denmark’s drinking water.
Over the past month, police in eastern Jutland have broken open two large smuggling rings involving illegal pesticides and fertilisers. Hundreds of Denmark’s farmers, including some of its largest food producers are named on the smugglers’ customer lists. Among those names are high-ranking members of the agriculture and food council Landbrug & Fødevarer, as well as a Danish prince.
On Wednesday, one Landbrug & Fødevarer board member, Martin Arvad Nielsen, the chairman of the potato starch factory KMC, stepped down from Landbrug & Fødevarer's board after the smugglers named him as a major customer, Politiken newspaper reports.
According to documents obtained by Politiken through a freedom of information request, Nielsen purchased 24 tonnes of the illegal fertilisers from the smugglers.
Nielsen maintained his innocence, but said he was stepping down to avoid damaging the organisation’s reputation.
Also named among the smugglers’ customers is the owner of Schackenborg Castle – i.e. Prince Joachim. Schackenborg is one of the country’s largest farms.
According to inspector Niels Bugge from the East Jutland police, investigators are now opening the books on farms all over the country.
“Bornholm, Copenhagen and West Zealand don’t have any cases, but farmers in every other region have purchased these things,” Bugge said.
Police in Jutland are currently investigating two large-scale smuggling rings. One involves a 60-year-old man from Odder who is charged with selling illegal foreign fertiliser to more than one hundred farmers. A second case involves two men from Djursland who are charged with organising a vast smuggling operation that furnished illegal fertiliser and banned pesticides to as many at 160 different farms.
In the Djursland case, it is alleged that the men smuggled 15,000 tonnes of fertiliser and 45 tonnes of pesticides – of which 21 tonnes are banned substances – across the German-Danish border in over 500 lorry trips between 2007 and 2009.
“It is really worrying. We’re not just talking about four farms that ran things crookedly,” biology professor Mogens Flindt, from the University of Southern Denmark, told Politiken.
“Our lakes and streams may have picked up significant concentrations of pesticides and fertilisers because of this, thus damaging our water quality.”
Flindt expressed concern that the abuses could be far larger than even these two cases suggest.
“You have to wonder if this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
According to the environmental protection agency, Miljøstyrelsen, some of the pesticides that were smuggled into Denmark and spread on its farmlands are carcinogenic and categorised as harmful to human health.
Both the environment minister, Ida Auken (Socialistisk Folkeparti), and the food minister, Mette Gjerskov (Socialdemokraterne), condemned the illegal imports.
“Illegal pesticides and illegal fertilisers have the potential to harm our environment, our drinking water, and the food we eat,” Gjerskov told Politiken.
The Food Ministry, which Gjerskov has headed up since October 2011, is therefore running an investigation of as many as 500 farms and food producers nationwide, to ensure that fertilisers and pesticides are being used properly.
Landbrug & Fødevarer chairman Niels Jørgen Pedersen apologised for the scandal which is threatening to touch every part of the Danish agricultural industry.
“It’s a truly vexing situation. The people who did these things have taken a huge toll on the entire industry,” he told Politiken. “It has never been acceptable to use illegal fertilisers or to go around the system.”