EU Member States disagree over toxic fertilizers

The European Parliament has voted to rein in toxic fertilizers that are high in carcinogene heavy metals. Morocco stands to lose a major market for its high in cadmium fertilizer products, which it exports also from occupied Western Sahara.
Published: 23.02 - 2018 10:02Printer version    
Morocco is the biggest exporter of rock phosphates in the world. Most of its phosphate rock and fertilizer products are exported from Morocco proper, but some is also exported from the territory of Western Sahara, which it holds under foreign occupation. The latest cargo of phosphate rock illegally exported from occupied Western Sahara to the EU, arrived on 8 October 2016 to Lithuania.

Concerned over the EU population’s exposure to cadmium – a heavy metal that is carcinogenic – the EU Commission in 2016 proposed a regulation to stepwise reduce the allowed cadmium level of phosphate-based fertilizers - responsible for 60% of the current cadmium emission’s to the EU’s soil and crops. The plan was to end with a maximum allowed cadmium rate of 20 mg/kg over the course of 12 years.

The EU Member States, however, still have to vote on the matter, and they seem unable to agree. On one side are those that argue for the health of consumers, and on the other those who argue for the protection of the agriculture and fertilizer industries.

Spain's Minister for Agriculture, Isabel García Tejerina, announced on 21 February 2018 that Spain will oppose the proposal, out of consideration to the Spanish farmers and fertilizer producers. Tejerina, having a professional background in the fertilizer sector, argued that the political opponents in Spain showed "disinterest" to the farmers.

"The Spanish market should be able to use phosphorous proceeding from the African phosphate rock. Too strict cadmium limits would exclude us from the market of phosphate fertilizers", stated the minister, underlining that France and the UK share Spain's concern.

"It is a highly toxic product that can have serious and irreversible effects on people's health", said one opposition MP.

From what WSRW understands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries favour low cadmium-levels due to the important health concerns. Sources close to the EU Council state that also Poland is negative to the new regulation.

The European Parliament already in October 2017 backed the EU Commission’s plan to limit the amount of cadmium allowed in mineral fertilizer products sold on the single market. In the plenary vote, MEPs voted in favour of the Commission proposal to reduce cadmium levels in fertilisers to 20 mg/kg in 16 years’ time (and not 12 years as suggested by the Commission).

However, until the regulation has passed the Council of Ministers, it will not be implemented. And for now, the process seems to be stuck.

Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company OCP has been very negative to the EU's suggested regulation on the poison. Phosphate rock from North Africa is high in cadmium. The proposed regulation would thus over time result in the nullification of OCP’s sales figure to the EU, which it puts at 34%.

OCP thus unleashed an intense counter-lobby, arguing that the Commission should in fact consider raising the allowed cadmium rate to 80 mg/kg. OCP has engaged the law firm Dechert LLP and the PR group Edelman, to lobby European Parliamentarians to convince them to vote against the proposed cadmium regulation.

Large changes have taken place over the last years in the imports from occupied Western Sahara. Previously large importers in Europe and Latin America have stopped purchasing, the single largest importing country Canada stops in 2018, a decision on possible stop to the US will be made in mid-2018. One of the largest importing countries of the illegally exported rock from Western Sahara is today New Zealand, where the accumulation of cadmium in the soils have been a main political debate for years.

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Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
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