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Fosetyl-Al: A European problem for organic pistachio nuts

Currently, in Spain, it is estimated that organic pistachio cultivation represents around 33,000 ha of the 55,000 ha of total pistachio cultivation in 2021 (Source: MAPA). This type of cultivation is interesting due to its added value (price differential > €2) and the growing interest of consumers.

However, there is a problem that is affecting the organic pistachio production chain and causing a general drop in prices for this type of pistachio: the detection of a plant protection product that is not authorised in organic cultivation even though it has not been used, causing whole batches to be paralysed for months, and even the loss of the organic seal.

Aluminium fosetyl (Fosetyl Al) is a broad-spectrum systemic organophosphorus fungicide introduced 40 years ago and currently not authorised in organic production. It is generally used to control Phytophthora, Pythium, Plasmopara and Bremia on a variety of crops (nuts, citrus, pineapple, avocado, stone and pome fruits, soft fruits, vegetables).

It consists of three molecules of ethylphosphonic acid and one atom of aluminium, and is not a very stable molecule, which is rapidly broken down in plants into phosphonic acid, whose salts are called phosphonates.

Due to this nature, Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 setting maximum permitted levels for Fosetyl Aluminium (fosetyl-Al) specifies that residues of fosetyl-al should be analysed as the sum of fosetyl-al, phosphonic acid and its salts (expressed as fosetyl-al).

As a result, any batch with traces of phosphonates in the analysis is considered positive for Fosetyl-Al, even if there is no direct detection of fosetyl, causing batches analysed in this way to be disqualified as organic despite not having used the product in question.

The presence of these phosphonates may be due to the following causes, compatible with organic farming (Circular 1/2020 on the Detection of Phosphonates and Fosetyl of the Directorate-General for Industry, Innovation and the Food Chain of the Andalusian Regional Government):

  • Phosphonate residues may originate as a degradation product of potassium fertilisers composed of potassium phosphite, which was authorised in organic production until 30/09/13, but is currently not authorised.

  • Phosphorus-based products (both Phosetyl-Al and potassium fertilisers) can be absorbed by the crop and stored in reserve structures in perennial crops, and can be remobilised and thus appear in fruit up to several years after application, due to plant stress situations. There are known cases of applications while permitted, which have led to detections years later.

  • There are also risks that in the production of certain foliar fertilisers with high potassium content the non-permitted substance potassium phosphite is used.

  • The detection of phosphonic acid (phosphonates) may also result from the use of fertilisers included in Annex I of EGR 889/2008, these fertilisers must in all cases comply, according to Article 16 of EGR 834/2007, with the horizontal European and national fertiliser regulations.

  • Contaminations may occur due to application on adjacent, non-organically managed parcels, where the use of fosetyl-Al is allowed.

  • Another possible source for the occurrence of phosphonate residues is the supply of inputs from outside the farm, either bulk organic materials or commercial inputs, sold as suitable for organic production, which are contaminated with phosphonates without the operator's knowledge.

  • There is also the case of detections for which the origin could not be found, despite investigation of all possible sources. According to environmental operators, control bodies or technical staff, this suggests a spontaneous occurrence, the origin of which cannot be traced. Although this has not been scientifically proven, it is an option to be considered.

  • Finally, in handling and processing, if control measures are not adequate, mixing of batches containing some of the substance may occur, so that grouping of batches would result in the resulting batch being contaminated.

The problem for the sector arises when a processor buys organic pistachio from the farmer, paying for it as such, but then cannot put it on the market as such, because the clients, in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 834/2007, request analyses and, as the phosphonate limits are above the permitted levels, reject the product, causing the processors economic losses that they cannot afford. Furthermore, the detection of phosphonates in a batch with organic certification obliges the certifying body to stop the batch and investigate the cause of the appearance of the residue in order to rule out fraud. These investigations usually last for months, penalising the marketer.

In the 2019 season in Spain, around 800 tonnes of organic produce were processed and paid as such to farmers. If these quantities had had to be sold as conventional produce, this would have meant a loss of around 3 million euros. The reality is that for some companies this has meant real and unaffordable losses. On the other hand, we have to consider that the same problem is common in other sectors such as almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts, which are of greater importance in our country, even more so than pistachios, so we are talking about millions of euros in losses.

For all these reasons, the European Pistachio Council has set out to ask the European Commission for a modification of the regulation that takes into account the realities of pistachio producers and does not penalise them. The union of the organic pistachio sector is very important to bring this problem to the European Commission.

The EPC will keep you informed of developments in the resolution of this issue.

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