Chinese herbs

Although widely known since 2009 as the world's largest exporter, a new Greenpeace East Asia investigation has now revealed that China is also exporting traditional Chinese herbs laced with a toxic cocktail of pesticide residues.

Following a report last week looking at tests conducted within China, Greenpeace East Asia has now published a follow-up report exposing how pesticide residues have been found on Chinese herbal products exported from China.

Chinese herbal products are part of the culinary tradition in China and many people also consider these herbals products to be good for their health but they are unwittingly being exposed to hazardous levels of pesticides.

Tests conducted by Greenpeace East Asia on 36 samples of Chinese herbal products exported from China and collected from stores in London, Virginia (near Washington DC), Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Milan, Toronto and Vancouver, have revealed the following:

  • 32 samples (nearly 90% of all the samples!) contained three or more kinds of pesticides. The record goes to Germany and Canada where the samples of honeysuckle contained 26 and 24 different types of pesticides respectively.
  • Almost half of all samples (17) contain pesticides listed as highly or extremely hazardous by the World Health Organisation (WHO)
  • Some 26 samples showed pesticide residue levels that exceeded what the European authorities consider the maximum level for safety (MRLs).

Pesticides (which mean herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) are toxic substances designed to kill. The problem is that pesticides not only kill the target pests but also kill or impact other life forms that might be beneficial for producing food or fulfill an important function in the ecosystems, like bees.

Humans can also be impacted by toxic pesticides and scientific evidence indicates that pesticides can cause poisoning and in some cases death in the short term with high doses of the worst chemicals, but also severe chronic, long-term effects with exposure even to very low levels (1).

There is enough scientific evidence to conclude that pesticides are involved in serious health issues, such as reduced male fertility, testicular cancer (2) and nervous system problems, especially in children (3).

Globally, however, annual sales of products from the chemicals sector doubled between 2000 and 2009 and the world chemicals industry has been projected to grow, in terms of sales, by almost 3% per year to 2050. This trend is not sustainable from an ecological perspective. It is literally a dead end.

This latest pesticides scandal confirms again that the chemical intensive agriculture system is out of control. Greenpeace is calling on governments to take action and reduce pesticide use and promote ecological farming over pesticide intensive industrial agriculture.

Let's also demand increased public research funding on agro-ecological farming and in particular on non-chemical alternatives to control pests. Let's not wait until there are no bees left or other food products also get contaminated by chemicals. Let's help farmers to switch rapidly to ecological farming which is the only viable option.

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Eric Darier is a senior ecological farming campaigner at Greenpeace International.


1. Alavanja, M. C. R., Hoppin, J. A. & Kamel, F. 2004. Health Effects of Chronic Pesticide Exposure: Cancer and Neurotoxicity. Annual Review of Public Health, 25: 155.

2. Orton, F., Rosivatz, E., Scholze, M. & Kortenkamp, A. 2011. Widely Used Pesticides with Previously Unknown Endocrine Activity Revealed as in Vitro Antiandrogens. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119: 794. Roeleveld, N. & Bretveld, R. 2008. The impact of pesticides on male fertility. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 20: 229-233.

3. Handal, A. J., Lozoff, B., Breilh, J. & Harlow, S. D. 2007. Effect of Community of Residence on Neurobehavioral Development in Infants and Young Children in a Flower Growing Region of Ecuador. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115: 128 133.

Image: Chicken soup with Chinese angelica and red dates is a common food therapy used by Chinese people. © Greenpeace