The green frog logo of the international NGO Rainforest Alliance can be found on several food products that certify that a product is obtained from crops that meet certain environmental, social and economic standards. Since early September 2023, users have been sharing posts in Dutch on social media falsely claiming that the logo is proof that the products contain a dangerous herbicide, atrazine. However, the NGO’s standards explicitly prohibit the use of atrazine. This pesticide has been banned in the EU for almost 20 years and imported foods are subject to concentration limits controlled by each Member State.
“These products are sprayed with ATRAZINE, a herbicide. It has been scientifically proven that the herbicide ASTRAZINE femaleizes male frogs by reducing their testosterone, making them infertile,” reads one of the misleading Dutch posts on Facebook . The post, which has been shared more than 150 times, refers to products bearing the logo of the NGO Rainforest Alliance.
The misleading information, which AFP had already checked in other languages , recently surfaced in several messages in Dutch ( here , here and here ). The posts share an image with the logos of various brands and the Rainforest Alliance logo, which is crossed out in red.
In April, AFP reviewed other reports making false claims about the NGO .
What does the green frog logo stand for?
The green frog logo that is the subject of the false messages is a seal used by the Rainforest Alliance. The organization is described on its website as “an international non-profit organization working at the intersection of business, agriculture and forests to make responsible business the new normal.”
“The Rainforest Alliance green frog seal on packaging means the product contains a certified ingredient – such as coffee, tea, cocoa or bananas – that has been produced using methods that support the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental,” a spokesperson for the Rainforest Alliance told AFP in an email dated April 4, 2023. The organization has used the red-eyed tree frog for more than 30 years, “because this bright-eyed amphibian is common in the neotropics, where our founders first settled committed to the protection of tropical rainforests,” the spokesperson added.
The certification includes several standards related to the conservation and protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, human rights and the welfare of agricultural workers.
Atrazine banned for use by Rainforest Alliance and the EU
The messages falsely claim that the frog logo means the foods have been sprayed with atrazine (which is misspelled in some messages), but the use of the herbicide has been banned by the NGO. It has also been banned by the European Union since 2004.
As explained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), atrazine is “used to selectively control annual grasses and broadleaf weeds before they become established,” with “the highest use on field corn, sweet corn, sorghum, and sugarcane,” but also on “ wheat, macadamia nuts and guava, as well as non-agricultural uses such as nursery/ornaments and turf”.
“Atrazine is banned under the Rainforest Alliance certification standard, which means that farms following our standard are not allowed to use it on certified crops,” a spokesperson for the NGO told AFP.
Even if Rainforest Alliance has a procedure that allows exceptional pesticide uses, atrazine does not appear in this list of permitted exceptions, which was last published in July 2023 ( archived here ).
“We have never granted an exception to the use of atrazine under the ‘exceptional use procedure’,” a Rainforest Alliance spokesperson told AFP in another email dated April 18, 2023.
“Rainforest Alliance certification is carried out by third-party certification bodies authorized to conduct audits against our sustainable agriculture standard. More information about the rules for certification bodies can be found here ,” the NGO spokesperson explained.
Although atrazine is approved in the US, it was banned in the European Union by the European Commission in 2004 due to water pollution . But, as explained in this article from the European Environment Agency, “despite restrictions on atrazine since 2007, it is still found in groundwater because it is very persistent.”
How does the EU monitor the ban?
“Concentration limits apply to imported products entering the EU,” said Dr. Stoilko Apostolov , chairman of “Bioselena” (a Bulgarian foundation promoting organic farming) on April 3, 2023 against AFP . These are the so-called Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs), defined by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) as “the highest levels of pesticide residues legally permitted in or on food or feed, based on Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) and the lowest exposure necessary to protect vulnerable consumers”.
“If atrazine is allowed for use in America, then all companies importing products in the production of which a herbicide containing atrazine has been used will have to comply with the EU MRLs,” Dr Apostolov told AFP.
Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 sets maximum levels for pesticide residues in or on food and feed of plant and animal origin. Atrazine has the status of “unapproved substance,” an EFSA spokesperson told AFP in an email dated April 17, 2023. “When the use of pesticides is not authorized at Community level, MRLs should be set at an appropriately low level established in order to protect consumers from the ingestion of unauthorized or excessive quantities of pesticide residues,” reads recital 21 of that regulation.
The exact values of the MLRs for atrazine in or on certain products are regulated in another regulation: regulation No. 2016/440, the EFSA spokesperson also told AFP. This regulation lists several foods and the MLRs of atrazine for each of them. A full list of MLRs of atrazine in foods is published here . For most products (grains, fruit or vegetables) the limit is set at 0.05 mg/kg. In addition, a limit of 0.1 mg/kg has been set for tea, coffee beans and spices.
In 2015, EFSA published a reasoned opinion on setting a new maximum residue level for atrazine in cereals, and based on its conclusion, the MLRs for atrazine were set at 0.05 mg/kg. According to this opinion, 0.05 mg/kg corresponds to the smallest amount of atrazine that can be determined by the control procedure available in the EU.
“This makes it very difficult for third country producers to use atrazine on products that will be imported into the EU. If you compare it with another herbicide, such as glyphosate for example, you will see that the maximum residue limits for some products are much higher have been established to allow farmers (from the EU and third countries) to use the substance,” Salomé Roynel, policy and campaigns officer for pesticide risk assessment at the Pesticides Action Network, told AFP in an email dated April 20, 2023.
“To ensure that food placed on the market complies with the MRLs, EU Member States (plus Norway and Iceland) take samples of various foods every year, which they test for pesticide residues,” the EFSA spokesperson explained further out to AFP. He added that “the samples include both foods produced within the EU and foods imported from third countries”.
“EFSA’s latest annual report on pesticide residues in food covered more than 88,000 food samples collected in the European Union in 2020. The level of atrazine was found above the MRL in 1 sample,” the EFSA spokesperson told AFP.
“As with most pesticides, farmworkers and other workers who apply atrazine have higher exposure and risk. In the U.S., people who don’t use atrazine are exposed to more of the product in drinking water than in food,” said Bill Freese, scientific director of the US-based NGO Center for Food Safety , told AFP in an email dated April 14, 2023.
“As residue limits are set for unprocessed products, it is even less likely to find residues of atrazine in products such as chocolate bars due to the processing of the raw material,” Salomé Roynel also explained.
“Although it is used on many crops, it has not been found in many food samples, and then only at very low concentrations. Therefore, it is very unlikely that you would be exposed to atrazine through eating food,” the statement said on the public health impact of atrazine on the U.S. Centers for disease control’s Toxic Substances Portal.
Atrazine affects the reproductive system of frogs and human health
Awareness of the risks of this pesticide was sparked in 2002 by Berkeley biology professor Tyrone Hayes .
“Atrazine is not safe,” Professor Hayes told AFP in an email dated April 4, 2023. He explained that the US EPA had concluded that atrazine is likely to have a negative impact on 54% of all species and 40% of all habitats . “It is my expert opinion that atrazine is also not safe for humans, especially for farm and factory workers who are consistently exposed,” “Atrazine has been linked to breast cancer and prostate disease, and similar effects can be caused in exposed laboratory rodents,” he added to it.
Prof. Tyrone Hayes, who studied frogs exposed to the herbicide, said: “My research on frogs showed that atrazine genetically feminized male frogs. Depending on the concentration and species, the feminization involved the development of eggs in the testicles and in some cases the development of ovaries and the complete feminization of some genetically male individuals resulting in fertile females. These effects are consistent with a decrease in androgens and an increase in estrogen production (caused by atrazine) and similar effects have been observed in exposed fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds”.
Among other things, the scientist examined larvae exposed to atrazine by immersion during the entire larval development in a 2002 study , and in 2010 he studied male frogs exposed to atrazine during the entire larval period and up to 3 years after metamorphosis.
Prof. Hayes further explained that “atrazine, with regard to the reproductive system, causes a decrease in testosterone and sperm in laboratory rodents and that humans exposed to atrazine have low sperm counts. In addition, atrazine has been linked to birth defects in humans when the fetus is exposed during pregnancy”.
The biologist points to a study showing that atrazine is associated with abnormal genital development in men exposed to atrazine in utero. According to the study’s summary, “county-level atrazine exposure estimates from the United States Geological Survey were associated with all subjects.” Another study , cited by Professor Hayes in comments to AFP, showed the same effects in laboratory mice given atrazine.
“Abnormalities in humans include hypospadias (the urethra does not reach the end of the penis), cryptorchidism (one or both testicles do not descend into the scrotum and remain in the body) and microphallus (the penis does not grow),” said Professor Hayes.
Prof. Hayes explains his research on atrazine in this 2018 TEDx talk:
So the part of the messages in the social media posts about the dangers of atrazine is correct. Also when it comes to the effects of atrazine on frogs, the social media posts are quite accurate.
Bill Gates is not the creator of the Rainforest Alliance
The last part of the messages in Dutch links each brand with the green frog logo to philanthropist and multi-billionaire Bill Gates and calls for people to stay away from these products.
The brands pictured can all be found as part of the products with the Rainforest Alliance certified seal ( archived here ). This means that an ingredient in the products of the brands or more has been certified by the organization.
However, AFP has found no evidence that Gates is involved in the creation of the NGO Rainforest Alliance.
The Rainforest Alliance did receive a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation . In 2007, the foundation awarded the Rainforest Alliance $5.3 million.
However, according to the organization’s website, Bill Gates is not part of the organization’s board or management . “The Rainforest Alliance is an independent organization and is not owned by any individual or foundation,” a spokesperson for the NGO said in an email to AFP dated July 17, 2023. More about the organization’s funding model can be found here .
Rainforest Alliance was founded in the 1980s by American environmentalist Daniel Katz , former chairman and CEO of the organization, who now chairs its board of directors . The CEO since 2021 is Santiago Gowland .