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Although fruit itself produces ethylene, this substance is also known as a plant protection product. In 2009, ethylene was recognised as an active substance in the use of plant protection products in Europe. Unless it is specifically authorised, a plant protection product is prohibited. A plant protection product authorised for one crop may not be used in all crops: a separate authorisation must be requested for each crop.
Ethylene is a hormone that stimulates plant growth, but also acts as a germination inhibitor and maturation hormone. Plants produce ethylene naturally, but it is also used industrially for ripening bananas and citrus fruit as well as degreening tomatoes. It is also used to prevent onions and potatoes from germinating. There is no known alternative for the use of ethylene.
Since then, a number of products have ended up in the twilight zone. For a long time, there was no alternative for ethylene in banana ripening cells on the market. Linde’s BANARG ripening gas, however, has been authorised for bananas and citrus fruit since December 2016.
The mixture consists of 4% ethylene in nitrogen. At the end of December 2016, the CTGB (Board for the authorisation of plant protection products and biocidal products) officially authorised this Linde product for use in the Netherlands after an extensive authorisation procedure. Listed under ‘nature of the effect’ for this substance is: growth regulator. Consequently, Linde Gas is the only approved supplier for this application in our country.
The use of ethylene mixtures has been authorised for some time in Belgium, where the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) started to actively monitor the use of this product. Talks were promptly organised with the trade federation of gas producers, among others, to seek authorisation for the ethylene mixture for banana ripeners, on condition that application for the final authorisation would be submitted. The so-called 120-day authorisation was successively granted to the banana sector, after which the final application was approved in September 2016.
Linde’s BANARG ® (96% N2 and 4% C2H4) product was authorised in the Netherlands on 30 December 2016 in the CTGB’s database of authorised plant protection products under number 15259 N. Since then, a final authorisation has been available for the use of a product based on ethylene for ripening bananas and post-ripening citrus fruit. As of that date, BANARG can be legally used all year round for ripening bananas and degreening citrus fruit in the Netherlands. The use of ethylene as a fruit ripening agent has so far been illegal in the Netherlands and took place outside the remit of the CTGB. But because ethylene has been used for many years (even before there was plant protection legislation in the Netherlands), there was never any enforcement.
Dutch banana ripeners’ response in 2017 to the fact that they now appeared to be considered plant protection product users was lukewarm. This is probably because of the association with potential environmental offences, so a cautious approach was adopted. Reactions Linde often hears in the sector are along the lines of “we have never heard of that”, “that does not apply to us”, “it will not ever come to enforcement” or “as long as the government does not tell me that, I will continue to use it”.
Linde wants to create awareness that an alternative product is now available. Some customers do not realise that they are actually in breach of the law when using anything else, but the use of ethylene is illegal. The use of ethylene by banana ripeners has been tolerated for many years, but now that there is a legal alternative on the market, companies could get caught out in inspections. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is the relevant inspection authority.
Another regulation at play here is that companies need authorisation to use plant protection products in the form of a ‘spraying licence’. However, it is not always clear in the sector that the use of ethylene gas requires a spraying licence.
The CTGB confirms that ethylene is listed in the public admissions database ( www.ctgb.nl/toelatingen). The free authorisation of substances is assessed solely on scientific grounds – practical use in the market is not a consideration. This is a task for the NVWA, which, as the enforcing body, supervises the correct use of authorised substances.