A Push for Safer Fertilizer in Europe Carries a Whiff of Russian Intrigue

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BRUSSELS — The trade group Safer Phosphates would seem to have a pitch-perfect message for an environmentally conscious European Union. It advocates cleaner soil and healthier food, with a website showing pristine fields of wheat. It is also supporting legislation that would place tighter regulations on fertilizer.

But the group is not run by environmentalists. Its driving force is a Russian fertilizer giant that has ties to the Kremlin. And the environmental legislation it is backing would reset regulations in a way that could help the company, PhosAgro, push aside rivals and give it greater influence over the European food supply.

Fertilizer might not seem an obvious source of geopolitical tension. But with Moscow working openly and covertly to widen its sphere of power, the prospect of a politically connected Russian company cornering a key part of the European agricultural market has raised sharp concerns. Russia already wields tremendous clout as the European Union’s dominant provider of natural gas and as a growing source of nuclear fuel.

After years of lobbying, European officials could move forward on new regulations as early as this week, when representatives of the three governing bodies of the European Union meet in Strasbourg, France. A debate that was supposed to be about environmental standards is now overshadowed by questions of whether the lines between Russian private business and the Kremlin’s political agenda are blurred beyond distinction.

“It’s all part of the same effort,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a former top F.B.I. counterintelligence official. “The businesses develop relationships, and through those relationships, they try to leverage policy.”

For years, European officials have been hospitable toward Russian business and Kremlin-connected investors, particularly in the energy industry. But trust has frayed. First came revelations about state-sponsored Russian hacking efforts to undermine elections in the United States and Europe. More recently, Western intelligence officials have blamed Russia for poisoning a former Russian spy on British soil.

Long before that, Russia used environmental concerns to advance its interests. In Romania and Bulgaria, officials have accused Moscow of secretly financing protests against domestic fracking, which threatens the Russian natural gas industry. The television network RT, which American intelligence officials have labeled a Kremlin propaganda outlet, has also focused on fracking.

And Moscow’s creation and worldwide dissemination of false stories has only sowed doubt in Europe about the statements of Russian officials and companies.

“This is what Russia has created. Not every Russian company is the long arm of the Kremlin, but the suspicion is there,” said Stefan Meister, a Russia specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “The Russians have done everything to create distrust in their businesses.”

PhosAgro, a publicly traded company, dismissed any notion of Russian government involvement in its efforts. “This is utter nonsense,” the company’s chairman, Sven Ombudstvedt, said in a written statement. “PhosAgro is acting as any business would and should — with the potential to benefit a wide range of stakeholders, from food consumers to farmers to the company’s own shareholders.”

Like many of the largest Russian conglomerates, PhosAgro has strong Kremlin ties. It is run by Andrei A. Guryev, the scion to one of the country’s wealthiest oligarch families. Vladimir Litvinenko, a former high-ranking official for President Vladimir V. Putin’s political campaigns, owns 19 percent of the company. The company obtained an important mine in 2012 after Mr. Putin’s government seized it from a political opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and put it up for sale.

“PhosAgro and the Kremlin, through Mr. Litvinenko, are very close. It’s like one family,” said Igor Sychev, a former company executive now living in asylum in Latvia. “They wash each other’s hands.”

The debate now brewing is over whether the European Union should impose strict limits on the levels of cadmium, a toxic metal in fertilizer. By a quirk of geology, PhosAgro is sitting on a stockpile of fertilizer minerals that are naturally much lower in cadmium than its competitors.

The European Union has almost no domestic supply of the phosphate rock used to make fertilizer. So it relies on imports to meet its farming needs. Morocco is the bloc’s leading supplier, followed by Russia, which accounts for roughly a third of imports. PhosAgro is Russia’s dominant industry player.

For more than a decade, the European Union has been considering imposing cadmium limits to unify standards among member nations. Cadmium occurs naturally in phosphate rock, though levels vary depending on where it is mined.

Russian fertilizers have naturally low cadmium levels, while the levels in Moroccan fertilizers are naturally higher. A strict cadmium cap could all but ban Moroccan exports to Europe and turn the market over to Russia, a European government analysis concluded.

Andrei Guryev, front left, the head of PhosAgro, in New Delhi this month at the signing of a deal for the company to supply fertilizer to India. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is at left rear, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India at center rear.CreditMikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik, via Associated Press

“They’ll be sitting on a monopoly,” said Tomasz Wlostowski, a lobbyist who represents European fertilizer manufacturers. “They will have no competition at all on the European market.”

Morocco’s state-owned mining company, OCP Group, has lobbied for a higher cap, and North African governments have argued that weakening their mining industry would increase European migration or make people vulnerable to terrorist recruiting.

But it is the prospect of Russian agricultural influence that has ignited the greatest debate in Brussels. PhosAgro and its allies say that fears of a Russian fertilizer monopoly are overstated. They say tighter regulations, which would be phased in over years, will attract new suppliers of clean fertilizer and encourage the development of technology to remove cadmium from phosphate rock.

“Undoubtedly, the European population will be the main beneficiary,” Mr. Ombudstvedt said. And while PhosAgro is the dominant industry advocate for the regulations, he noted that European governments began debating cadmium limits long before the company got involved.

“There is no reason to panic,” said Pavel Poc, a Czech member of the European Parliament. He said that science and hard data should not be overshadowed by politicians playing “the Russian card.” PhosAgro agrees. “It shouldn’t be about Russia,” said Pascale Michaux, a lobbyist who represents the company. “It should be an objective discussion about public health and market access.”

The science around cadmium, however, is murky. It has been linked to kidney damage and cancer, so European officials worry that adding it to the soil will increase cadmium levels in the food supply. But the relationship between cadmium in fertilizer, cadmium in soil and cadmium in the human body is far less clear. Scientists cannot say how much cadmium in fertilizer is too much.

One stark example: California has the strictest cadmium cap in the United States, and it is up to 40 times as high as the levels being considered in Europe. “The uncertainty around all of this is very wide,” said Erik Smolders, a soil scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

In 2016, the European Parliament asked Mr. Smolders to study the most recent data and forecast the effect of a cadmium cap. He estimated that cadmium would not build up in the soil as long as fertilizers contained less than an average of 73 milligrams per kilogram of phosphate. European manufacturers and farmers liked this result because it would allow them to keep buying fertilizer from Africa.

After that study, PhosAgro commissioned a different one, led by Paul Romkens at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who said the limit was actually much lower, about 20 milligrams per kilogram. The wildly different figures allowed both sides of the cadmium debate to claim scientific support.

Then things got heated.

While the PhosAgro study was waiting to be published, Mr. Smolders and Mr. Romkens began working together to understand their competing conclusions. Out of those conversations came a new model, one endorsed by both professors. It placed the cadmium limit at 44 milligrams per kilogram, far higher than PhosAgro wanted.

By then, Mr. Romkens’s original paper was ready for publication, and he told PhosAgro that he intended to refer to the new findings in the paper the company had funded.

“They made it clear they were not very happy,” Mr. Romkens recalled. He said he told the company, “We can leave those results out if you insist, but we have to put a disclaimer on it.”

So the study was published with a brief note, saying only that a new model had been developed. The new results were released in a separate paper, which is awaiting peer review. “Whether or not PhosAgro commissioned it,” Mr. Romkens said, “they cannot stop scientists from thinking.”

The group Safer Phosphates presents itself as an alliance of environmentally conscious fertilizer companies. But essentially, Safer Phosphates is PhosAgro. Its partners are comparatively small players who have not even registered to lobby on the cadmium regulation. Asked about the issue recently, one company referred a reporter to PhosAgro’s spokesman, who also speaks for Safer Phosphates.

Europe’s governing bodies remain divided on a cadmium limit, and how quickly it would be enacted. Any new regulation would need the approval of the nationally elected leaders who make up the European Council, who have expressed resistance to levels that might cut off Moroccan imports.

The debate has echoes of a hotly contested proposal to build a second natural gas pipeline, known as Nord Stream II, from Russia to Germany. The United States government has suggested that it would make Europe too reliant on Moscow for energy and could be used by Russian intelligence agents to conduct surveillance. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has called the pipeline a “new hybrid weapon.”

“It’s a different perception of Russia now,” said Mr. Meister, the Russia scholar. “There’s always a suspicion that there’s something else behind the scenes.”

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