Agriculture is one of Kenya’s key income earners contributing 24% of GDP and employing 75% of the population either directly or indirectly. As a result, the demand for pesticides is high and increasing with the need to increase agricultural production to keep up with the population increase. Imported chemical pesticides in the market account for 87% and have more than doubled in four years from 6,400 tonnes to 15,600 tonnes in 2018, yet there are few safeguards to control application.
Every year fresh produce from Kenya is rejected by the European market when it is found to have harmful levels of chemical residue. When returned, it finds its way to local fresh produce markets and is consumed by unsuspecting Kenyans. The result is a huge healthcare burden on households as more people, especially children, fall ill.
A report by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) showed that 46% of the fresh vegetables sold in Kenyan fresh produce markets have high levels of pesticides with harmful active ingredients, with Kale (94%) having the highest level of pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to human and animal health.
A small-scale farmer Joseph, who has adequate training in the handling of pesticides, prepares to spray his crops by mixing the chemical with water in a backpack sprayer pump, using his bare hands and no protective mask or clothing, he gives the pump a firm shake to mix the ingredients in it and then proceeds to splash water on the exterior of the sprayer pack to rinse off the chemical overspill with his hands. The small quarter-acre, gently sloping vegetable garden surrounds his family’s house, which further exposes his family to harmful chemicals. He is not aware of the danger of handling these pesticides, only focusing on their efficacy in pest control.
At the local roadside Market, Daniel Maingi of Kenya Food Rights Alliance purchases green capsicum and spinach to take for testing at the University of Nairobi’s Pharmacology & Toxicology Laboratory at the Department of Public Health, where Professor Mbaria confirms harmful levels of chemicals containing toxic active ingredients on the sample vegetables.
The “Pesticides In Kenya: Why our health, environment and food security is at stake” report by Route To Food Initiative (RTFI), makes a distinction between the toxicity of the active ingredient and the toxicity of the chemical product. In the European market, the manufacturer of a chemical product first registers the active ingredient, which is then tested and must be identified by name on the product label.
Of the “247 active ingredients registered in Kenya, 150 are approved in Europe, 11 are not listed in the European Database and 78 have been withdrawn from the European market or are heavily restricted in use due to potential chronic health effects, environmental persistence, and high toxicity to wildlife.”
In a case of double morality standards, these chemicals are available to Kenyan farmers threatening the health of both citizens and the environment by contaminating the soil and water. Most of these pesticides take years to degrade and therefore persist in the environment for many years and many are acutely toxic causing severe long-term toxic effects, disrupting the human endocrine system, and harming wildlife and other non-target organisms that are crucial to the ecology.
The Pesticide Control Products Board (PCPB) set up by the Government of Kenya under the Pest Control Products Act of 1982 regulates the importation, manufacture, distribution and exportation of pest control products. PCPB has registered 247 active ingredients in 699 horticultural chemical products, with more products registered than active ingredients as one active ingredient can be by several companies. Of these, a quarter are banned in Europe and they include big brand names such as Syngenta, Bayer and BASF.
In Kenya, chemical companies host robust carnival-like events where smallholder farmers are bussed in from across the country and paid a stipend to attend. Throughout the festival, no mention is made to farmers about safe handling or protective clothing when mixing the chemicals for application on the crops. The farmers appear to completely trust the chemical companies to have their best interests at heart and do not ask any questions. At these marketing events, several chemicals are presented as solving multiple problems and are touted as the best in the market.
Glyphosate-based agrichemicals have received enormous pushback globally for its carcinogenic properties. However, there are other harmful ingredients that should attract much more attention in use in Kenya, but banned in the European Union. Carcinogenic active ingredients include Chlorothalonil, Clodinafop, Oxyfluorfen and Pymetrozine. Mutagenic active ingredients include Cabendazim, Dichlorrvos and Trichlorfon. Endocrine disruptor pesticide active ingredients include Acephate, Carbofuran, Deltamethrin, Omethoate and Thiacloprid. Active ingredients that hamper development and are harmful to reproductive health include Abamectin, Carbendazim, Carbofuran, Gamma-cyhalothrin, Oxydemeton-methyla and Thiacloprid. Neurotoxic active ingredients include Abamectin, Acephate, Dichlorvos, Glufosinate-ammonium, Omethoate, Permethrin and Thiacloprid.
Before the advent of chemical herbicides, farmers would weed their farms by hand and using hand hoes, this has been increasingly replaced by pesticides even for smallholder farms under five acres. Mono-cropping or monoculture where one crop is planted year in and year out, depleting the soil of nutrients and necessitating the increased use of fertilizers to improve yields with each subsequent year, also encourages the spread of crop pests which require chemicals to treat. Another area that receives little focus is post-harvest storage pesticides. If fertilizers are subsidized, why not include hermetic storage technology (HST) storage bags that provide moisture and insect controls, without pesticides, in this policy?
If we continue to consume chemicals, consciously or subconsciously through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, then the next generation we produce will be of a lesser quality than ourselves, as will subsequent generations.
A guest post by Velma Kiome