The use of pesticides in Kenya, gives Kenyans reason to question the safety of food. Research has shown that there are products on the market that have proven chronic health effects and negative environmental impacts (RTFI, 2019). The rise in cancer cases, different allergies and other non-communicable diseases can be attributed to the country’s food system, which is increasingly dependent on agro-chemical inputs. The drive to ensure food security has perhaps overtaken concerns on the quality and safety of our food. Government interventions are mainly focused on food production – increasing the quantity of food available – neglecting important aspects of food quality.
Farmers in Kenya, the majority of whom are smallholders who consistently produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are promised higher yields with the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Depending on external inputs for production is capital-intensive and not environmentally sustainable, meaning it is not well suited to Kenya’s smallholder farming context. Of particular concern is the toxic effects of some of the pesticides on non-target organisms and users.
Agriculture accounts for about 24% of Kenya’s GDP with an estimated 75% of the population working in the sector either directly or indirectly. As an agricultural economy and while promoting mainly conventional agriculture, Kenya’s demand for pesticides is relatively high and steadily increasing. In 2018 Kenya imported 17,803 tons valued at $128million. These pesticides are an assortment of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, fumigants, rodenticides, growth regulators, defoliators, proteins, surfactants and wetting agents. Of the total pesticide imports, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides account for about 87% in terms of volume and 88% of the total cost of pesticide imports (AAK, 2018).
It’s remarkable that the volume of imported insecticides, herbicides and fungicides has more than doubled within four years from 6,400 tons in 2015 to 15,600 tons in 2018, with a growth rate of 144%. The increase in pesticide use requires necessary safe guards to control how they are applied. Safe guards include amongst other things, the provision of personal protection gear, training for farmers and local agro-vets on how pesticides should be used and adequate product labelling. The responsibility for ‘safe use’, is borne by both government agencies and manufacturers.
Due to the high toxicity towards human health and the environment and due to their persistence (length of time in the environment), many of the pesticides are banned or heavily restricted in Europe. Despite European restrictions and interventions to use less hazardous products, some of the withdrawn pesticides are still in use in Kenya. Up to 32% of the active ingredients in the Kenyan market pose a serious potential impact on human and environmental health and are withdrawn from the European market (RTFI, 2019). Thirty-one per cent of all registered products are toxic or very toxic to bees, this threatens the survival of bee populations and other pollinators; and negatively effects food security as our food and seed production rely on pollination (RTFI, 2019). The double standard lies in the fact that the products registered in Kenya, that are withdrawn from the European market, are mostly sold by European companies (75 products) (RTFI, 2019).
The effects of pesticides on the environment is often underestimated, especially in the registration procedures of African countries. This negatively exposes the ecological system upon which food production depends. Neonicotinoids, a commonly used class of systemic insecticides, cause soil degradation and water pollution and endanger vital ecosystem services such as biological pest control. Designed to damage the central nervous system of target pests, they can also cause harm to pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
Use of these insecticides has been blamed for the 50% decline over 25 years in honeybee populations in the United States and the United Kingdom (RTFI, 2019). This threatens the very basis of agriculture, given that wild bees and managed honeybees play the greatest role in pollinating crops. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), of some 100 crop species (which provide 90% of global food), 71% are pollinated by bees.
We should question what is this trade that we are allowing? Why are products withdrawn from where they are imported, allowed to be sold in our country?
The lack of a policy framework that enforces protection mechanisms has increased the risks associated with the use of toxic pesticides. Although the Rotterdam Convention, to which Kenya is signatory, establishes a prior informed consent procedure that allows countries to control the import of listed substances; this is clearly an ineffective protection mechanism against the availability of potentially harmful chemicals entering our food system.
In addition, there are no adequate monitoring and reporting systems for health and environmental impacts of pesticides, while information centres and medical facilities to diagnose, treat and report pesticide poisoning are limited.
In 2013, within the National Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programme (NPRMP) undertaken by KEPHIS and funded by the EU, 1139 food samples were taken (KEPHIS, 2018; EC 2013). Out of these samples, 530 (46.53%) had pesticide detections, while 123 (10.80%) had exceedances of set EU maximum residue levels (MRLs). The established MRLs hindered the exportation of the produce to the EU; it hence remained within the country for local consumption, regardless of their safety and quality.
To achieve food security and fulfilment of the Right to Food in Kenya, there is a need to strengthen national and county institutions and regulations; increase the responsibility of the pesticide industry to phase out highly toxic pesticides; and promote more sustainable farming systems. Best practice in food production and farming should start with the use of less toxic pesticides and increased biodiversity on farms until the farming system is adapted to agro ecological principles, and creating awareness amongst farmers and the general public to increase the demand for safe and healthy food, which will support sustainable farming systems and is a preventative measure against diet-related illnesses.
For additional information, please view the documentaries in support of this article, ‘The Food Challenge’ available on https://routetofood.org/toxicbusiness/