There are two routes for Kenya’s food and farming system. One, the industrial model of farming which commodifies food systems and which has been fronted as the only way to produce plenty of cheap and easily accessible food. The implication of this approach is damage to the same environment that feeds us and negative impacts on our health, particularly from the toxic agrochemicals that industrial agriculture thrives on.
The other route is a more sustainable form of agriculture and people-centered food systems that guarantee food production in harmony with nature. This approach, however, seems less attractive to private-sector players. So, which way for Kenya’s food system?
The debate on the use of pesticides in Kenya is one that clearly illustrates the dilemma. Under the government’s watch, the industry has been pushing for increased pesticide use, despite rising user and consumer safety concerns. International companies generate less than 6 percent of global pesticide sales in Africa, making the continent a key market for a profitable trade. Consequently, access to safe, nutritious food is increasingly becoming doubtful. The recent revelations in Kenya about the food we eat, depict a broken food system that requires urgent interventions to repair and restore it.
Industrial agriculture proponents argue that pesticide use is not a problem as long as farmers follow the instructions on the label. This argument is defective, particularly in our context. Labels are written in technical language that many farmers often cannot understand. An audit carried out by the EU Commission Food and Veterinary Office in 2013, found that growers have not always followed the label instructions of plant protection products. Label deficiencies were also identified. This tells us that companies and local dealers selling pesticide products don’t sufficiently educate farmers on ‘safe’ pesticide use. It would also appear that county government agricultural officers and regulatory bodies such as the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) are not reaching a wide enough audience with training. Insufficient knowledge among farmers about the dangers associated with pesticide use worsens their exposure to harmful effects.
The use of pesticides comes with responsibilities for the manufacturer, the user, and the regulator. The manufacturer is required to provide sufficient, accurate information about their products, including their potential effects and information on “safe use”. The user must be in a position to understand the manufacturer’s instructions and apply them accordingly, including adhering to all required safety precautions.
The regulator (i.e. the government) is in turn, supposed to develop and implement regulations and policies that ensure that both the user and the manufacturer fulfill their responsibilities in ensuring safety.
The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) reported in its 2018 annual report that there were pesticide residues in vegetable samples collected from various outlets and markets across the country. Some of the most affected vegetables included kale (94 percent of 1,139 samples), peas (76 percent), and capsicum (59 percent). Ten percent of the sampled produce had residue levels above the EU maximum allowable residue levels. The many instances of pesticide residue detections could be caused by excessive use, failure to observe the withholding period by farmers, and high toxicity levels of the products.
The Kenyan farming context is not compatible with pesticide use. The average land size is about two acres, which leaves no room for buffer zones which are important precautionary measures – mandatory for all pesticides – starting from 5m around the farm. This is clearly not practical in our situation. Many farms for horticulture production slope towards rivers, dams, and other water bodies, making it easy for run-off water to wash chemicals into the water that is often used for domestic purposes.
The damage we bring to the environment through the use of chemical pesticides is not explicitly known. This is because there is no regular monitoring done by the responsible government bodies on the effect of these chemicals on the environment. The justification that pesticides are developed for specific target organisms is overplayed to make us turn a blind eye to the damage we are causing to other important species.
In terms of the Pesticides Property Database (FOOTPRINT) endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 49 percent of the products registered in Kenya are toxic or very toxic to fish species and 31 percent of all registered products are toxic or very toxic to bees. If pesticides can harm us, there is definitely an impact on other species too, thus affecting biodiversity.
Despite all these factors, our government and private sector players continue to promote chemical pesticides before sustainable and safe ways to produce food. It’s surprising that chemicals that have since been withdrawn from the European market are readily available to our farmers at local agro-vets. False promises that these pesticides and other equally disastrous fertilizers will increase production should stop.
Globally, there are examples of countries taking steps to move away from chemical agriculture to more environmentally conscious and people-focused methods of food production. Kenya should borrow a leaf and turn to food systems that are sustainable and people-centered. Our situation is different and we need to think about solutions that work for us.
In a country like ours, where farms are homes, there can never be a safe way to use toxic pesticides.
Published at Business Daily Africa