Alarm as risky chemicals banned by EU rampant in Kenyan farms

Farmer applying insecticide products on crop

Farmer applying insecticide products on crop. Some of the farm chemicals in Kenya contain harmful components banned elsewhere in the world. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • According to a report, 7 out of 10 farm chemicals sold in Kenya contain hazardous substances.
  • 44 percent (1,362 tonnes) of the total volume of pesticides used in Kenya are banned in Europe — where they are imported from.

There is widespread use of agrochemicals in Kenya that have been banned from being applied in European farms because of health and environmental risks, an investigation reveals.

A one-month survey by the Sunday Nation found that farmers are wittingly or unwittingly using herbicides and pesticides that have been banned in Europe, largely because of weak surveillance or non-enforcement.

Farmers we spoke to said the chemicals have predisposed them to diseases besides degrading their land and killing the nutrients of the crops they farm.

One of the most widely used chemicals is the glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup, which several studies have shown has drastic effects on soils.

Studies show that glyphosate-based herbicides modify soil microflora, affecting the availability of nutrients required for disease resistance and altering the physiological efficiency of plants.

Glyphosate is also a probable human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency.

As a result of these and other drastic effects of agrochemicals, activists and farmers in Kenya have been pushing for a ban and sensitisation on proper use.

Farmers we interviewed said that most of them lack information on proper use of the chemicals in the market. They also lack protective gear to cushion them from exposure to the harmful substances.

Mr David Chobet, a farmer in Ziwa in Uasin Gishu county, one of Kenya’s breadbaskets, said that a majority of them go for the cheapest chemicals, disregarding their negative effects.

“Most of us are ignorant about the long-term effects of these chemicals,” said Mr Chobet, who grows horticultural crops such as tomatoes, french beans and passion fruits.

Mr Solomon Limo, another farmer in the same county, asked the government to step up measures to control use of chemicals in farms.

“These agrovets selling products don’t educate farmers. They are just in the business of selling.” he said.

Mr David Langat, a passion fruit farmer from Bomet County, said so long as he and most of his colleagues get “good results in terms of good produce and profits”, they do not give much attention to the health effects.

“I think the government is trying but can do more to sensitise farmers to the use of chemicals because some of them are very toxic,” he noted.

Mr Reuben Seroney, Uasin Gishu County’s acting chief officer for Agriculture, said the regional government was concerned about the chemicals as they exposed farmers to health risks and negatively affected the export market.

He said the county is working with the Pesticides Control Products Board (PCPB) to sensitise farmers on the proper use of the substances.

“It is a major concern because sometimes our produce is rejected in the export market due to the presence of high levels of residues. We work and incorporate officers from the PCPB to sensitise farmers on harmful chemicals and how to ensure the right spraying regime,” said the county official.

The revelations come on the back of concerns that Kenyan farmers are using increasingly harmful chemicals, some of which have been banned in the European Union (EU) market.

Kenyan imports in 2018 and 2019 included, for instance, iprodiones and acetochlorines from Belgium and 1,3-dichloropropene from Spain which are banned in the EU.

In Kenya, 44 percent (1,362 tonnes) of the total volume of pesticides used are banned in Europe — where they are imported from.

“Sales data show that over 76 percent (2,353 tonnes) of the total volume of pesticides sold in Kenya (which is) equal to 195 products contains one or more active ingredients categorised as highly hazardous pesticides, proven to provide a potentially high level of acute or chronic risk to health or the environment,” said Dr Silke Bollmohr, an ecotoxicologist.

She was speaking at the launch of the Kenya edition of The Pesticide Atlas 2022 – a report jointly published by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (HBF) Kenya and HBF Berlin among other partners.

Large-scale research conducted by BMC Research in 141 countries between 2006 and 2018 found that “there are 385 million cases of acute unintentional pesticide poisoning” in the world every year, including 11,000 fatalities. Most of these cases are in Southern Asia, South-East Asia and East Africa.

Pesticide use also creates a vicious cycle.

“When the natural enemies of pests are killed by pesticides or die because there are few pests to eat, any pest that survives or migrates from outside find themselves free to multiply, and a population explosion of pests results, a paradoxical and vicious cycle, where more pesticides lead to more pests than ever,” notes the My Food is African Barefoot Guide, published by Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA).

The civil society movement is pushing for a comprehensive Africa food policy that supports the continent’s need to feed itself sustainably in the face of health concerns of industrial agriculture, global uncertainty and climate change.

At the same time, more than 12,000 farmers and activists have appended signatures to a petition supporting the removal of dangerous chemicals from the Kenyan market, piling pressure on Parliament to ban more than 200 of these pesticides.

Their move followed a study done by the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network and Eco-Trac Consulting Company, which showed that Kenyans have been consuming food with high pesticide residues.

The farmers are pushing the petition through Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Gladys Shollei, who had tabled a similar one in Parliament in 2020 seeking a ban on the sale of harmful chemicals.

Ms Shollei, also the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, says only seven out of the 232 chemicals cited by the farmers have been removed from the local market.