How safe is the sukumawiki you eat? Beware of its safety


A sukumawiki farm in Bahati, Nakuru County. 

Photo credit: Chris Adungo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The presence of pesticides in the vegetables translates into a high level of exposure for both producers and consumers.
  • A majority of consumers believe that by using simple methods such as washing and proper cooking, they ensure their safety.

Some of the sukumawiki and peas you consume are laden with pesticides harmful to humans and the environment, a study has shown.

The study has revealed that out of 10 sukumawiki (kale) samples tested, nine (90 per cent) were contaminated with toxic pesticides, while pesticide toxicity in peas (minji) stood at 76 per cent as capsicum recorded 59 per cent.

The presence of pesticides in the vegetables translates into a high level of exposure for both producers and consumers. The effect is more dangerous on those not cooking them well.

Sukumawiki is the most consumed vegetable in Kenya. The research by Kephis and the Consumer Grassroots Association was conducted in three counties of Kirinyaga, Kajiado and Nairobi. Kirinyaga and Kajiado counties were selected because of a high level of production of horticultural crops, while Nairobi was because of the targeted consumers.

The survey assessed the level of awareness and concern among consumers about food safety. It sampled 9, 591 respondents, with most of them purchasing their fresh produce from mama mboga kiosks, open-air markets, supermarkets and producers.

From the respondents, a majority of consumers at 75 per cent get their fresh produce from kiosks, followed by local open-air markets at 68 per cent of the respondents, local supermarkets at 37 per cent, while big supermarket chains and direct purchases from farmers had 13 per cent each.

Only three per cent of the consumers indicated that they grow their own food, with most of them coming from either Kirinyaga or Kajiado.

Washing and proper cooking

“Pesticide use or misuse was ranked the highest most concerning food safety issue at 87 per cent, followed by lack of proper sanitation in the market at 60 per cent. Contamination during preparation was ranked lowest at 37 per cent in terms of consumer concerns,” says the report.

A majority of consumers believe that by using simple methods such as washing and proper cooking, they ensure their safety.

Sixty-one per cent of the respondents said they ensure safety through thorough cleaning, 25 per cent believe proper cooking makes the food safe. Only 14 per cent of the respondents reported buying from reliable sources as a way of ensuring safety.

Respondents from Kirinyaga relied on thorough washing as a means to ensuring safety, compared to 65 per cent in Nairobi and 52 per cent in Kajiado. Kajiado had the highest number of consumers relying on trusted suppliers at 25 per cent, compared to Nairobi and Kirinyaga at six and five per cent respectively.

According to the WHO, unsafe food containing bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Globally, one in 10 people falls ill after consuming contaminated food and 420,000 die of food-related illnesses every year. Under-fives carry 40 per cent of the foodborne disease burden, accounting for 125,000 deaths every year.

“Food safety, food security, and nutrition are linked. Unsafe food causes diseases, affecting food intake, which, in turn, leads to malnutrition. In the long term, malnutrition affects productivity, physical and cognitive development in children, fuelling a vicious cycle of poverty and food insecurity,” says the report.

The heavy industrial and domestic use of pesticides has resulted in negative health implications. Pesticides are widely distributed in the environment (like air, soil, water and plants) and as a result, water and soil quality are decreasing and there is an increase in chronic health effects that are suggested to be related to pesticide exposure.

Bill to ban 200 chemicals

Many pesticides are either acutely toxic, have long-term toxic effects, are endocrine disrupters (acting on the hormone system), are toxic to different wildlife species or are known to cause a high incidence of severe or irreversible adverse effects.

The Pest Control Products Board (PCPB), established under the Pest Control Products, regulates the importation and exportation, manufacture, distribution and use of pest control products in the country. Through the PCPB, about 247 active ingredients are registered in 699 products for horticultural use.

According to a study done in Kenya by Route to Food last year, dubbed ‘Pesticides in Kenya: Why our health, environment and food security are at stake’, almost half (at 49 per cent) of the products registered in Kenya are toxic to humans. Of 230 active ingredients registered in Kenya, only 134 are approved in Europe, while about 77 of the pesticides used in Kenya have been restricted for use on the European market.

It also established that on the Kenyan market, the study classified 24 products as carcinogenic (cause cancer); 24 as mutagenic, (affect genetic makeup); 35 as endocrine disrupters (affect the hormonal system); 140 as neurotoxic (nervous system problems); while 41 others affect the reproductive system and causing infertility. Many of the active ingredients sold in many products are no longer approved in Europe. 

Uasin Gishu Women Representative Gladys Boss Shollei is now sponsoring a bill in Parliament to ban at least 200 chemicals locally.

PCPB general manager Paul Ngaruiya also said they have started reviewing more than 200 pesticides following a request by the National Assembly in the light of the petition.

The Board says it has contracted more experts to evaluate the pesticides, having built a multimillion-shilling laboratory for testing.