Revealed: Killer chemicals finding their way to your dinner plate

Toxins have been finding their way into food, including rice, tomatoes, milk and maize.

What you need to know:

  • Farmers are unknowingly exposing themselves and others to health risks. 
  • The products are often smuggled into Kenya and sold directly to farmers.

A hidden menace is infiltrating Kenya’s agricultural heartlands — toxins, ranging from pesticide residues and antibiotics, are finding themselves in food on Kenyan tables.

From rice, to tomatoes, to milk, to maize danger abounds.

An assessment by the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) shows that farmers are using banned pesticides — both in the country and other jurisdictions — that have been found harmful to humans, while others are using approved ones, but in the wrong quantities or for the wrong purposes.

This is putting Kenyans’ lives at risk, with the pesticides agency warning that the harmful chemicals are finding their way onto your dinner plate.

Furadan 10G, a highly hazardous pesticide restricted due to its avian toxicity, is used by Kenyan rice farmers to control golden apple snails on rice farms.

Meanwhile, tomato farmers in Central Kenya use Dudu ACelamectin, an unauthorised combined insecticide and miticide that kills mites, beetles, fruit flies and plant bugs.

Other farmers use Lava 100 EC to kill pests such as termites, bats and ants. 

All these three chemicals are unauthorised for use in the country, according to PCPB Chief Executive Officer Fredrick Muchiri. Such products, he says, risk the lives of farmers and consumers.

Mr Muchiri warns that while these hazardous pesticides are cheaper and more effective, farmers are unknowingly exposing themselves and others to health risks. 

The products are often smuggled into Kenya and sold directly to farmers, making it difficult to regulate their use.

“Our farmers are using products whose consumer safety is not assured. The farmers have argued that these products are very effective and cheaper than Kenyan products. But that is because you don’t know what you are consuming. You could be using a pesticide that will knock you down tomorrow,” says Mr Muchiri.

“Due to infiltration from our neighbouring countries, especially through the Oloitoktok border ... people go there enter into our neighbouring country, procure and deliver mostly in Meru, Embu, lower sides of Tharaka-Nithi and Kirinyaga. They sell directly to farmers. The dangers are that we cannot guarantee safety because they have not been evaluated for safety,” Mr Muchiri says.

In Moiben, Uasin Gishu County, Elias Cheruiyot has been practising tomato farming for the last 10 years. Cheruiyot and other tomato farmers in the area started using Dudu Acelamectin due to its ability to kill nine pests.

“Initially, it was very effective; you would spray once in three weeks. But of late, the results are not pleasant. I don’t know what they did to it,” says Cheruiyot.

He went to Uganda in 2021 to purchase 20 litres of the pesticide to rid his farm of an infestation of Tuta absoluta, a moth species commonly known as tomato leaf miner. He explains that the pest infestation was major last year, leading to poor yields and forcing him to take a break from tomato farming. 

He says he usually alternates it with different pesticides that he gets from across the border.

An agro-vet dealer in Eldoret, who preferred to remain anonymous, reveals that many farmers opt for unregistered agrochemical products due to their affordability compared to the registered ones.

He further explains that most of these products are smuggled into the country, enabling the dealers to evade import tax payments.

“There’s a pesticide called Lava 100 EC that is readily available in the country, even on the streets, but not authorised for use. This pesticide falls under Class 1, meaning it is hazardous. It kills pests, including termites, cockroaches, bed bugs, spiders, ants, bats and adult mosquitoes,” he says.

The country’s rice consumption is high, standing at 949,000 metric tonnes, due to evolving dietary patterns among Kenyans, especially in urban areas. With a projected population growth rate of 2.7 per cent annually, the consumption is expected to increase to about 1,290,000 tonnes by 2030 as per the National Rice Development Strategy-2.

In rice farming regions of Kisumu County, such as Ahero and West Kano, some farmers still use Furadan, despite it being classified as highly hazardous. This illegal practice is carried out secretly, with dealers obtaining the chemicals from Uganda. 

Ahero Irrigation Scheme Co-operative chairman Emmanuel Juma says that since the chemical was banned, most farmers have stopped using it to control pests.

“In Ahero irrigation, we no longer use it since it is a highly poisonous chemical. Even before it was banned, handling the chemical was a problem,” says Mr Juma, adding that the chemical is not readily available even in local agro-vets

Furadan is used to control soil insects, nematodes and early foliar-feeding insects. 

“In fact, those involved in the sale of the chemical don’t want to be known they are involved in the illegal business. Meaning they get it through a porous border,” he says.

In 2015, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service found residues of pesticides in almost half of the fresh produce meant for export, leading to calls for the withdrawal of the pesticides.

Around 11 per cent of fresh produce contained residues exceeding the European Union’s maximum residue levels.

Approximately 34 per cent of the pesticides approved by PCPB have been restricted or withdrawn from the European market due to their potential to cause chronic health issues and environmental harm.

The Nation was unable to obtain data to establish whether there have been fresh produce exports that have been rejected because of the same. 

There are also concerns about toxins in milk due to reckless antibiotic use by farmers.

Between 2020 and 2021, scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute and CGIAR visited the Central Kenya highlands to investigate the use of antibiotics in smallholder dairy farms.

They also sought to find out whether these farmers were using substandard or counterfeit antibiotics. They collected data from 248 dairy farms and 72 veterinary drug stores, aas well as milk and antibiotic samples.

The researchers found that the farmers were not only buying poor quality antibiotics, but also using the antibiotics incorrectly. Almost 44 per cent of the antibiotics tested were of poor quality. The milk was also found to contain traces of antibiotics.

“Poor quality, substandard, or counterfeit antibiotics can lead to ineffective treatment and prolonged illness. Low-quality antibiotics are even more likely to contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is because they won’t fully eradicate the disease-causing bacteria, allowing them to adapt and become resistant.

“Antibiotics were used to treat and to prevent infections. Most were obtained through animal health service providers. A small number (6 per cent) were bought directly from veterinary drug stores or other farmers. Antibiotics were often sold without a prescription, and based on farmers’ own diagnosis. These are imprudent practices — the wrong antibiotic could be used to treat an infection or antibiotics could be overused,” noted the scientists. 

The researchers said they detected nine antibiotics in milk, with three samples exceeding global standards. 
“Antibiotics can get into milk when withdrawal times are not strictly followed. The presence of antibiotic residues in milk, even at low levels, can pose health risks to consumers, particularly those who are allergic to specific antibiotics,” the scientists noted. 

They added that even for those who aren’t allergic, prolonged exposure to low levels of antibiotics could contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Farm worker

A farm worker sprays a potato farm with pesticides and herbicides in Elburgon, Nakuru County in this photo taken on November 17, 2022.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Dishon Muloi, one of the researchers, explains that they found traces of antibiotics such as sulfamethoxazole, sulfadiazine, trimethoprim, tetracycline, oxytetracycline, ampicillin, gentamicin, ceftiofur and penicillin G. Only three out of 108 samples had antibiotic residues above the maximum residue level (MRL) and these were tetracycline, oxytetracycline, and penicilin G. 

Interviews with farmers indicated that they mostly rely on advice provided by private animal health service providers, either para-veterinarians or veterinarians. However, the study did not capture the extent of reliance on these providers, whether treatment advice was given without performing a clinical exam or bacteriology testing, or whether they provided advice together with clinical services.

“We obtained the milk samples directly from the cows’ udder on the farms. The presence of antibiotic residues could indicate previous antibiotic treatment and since antibiotics have different withdrawal times, it is possible they will appear in the milk despite cessation of antibiotic therapy. It is also worthwhile noting that 50 per cent of our milk samples were antibiotic free,” says Mr Muloi.

He explains that people with allergies to certain antibiotics may have an allergic reaction when consuming milk containing residues. However, such allergies are rare and the severity can vary.

“Presence of antibiotic residues in milk can affect the production of other dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt, which require the addition of a starter culture. In other cases, milk will have to be discarded, while other times, farmers are fined or milk is rejected, leading to economic losses,” he explains.

He adds: “The presence of antibiotic residues in milk (testing typically done at the milk collection points) can be used as a monitoring tool to determine if farmers are adhering to antibiotic withdrawal times and may also be used as an indirect indicator of animal husbandry and herd health management practices.” 

In a bid to fight antibiotic resistance, Dr Teresiah Ndung’u, a Kenyan scientist and Nyandarua County director for livestock and fisheries, has developed a kit that instantly detects the presence of antibiotic residues in raw milk.

She is currently working to make the kit available to dairy farmers cooperatives and milk handlers.

Mr Muchiri, explains that pesticide residue in milk depends on the amount of crops that a cow has eaten and on the type of pesticide used on the crops. The toxicity affects animals differently, depending on their weight.

“The effect of poison on a living organism is calculated in terms of the number of milligrams per kilogramme of body weight; the bigger the animal, the more the amount of pesticide required for it to have a negative effect. Animals might not be affected the same way as humans, because these animals weigh more than humans,” he says.

The PCPB boss explains that smuggled and unregistered pesticides have made their way into the distribution chain due to Kenya’s strict system.

“People are importing products from China whose safety cannot be guaranteed because it has not gone through our evaluation process. These products are then marketed by hawkers who do not know what they are selling and have no idea where they came from. Because hawkers distribute them while walking, enforcement becomes an issue,” says Mr Muchiri.

He adds that some of these products may be registered for use in neighbouring countries, but are not registered in Kenya, and are therefore illegal. Others may be counterfeit products that imitate the authorised product. 

Counterfeiters, he says, take advantage of a period when the authorised producers cannot meet the demand to make sales.

Filling this gap would require that registrants of the products ensure they constantly meet the demand to prevent entry of counterfeits.

According to Mr Muchiri, the most commonly smuggled pesticides currently include Greenleaf for cockroaches, Familly aerosol, and Hittz aerosol.

“In the Kenyan regulatory environment, all pesticide outlets require a permit. These outlets are inspected annually to assure the public that any item they buy from a licensed agro-vet outlet has been verified to be of good quality, safe to humans in terms of consumption, and safe for the environment,” he says.

“Our responsibility as a government institution is to ensure that all the pesticides for agriculture and public health are safe, effective, of high quality and of economic value. We undertake several processes to ensure that the four elements are met. This includes registering a pesticide, which entails rigorous evaluation of scientific data concerning the pesticide,” says Mr Muchiri.

He explains that the board is working to educate farmers on the dangers of using unauthorised pesticides, but they are struggling with capacity.

“We are operating at about 23 per cent of required staffing levels. The illegal pesticides would not get in if we had all these people at the port of entry. If we had people at the port of Mombasa, we would capture them. We used to operate from the port, then there was a directive that other agencies should leave the port to facilitate business. This is the business that has been facilitated—importing illegal products,” says Mr Muchiri.
PCPB, lays blame on other government agencies for facilitating the illegal imports.

“The mandate still remains ours, but how would you do it? There was recently a container that we wanted to impound, but it was cleared before we could get to it. Because of this, some products, such as Familly, have even made their way to supermarkets. Now, we do fire-fighting and preventive control when, before, we were focused on preventive control,” the PCPB boss laments.

Dr Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, explains that farmers’ use of unauthorised pesticides is driven by a lack of information and capacity. Farmers are also driven by frustration stemming from using products that are not effective. 

“Farmers lack knowledge about pesticide products, what to use, when, and how much they should use. They also lack knowledge about safe use and disposal. Sometimes, it is not that the pesticides are ineffective, but that they are used at the wrong time or in the wrong amount.

"This capacity is lacking because of the collapse of government agricultural extension services, and so far, we haven’t found a way for farmers to access the knowledge and information that they need,” says Dr Njagi.

“It is difficult to know which unauthorised pesticides they use because they do not keep the evidence of what they have used. They quickly dispose of the pesticide bottles in pit latrines immediately after use. One has to conduct a toxicology test to find out what ingredients they are using.

"There is also a policy weakness in the East African Community. We do not have harmonised policies on pesticides. You will likely find that something banned in Kenya is allowed in Tanzania. Whatever product they use will find its way into the country,” he says. 

On February 9, PCPB issued a notice to local agents and registrants to immediately terminate the “registration and importation of herbicides proposed for use in non-cropped areas, as well as a phased withdrawal of the same by December 31.

These herbicides are authorised for use in the country for use in road reserves and railway lines, during land preparation before planting, as well as in management of weeds in coffee and tea farms. 

However, PCPB says that according to a survey it conducted, marketers and agro-vet dealers largely ignored the stipulated usage. It also concerned that herbicides used in land preparation may, due to “absence of data on crop safety and residues”, expose consumers to risks.

On the same day, the board also called upon registrants who are using pesticide performance enhancers (Polyethoxylated tallow amines) to reformulate their products and exclude the enhancers by June 31. This was meant to “safeguard human health and the environment”.

In a statement, PCPB stated that it shall phase out products containing such enhancers by December 31, and that the registration of such products would stop on February 9.

A report by The Route to Food Initiative released in September last year shows that in 2020, farmers in Kenya “used a total of 310 pesticide products containing 151 active ingredients. They applied a total volume of 3,068 tonnes of chemicals to control insects, diseases and weeds on 26 different crops. Farmers spent about Sh10.5 billion on the purchase of pesticide products, Sh4.1 billion on insecticides, Sh3.8 billion on herbicides and Sh2.6 billion on fungicides.”

Out of the 310 pesticide products used, 195 contained one or two active ingredients that are categorised as highly hazardous.

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization define highly hazardous pesticides as a class of pesticides that present high levels of acute or chronic hazards to human health and the environment. Pesticides may also be considered highly hazardous if they “appear to cause severe or irreversible harm under conditions of use in a country”.

The report lists the top five widely used insecticides in Kenya as Marshal, Thunder, Belt, Occasion-Star and Dursban. These highly hazardous insecticides, states the report, “cover an area of 635,350 hectares, which accounts for 21 per cent of the total pesticide treated area”.

“Maize, wheat, coffee, potatoes and tomatoes in Kenya require the largest volumes of pesticides, with a heavy reliance on highly hazardous pesticides. In maize and wheat production, herbicides such as 2.4-D, S-metolachlor, glyphosate, atrazine, and paraquat are primarily used. However, the insecticide chlorpyrifos is also applied in high volumes,”reads the report in part.

It adds: “Coffee production uses high volumes of highly hazardous insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Potatoes and tomatoes also heavily depend on highly hazardous pesticides, with Mancozeb being a widely used fungicide. Mancozeb is banned in the EU and has been linked to cancer. Tomato production also involves the use of a variety of highly hazardous insecticides such as diazinon and thiamethoxam.

Additional reporting by Gabriel Kudaka and Elizabeth Ojina