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Kenyans unknowingly consume highly hazardous pesticides

The majority of households in the country could be unknowingly consuming foods that are highly dependent on Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs), posing a threat to their overall wellbeing.

A report by the Route to Food Health Initiative (RTFI), a programme of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, has identified maize, wheat, coffee, potatoes, kale, and tomatoes as users of the largest volumes of pesticides heavily laced with HHPs.

Accordingly, the crops that form the bulk of the country’s food sources are exposed to a range of toxic substances that pose a threat to both consumers and the environment.

Further, according to the 40-page report that was released in Nairobi by Heinrich Böll Foundation Country Director Joachim Paul and which KNA is in possession, only six out of the 310 pesticides being used in the country are biopesticides (derived from natural materials such as plant and animal products and therefore considered safe), accounting for a paltry 2 per cent of the total pesticide volume.

“Common food items in Kenya households such as maize, wheat, coffee, potatoes,

kales and tomatoes require the largest volumes of pesticides, with a heavy reliance on HHPs.

These crops are exposed to a range of toxic substances, posing significant threats to both consumers and the environment,” reads the report’s findings.

“Only six out of the 310 pesticide products used in Kenya are biopesticides, accounting for a mere 2% (47.3 t) of the total pesticide volume. Meanwhile, Highly Hazardouss Pesticides account for a shocking 76% of the total volume used. This huge disparity indicates the urgent need to promote biopesticides,” the report adds further.

The report: Toxic Business; Highly Hazardous Pesticides in Kenya also notes that Kenya has continued to experience a meteoric rise in the use of pesticides over the last few years.

For instance, in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is reported to have used a total of 310 pesticide products containing 151 active ingredients.

 The pesticides were applied to control various insects, diseases, and weeds in 26 different crops at a cost of $72.7 million.

Commenting on the findings, Paul said such statistics should provide crucial information for immediate action to avoid exposing both humans and the environment to toxic elements.

“Empirical data is crucial to support the phasing out of Highly Hazardous Pesticides in Kenya. However, official data on national pesticide use is not publicly available. This report addresses this gap,” said the official.

But more shockingly, according to this report, almost half of the pesticides being used in the country by farmers are currently banned in the European Union (EU) due to their unacceptable risks to both humans, animals, and the environment.

The report also notes that 63 per cent of pesticides are categorised as HHPs and contribute to a staggering 76 per cent of the total pesticide volume in the country.

Syngenta, a largely Chinese-owned Swiss company, leads the pack with a 20 per cent market share, with 68 per cent of their pesticides flagged as toxic due to the presence of HHPs.

The report indicates Bayer AG, German chemical and pharmaceutical company, follows closely at 15 per cent market value with 84 per HHPs in their pesticides, Corteva Agriscience at 7.7 %, FMC Corporation at 5.7%, and Adama Agricultural Solutions at 4.4%.

Right to Food Initiative Lead Programme Coordinator Mr. Harun Warui has nevertheless lauded the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) for its plans to review the status of some active ingredients on selected pesticides flagged as HHPs for an eventual phased withdrawal by December 2024 in a letter dated July 10, 2023.

Among the pesticide ingredients considered highly toxic and commonly used by farmers in the country are chlorpyrifos, acetochlor, glyphosate, 2,4-D, mancozeb, and chlorothalonil.

Active ingredients such as bifenthrin, dichlorvos, diazinon, carbaryl, fipronil, thiamethoxam, and carbendazim have already been outlawed in Europe, highlighting the urgent need for regulatory measures in Kenya, according to Warui.

“We acknowledge and applaud the Pest Control Products Board’s move to withdraw seven active ingredients by December 2024. This is a step in the right direction towards prioritising Kenya’s food safety. However, more needs to be done. Pesticides such as mancozeb, metalaxyl-M, paraquat, mesotrione, and imidacloprid still pose significant health and environmental impacts and need to be withdrawn immediately.” pointed out Warui.

This is not the first time Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung is raising a red flag on the health risks posed by harmful pesticides being imported into the country over the years.

In October last year, the German non-profit organisation (NGO) called for an end to the importation of pesticides that had been flagged as toxic.

The NGO, affiliated with the German Green Party and operating in more than 30 countries, said statistics showed that 76 per cent of the total volume of pesticides used in Kenya contain one or more active ingredients that are categorised as HHPs.

The lobby group claimed such pesticides (currently banned in EU countries) had been linked to increased cases of cancer, disruption of hormonal and nervous systems, and genetic defects in unborn children.

Speaking during the launch of Pesticide Plus on October 28 last year in a publication on toxic chemicals, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Director Joachim Paul said pesticides that have been outlawed in Europe are still finding their way to Africa.

“Pesticides that are not allowed for use in countries such as Germany, where they are produced, are still exported to other countries. In Kenya, 44 per cent of the total volume of pesticides used are banned in Europe,” he claimed.

“The practice of companies being allowed to sell pesticides not permitted for use in their own country because of their potential to cause high levels of acute or chronic hazards to humans and the environment creates a double standard. In Kenya, the use of these pesticides poses a great risk to farmers, local communities, and all consumers and should be addressed as an urgent public health concern. Women are at higher risk due to traditional gender roles and the biological effects of pesticides. For example, there is an established link between breast cancer and certain pesticides,” he added.

According to Atlas Pesticide, the overall global pesticide market has almost doubled in the last 20 years.

By the end of this year, the total value of all pesticides used globally is expected to reach nearly 130.7 billion US dollars, with EU states taking the lion’s share in the number of exports.

The organisation therefore called for a strict safety policy in the importation and usage of pesticides in strict compliance with the approved global bodies, such as the United Nations Organisation.

Among the recommendations by the organisation were outlawing pesticides that entail farmers using personal protective equipment and adopting biological pest control measures such as agroecology that are safe for both humans and the environment.

“In order to reduce the high number of pesticide poisonings, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation have developed a voluntary framework and standards for pesticide management. Among other things, the code of conduct recommends avoiding pesticides that require personal protective equipment that is uncomfortable or expensive to use. The guideline also recommends the use of agroecological alternatives and a ban on HHPs,” recommended the report.

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, however, noted that such recommendations could not be implemented at the time owing to a lack of legal backing.

A report by PCPB and the Agrochemicals Association of Kenya (AAK) three years ago showed that a total of 25 different active ingredients were found in tomato and kale samples in Kenya, with 51 per cent of the detected active ingredients having already been withdrawn from circulation in the EU countries.

Of the samples, 60 per cent exceeded the EU-recommended maximum residue levels.

In August 2021, an environmental lobby group called for clarity on Kenya’s position in regard to a proposal calling for the ban of some pesticides as recommended by the EU.

Greenpeace Africa, while responding to calls by some farmers who were pushing for a review of the proposed ban, said there was a need to review the proposal before its adoption by Parliament.

According to Claire Nasike, Greenpeace Africa Food Campaigner, there was a need for an exhaustive discussion on the subject by relevant stakeholders before the country could undertake a permanent ban on the said chemicals.

“Kenyan farmers deserve to know the truth about pesticides. The associations championing the use of pesticides have misled our farmers, who deserve the truth about toxic pesticides,’’ she said.

Nasike further opined that while farmers and consumers need to be protected from harmful chemicals that have been proven detrimental to human health, there should nevertheless be the right information on the matter to avoid a blanket condemnation of all inputs.

She noted that over the years, Kenya’s right to safe food has been compromised after exposure to food that is high in pesticide residues, and consequently, banning toxic pesticides is the way, along with encouraging farmers to embrace alternative pest control mechanisms such as integrated pest management systems.

“Kenyans’ right to safe food has been compromised after years of exposure to food that is high in pesticide residues. Banning these toxic pesticides is a step in the right direction to encourage farmers to embrace already-existing environmentally friendly alternatives, such as integrated pest management,” she insisted.

Other groups that were backing this review include the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya.

Statistics from AAK show 96 per cent of Kenyan farmers use pesticides in their production.

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO), while acknowledging the role played by pesticides in curbing diseases in crops, highlighted several health risks associated with their persistent use over a period of time.

The body had therefore called for thorough tests on such inputs before they could be declared safe for use by farmers. In 2019, another lobby group advocating for sustainable agriculture likewise pushed for the immediate withdrawal of pesticides deemed toxic to human health and the environment.

The group, which had brought together RTFI, the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA-K), the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), and Resources-Oriented Development Initiatives (RODI), had raised the red flag over chemicals, terming them a ticking bomb in the country’s food chain.

According to the group, at least 32 per cent of pesticide active ingredients that were currently registered at the time and sold in the country had been blacklisted from the European market after being found to have serious health risks to both humans and the environment.

Drawing from findings contained in the White Paper on pesticide use in Kenya and commissioned by RTFI, the lobbyists had therefore called for the withdrawal of chemicals with specific active ingredients such as permethrin, carbendazim, and acephate, among others.

“It is disconcerting to note that the sale of these chemicals, many of which are not approved in Europe, is going on unabated with little regard to public health and environmental safety.

Our findings show that there are 24 products in the Kenyan market that are certainly classified as carcinogenic, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer, while the same number (24) are mutagenic, meaning these substances have the capacity to cause damaging genetic changes. Others have been proven to negatively affect hormones and show clear effects on reproduction,” said Layla Liebetrau, RTFI Project officer, through a media release.

According to the group, the volume of imported chemicals had more than doubled from 6,400 metric tonnes in 2015 to 15,600 metric tonnes in 2018, raising fears that farmers as well as consumers might directly be exposed to highly toxic pesticides.

“Withdrawing these products from the market will reduce their availability to farmers and would be an urgent and significant step in trying to reduce the adverse effects pesticides pose to our health and food safety. The assumptions, such as ‘safe use’ and labelling, that inform whether a pesticide is registered in Europe are different in Kenya, which may lead to a higher exposure risk for farmers, consumers, and the environment,” added Eustace Kiarii, CEO of the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network.

Through PCPB, there are 247 active ingredients registered in 699 products for horticultural use.

The White Paper further explains that there are more products than active ingredients since one active ingredient can be in different formulations registered by different companies in different products.

 The active ingredient glyphosate, for example, is registered in 39 products by 22 companies.

In addition, the findings show that the products registered in Kenya that are withdrawn from the European market are mostly sold by European companies (75 products), followed by Chinese companies (55 products) and Indian companies (16 products).

The partner organisations also allege the Kenyan Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) irregularly takes food samples for testing, and the actual levels of pesticides are not made available to the public, threatening public understanding about the safety of food consumed.

Consequently, in 2020, Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Boss Shollei tabled a petition in Parliament calling for the withdrawal of lethal chemicals from the Kenyan market.

In Petition No. 70 of 2019, the legislator said the move arose from findings that revealed that many of the fresh vegetables and fruits being consumed in the country could actually be a health hazard to hundreds of unsuspecting Kenyans.

She called upon the state to begin the speedy withdrawal of toxic chemicals that have been banned in Europe after being found to contain heavy residues of carcinogenic ingredients.

“As a country, we are witnessing the devastation that a terminal illness such as cancer can cause. This disease is becoming increasingly common and indiscriminately affects both our young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, skilled and unskilled, urban and rural dwellers. We must question whether our food system supports or undermines the health status of Kenyans and our growing economy,” she advanced.

The former Chief Registrar of the Judiciary similarly challenged the PCBP, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, and the National Environment Authority to put checks on all farm inputs being imported into the country to weed out those that are a health hazard to the public.

“The onus is on regulators such as the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) to ensure harmful products are not available in Kenya, and on the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service and the National Environment Management Authority to ensure that pesticides in our food and environment are monitored and controlled within acceptable limits,” she added.

In 2018, Kenya is said to have imported at least 17,803 metric tonnes of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, fumigants, rodenticides, growth regulators, defoliators, proteins, surfactants, and wetting agents.

And out of all the total pesticides imported into the country during the period, insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides accounted for about 87 per cent of the volume and 88 per cent of the total cost of the imports.

Reports from the National Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programme (NPRMP) undertaken by KEPHIS found that of 1,139 food samples taken in 2018, 530 (46.53 per cent) had pesticide detections, while 123 (10.80 per cent) had exceedances of set EU maximum residue levels (MRLs).

Similarly, according to the samples collected from edible greens, kale, peas, and capsicum had the highest pesticide residue detections at 94.40 per cent, 75.84 per cent and 59.18 percent respectively, according to the KEPHIS Annual Report and Financial Statements for the Year Ended June 30, 2018.

By Samuel Maina and Wangari Mwangi

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