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State probing possible link between pesticides & rising cancer cases

Research is underway to unearth a possible link between the use of pesticides on crops and the increasing cases of cancer in the Mount Kenya region.

Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) Chair, Mr. Peter Weru ,says the study which will be conducted in the 10 counties that straddle the Central region, will help the government to come up with mitigation measures against proliferation of toxic farm inputs into the region.

A 2022 Report by the Ministry of Health, revealed that Nyeri, Murang’a, Kirinyaga and Embu, had the heaviest cancer burden in the country.

At the time, cases of cancer in Nyeri stood at 2,127 for every 100,000 people, while Murang’a had 2,123 cases, followed by Kirinyaga at 2,033.

Others were Kiambu (1,783), Meru (1,789), Nyandarua (1,776),Tharaka Nithi (1,644) and Nakuru (1,612).

“We are working in partnership with all the ten counties that constitute the Mount Kenya Economic Block to unravel the riddle behind the spike on the number of cancer cases in this region and whether the surge is in any way related to use of agrochemicals on food crops,” Weru told reporters on the sidelines of a courtesy call, at the Governor Mutahi Kahiga’s office.

Weru has also lauded the county government of Nyeri, for donating a piece of land for the construction of a regional KEPHI office, to host its staff and enable in spearheading efforts in ensuring farmers access to safe and quality seeds.

He said the move will not only boost food production in the Region, but also ensure cash crops from the region attain the recommended international safety standards.

In October last year a German Non-profit making organization (NGO), had called for an end to the importation of pesticides that have been flagged as toxic.

The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung had claimed that statistics showed  76 percent of the total volume of pesticides used in Kenya contain one or more active ingredients that are categorized as Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs).

The lobby group further said such pesticides (currently banned in EU countries) have 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, a publication on toxic chemicals, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Director Joachim Paul, office 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 percent of the total volume of pesticides used are banned in Europe,” he said through a press statement to media houses.

“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 the 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,” he lamented.

“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,” Paul added.

A Report by Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) and Agrochemicals Association of Kenya (AAK) two years ago, showed that a total of 25 different active ingredients were found in tomato and kale samples in Kenya – 51 percent of the detected active ingredients, having already been withdrawn from circulation in the EU countries.

Of the samples, 60 percent exceeded the EU recommended maximum residue levels.

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

In 2016 the World Health Organization (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.

Reports from the National Pesticide Residue Monitoring Programme (NPRMP) undertaken by KEPHIS, found that 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, kales, peas and capsicum had the highest pesticide residue detections at 94.40 per cent, 75.84 per cent and 59.18 per cent respectively according to KEPHIS Annual Report and Financial Statements for the Year Ended 30th June 2018.

KEPHIS Managing Director, Professor Theophilus Mutui, said climate change has complicated the country’s efforts in addressing food shortage owing to an influx of pests and diseases previously alien to Africa.

He cited the destruction of large acreage of crops by fall army worms in parts of the country as a case but added that scientists are working round the clock to come up with seeds that are not only drought resistant but that can withstand such diseases.

“Climate change has brought new pests and diseases which were not originally found in Kenya such as fall army worms, a pest that was found in cold areas. However due to increase in temperature such pests have now found their way into the tropics,” he said.

“We are developing what we call climate smart varieties that are able to withstand pests and diseases, that are drought tolerant, early maturing and contain more nutrients to mitigate the vagaries of climate change,” he said.

In regard to measures to protect indigenous seeds, Professor Mutui said while the government will take every initiative to safeguard the use of local seed varieties, such efforts can only be possible by adhering to laid down safety practices.

He said while farmers have the liberty to make a choice between going for local or scientifically improved seed varieties, such inputs must be duly certified under the Seed and Plant Variety Act.

“In Kenya we have a gene bank at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization where all indigenous seeds are preserved for posterity. In KEPHIS we implemented a law known as Seed and Plant Variety Act where farmers are allowed to share amongst themselves standard seeds. But we prohibit anybody who would pretend to be selling certified seeds which are not. If the seeds are being sold through the formal system the agrovets, stockists KEPHIS has the role of inspection to ensure they meet the quality standards as stipulated in the Seeds and Plant Variety Act,” he added.

On his part Kahiga promised to partner with KEPHIS in pushing for policies that would not only boost seed safety in the economic bloc but across the entire country.

He said food security being at the core of the Kenya Kwanza administration manifesto requires an all hands-on deck among all leaders to ensure the country becomes self-sufficient in food production.

“As a leader from the Central Kenya Economic Bloc, I have personally begun talks with Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service where we have agreed to allocate land for the construction of regional offices to house their staff. We hope to finalize the plans once all the necessary legal framework has been put in place and I believe this is the right direction in pushing for safe seeds and food security in this country,” he explained.

By Samuel Maina and Yvette Njeri

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