A Sh30 billion court award to a cancer victim in the US on Friday could have serious implications for the local agriculture sector.
The California court ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay the former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million over claims that he developed blood cancer after regular handling of popular weedkiller Roundup
Since its patent expired in 2000 hundreds of generics are now sold and used by farmers all over the world including in Kenya. Roundup contains the chemical glyphosate, which in 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified as a possible cancercausing agent. Monsanto however continues to deny such claims.
The WHO said glyphosate had been detected in blood and urine of agricultural workers. Consequently, WHO had warned farmersto be careful when using the herbicide or its generic alternatives. In the local market, about 30 generic versions of Roundup are some of the best-selling herbicides and most popular with farmers for their low cost and effectiveness. These are applied in tea and coffee plantations, beans, sugarcane, barley, and maize.
Last year, the State of California listed Roundup as a possible carcinogenic at a time Kenya was planning to expand horticultural exports in the US. “If America lists Roundup as a cancerous chemical then it will have a negative impact on our horticultural produce now that we are seeking to expand to that market,” said Alfred Serem, former managing director of Horticultural Crops Development Authority.
Dr Serem has suggested that Europe was likely to follow the US example, a move that might have a negative impact on Kenya’s market. He had advised that Kenya should have moved fast to put regulation in place to curb the use of the chemical.
While there is no data specifically showing the health impact of farm pesticides on users in Kenya, the National Cancer Control Strategy 2017-2022 promises to address the misuse of pesticides as a cause of cancer.
“The government in the next five years will promote farming and storage methods that reduce cancer risks such as safe use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides,” says the strategy document.
However, a study by Kenyatta University showed that the incidence of pesticide-related acute illness among vegetable farmers in Kenya had increased by over 70 per cent in a three year period to 2008.
“Dizziness as one of the major neurological effects of pesticide exposure was also found to have doubled during the study period,” said the study published in the journal BioMed Research International by Dr Ibrahim Macharia of Kenyatta University.
Pesticides related health expenses, the study said had also doubled within the study period, with the author calling for public health awareness on the proper use of pesticides.
Agriculture data shows pesticides imports increased by 27 per cent between 2008 and 2013. The safety of pesticides in Kenya, is further compounded by the presence of illegal products of unknown quality. Patrick Amuyunzu, Chairperson of the Agro-chemical Association of Kenya says up to 15 per cent are of pesticides in Kenya are fake. Coupled with the court ruling and data from the US and Europe indicating glyphosate concentrations in water, urine and food, efforts to ban the glyphosate may intensify.