Excessive pesticide use calls for vigilance to reduce health risks

In the last one year, cancer has been made a national concern by the death of several prominent Kenyans. The reality, however, is that nearly every Kenyan knows or is related to someone who is battling this deadly disease.

We are a country that likes to address issues when they are already at crisis stage as opposed to looking for preventative or remedial options. We cannot continue to play Russian Roulette with the lives of millions of Kenyans. To support Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, as we set up cancer centres, we need to give prominence to research and prevention of this disease in the first instance. 

While one cannot conclusively state the cause of the expanding cases of cancer, there is no question that the safety of the food that we are eating has some relationship with the increase of cancer and other diseases that now ravage the country. Taking the prevention route, one area that must be addressed is the increasing use of pesticides in Kenya. A recent report commissioned by the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) shows that use of pesticides in Kenya has risen by about 144 per cent in the last four years and that there is increasing and indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides.  

In an attempt to defend crops against pests, or take to the market ‘healthy-looking produce’ that will attract customers and procure a quick buck, farmers are using chemicals with active ingredients that have chronic health effects. According to the RTFI report, at least 32 per cent of the pesticides in use in Kenya have been linked to cancer, reproduction or fertility issues, and neurological ailments.

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It is increasingly looking like the sale of unsafe food is a normal occurrence. Just a few weeks ago, an exposé by local media revealed that certain supermarket outlets were preserving meat using toxic chemicals. Cases of vegetables being grown in raw sewage and toxic polluted city rivers are also rife.

In view of Kenya’s health crisis, the question that begs a response is, why are harmful products so easily available to farmers? Why are government agencies not effectively monitoring pesticide residue levels to ensure that they are within the acceptable safety limits? Why are we at the mercy of profit-crazed businesspeople?

It is disheartening to note that Kephis, the sector regulator, takes food samples for testing, but the actual levels of pesticides are not made available to the public. Whilst the extent of impact of pesticides on the environment and health of the citizens is not definitively known, isn’t the current epidemic and the risk that pesticides pose reason for fundamental shift in our approach to their regulation?

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It is simply unacceptable that a third of the registered pesticides in Kenya are withdrawn from the European market, partly because of the toxicity, their long stay in the environment or lack of data. What does this say about the government’s seriousness to protect its citizens?

The reality is that every Kenyan is exposed to pesticides which, when sprayed on crops, can end up in the human body through the food, fruits, veggies and drinks that we consume. Granted, agriculture plays a major role in the country’s economy and employs more than 40 per cent of the total population but with the increased pesticide use, it is putting many more people at risk. Food is supposed to nourish us not put us on a fast highway of death.

A starting point would be to ensure that pesticide imports and use are strictly monitored, and official, reliable information made publicly available. Government agencies should further enhance information sharing with other countries on: incidents with pesticides, regulatory actions taken, experiences with alternatives to highly hazardous pesticides. Additionally, pesticide regulation in Kenya should be based on the precautionary principle; where enough data is not available, the pesticide should not be in use.

The government has a constitutional mandate to protect its citizens. It is not an unreasonable demand therefore, that it should ensure that the food that we are growing and that is being sold locally, is fit for human consumption. Our food security, health, environment and peace of mind are at stake.

- The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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