Ask any farmer in Mt Kenya region which is the best way to clear grass on their farm and the first product they mention is Roundup. So popular is the weed killer that news that it is linked to cancer has not changed much on the ground.
In a landmark case last week, a US Court ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay a former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson Sh30 billion over reports that he developed blood cancer after regular handling of Roundup, the popular herbicide.
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Even as the news continue to hit agricultural circles with developed countries issuing their stands, for most farmers in Kenya, it is business as usual.
Smart Harvest went on a mission in Central and Rift Valley agricultural baskets where Roundup is commonly used to assess the situation.
Empty container on a farm
Timothy Mutembei, a farmer from Chuka in Meru County says he has seen the weed killer used on his father’s farm from his childhood. He uses it to clear weeds and couch grass on patches of land bordering his tea and coffee plantations.
“I’ve known of Roundup herbicide all my life. It is very common to see an empty container thrown on a farm. My dad has used it for years and I also use it to clear weeds on my farm,” he says.
When he was younger, he and his siblings would help their father spray the chemical on the farm. And sadly, they rarely wore protective gear. Experts have warned that farmers expose themselves to risks by not using proper protective gear when spraying (see related story on page 26 on safe spraying)
The chemical that uses the tag line ‘Number one weed killer’, is quite effective, he says.
“This thing is good. When you spray it on your farm which is covered in grass, it sucks life out of the vegetation in days. It works up to the roots,” he says.
Though his 85-year-old father is no longer an active farmer, he has passed on the idea of using Roundup to all his sons and to generation of farmers.
Mutembei explains that the herbicide is particularly good for clearing a farm that is covered in couch grass.
Couch grass is common on farms and is considered one of the most a pervasive weeds to tackle.
Couch or twitch is known to farmers locally known as thangari and its wiry, underground stems and creeping shoots pop up around garden plants and before long can take over a bed.
“The roots grow deep under other plants and when you try to weed them manually, they uproot other plants around them,” Mutembei says.
But Roundup, is its ‘medicine’.
David Waiganjo a Nyeri farmer, also confesses that Roundup is part of his arsenal when he needs to clear a piece of land fast.
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Recently, he used it to clear a piece of land of grass in the Nyeri County Assembly which is to be prepared for construction.
No need for labourers
The dried up patch of land with withering weeds is a sharp and clear contrast to the green and lush gardens that have been perfectly manicured by the Assembly grounds keepers perhaps a testament to Roundup’s efficiency.
“You see if we would have hired labourers to slash the grass it would have been more expensive. That is why I sprayed the Roundup herbicide and as you can see, it has done wonders,” Waiganjo says.
Aside from his work as a messenger, he has been an ardent farmer of horticultural produce for years and admits that Roundup comes in handy when clearing land for a new season.
“I grow, tomatoes, green peppers and courgettes, and I have been using Roundup for the past four years. It does a fairly good job,” he says.
However, he warns that due to the efficacy of Roundup, it would not be advisable to use it if you want to plant tubers such as potatoes, onions and carrots as the chemical contaminates the soil and is absorbed by such crops.
“You must be careful with such chemicals when growing tubers because it penetrates deep into the soil and is absorbed by the plant,” he warned.
To cut costs, Waiganjo uses the herbicide as opposed to hiring casuals to slash the grass and clear the weeds.
Why farmers love it
“I have a small parcel of land and I do not always have enough money to pay for labourers to clear my land, so I take the easier and cheaper route — chemical control,” he points out.
His sentiments were echoed by Mutembei who says most farmers cannot afford mechanised farming inputs like tractors to clear their land and opt for herbicides.
“Being in a tea zone, the terrain is sloppy and the parcels of land are small so you cannot get a tractor to plough in such a region,” he says.
Waiganjo says his piece of land is flat but measures only an eighth of an acre and therefore it would be impractical to use a tractor when he needs to clear it.
Othaya Coffee Farmers’ Society chairman Peter Nderitu has a contrary view on the use of Roundup on coffee farms.
“I do not know of any coffee farmers who use such strong herbicides on their farms.
“We recommend milder ones if need be but we prefer if farmers stick to organic farming and manually clear their farms of weeds,” he says.
In Rift Valley also, the herbicide is equally popular.
In Kuresoi sub-county in Nakuru County, David Juma says he has been using the chemical for years.
Roundup, he explains kills all weeds and is used only once during planting season.
And it is also easy to access, he says.
“The chemical is sold by local stockists and is loved by farmers because it kills all types of weeds,” says Juma.
Roundup, he notes is sprayed once during planting season, and prevents growth of weeds till harvesting.
The farmer grows various crops including potato, peas, carrots, vegetable and maize.
But two years ago, he decided to stop using Roundup because it is costly compared to other varieties in the market.
A litre of Roundup costs between Sh1, 000 and Sh1, 500 whereas other variety goes for Sh450.
No protective gear
“I stopped using Roundup, not because it is harmful, but because of its cost,” says the farmer.
There are about 30 generic versions of Roundup in the local market.
Juma says he used to spray his farm after planting, and it would kill all weeds.
“In the long term, crop production with Roundup is cheap, because you only spray once, during planting season, and no weed will grow for entire production period,” he says.
But are they aware of the reports that it has been linked to cancer?
The Kuresoi farmer says he read in local newspapers and heard on radio that the chemicals are harmful.
Juma used to spray an entire farm and he was not using protective gear such as masks and gloves.
His employees also disregard these safety precautions.
“But I have never contracted any illness. As you can see I am well,” he says.
He goes on: “... but it is upon the Government to inform farmers about the dangers of the chemicals and the need to use protective gear.”
Chris Kuto, a wheat farmer in Narok County says he is aware about dangers of the agro chemical like herbicides and pesticides.
Lucky for him, he has not experienced any health challenges from use of agro chemicals.
Mr Kuto used to spray the chemical on areas on his farm that have weeds that do not respond to natural weed control practices.
The chemicals have notes and instructions on the label that each farmer should read and follow. He points out that many farmers do not pay attention to instructions.
Other than chemical control, there is need for farmers to embrace other methods.
Farmers, he states should plough during dry weather and harrow before planting season.
“Both small and large scale farmers should practice best land preparation to avoid growth of weeds during crop production because weeds result into poor harvest,” he says.
Kuto says lack of knowledge on use of chemicals from experts and authority has been main challenge facing farmers.
A big percentage of farmers get information from agrovets, who are in business of making money.
“The Ministry should advise farmers on best farming practices, for instance, type of seeds to be used in a given locality, including fertiliser and chemicals,” says the farmer.
Even though the Roundup chemical is readily available in the country, farmers are also using other herbicides.