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Push to ban harmful pesticides opens old fertiliser wound

By Lee Mukunga | November 22nd 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

A worker offloads Diammonium Phosphate fertiliser in Kakamega County before the start of long rains. The standards body is in dilemma over the new push by MPs over regulations. [File]


Parliament has yet again opened the debate on the proliferation of sub-standard goods into the country and singled out the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) for scrutiny.

The National Assembly’s Health Committee has directed the Agriculture Ministry, the Pest Control Products Board, and Kebs to analyse all pesticides in the market.

It wants products containing cancer-causing ingredients (carcinogens) banned. The audit, it noted, is to be carried out with a view of banning products that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, endocrine disruptors and neurotic.

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“That within 90 days of the tabling of this report, the Ministry of Agriculture in consultation with Ministry of Health and other relevant agencies including PCPB and Kebs undertake an analysis of harmful and toxic pesticides and recommend their withdrawal from the Kenyan market as per the relevant laws,” the committee said a report.

The parliament’s latest move has brought into sharp focus a decision by Kebs to review the current standard specifying the permissible level of cadmium in imported fertiliser.

However, while the fertiliser is not a pesticide, it still falls under consumable commodities that can be manufactured using products that are harmful to people.

Cadmium is a poisonous heavy metal pollutant. It is in the same league with mercury, lead, arsenic and chromium. It is usually found in phosphate rocks used in the manufacture of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser.

Technical committee

DAP is the world’s most used fertiliser for planting. The campaign to force Kebs to increase the level of cadmium in imported fertiliser started in 2017.

This was after the then Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary (CS) Adan Mohamed convened a meeting attended by the then Agriculture CS Willy Bett, senior Kebs officials and the agency’s fertiliser technical committee.

Mr Mohammed called the meeting following pressure was put on his docket by several foreign fertiliser traders, who could not afford to bring in quality fertiliser with the recommended level of cadmium safe for consumers.

The importers were pushing for a review of the Kenya Standard KS157:2018 DAP/MAP, which specifies the maximum permissible level of cadmium in imported fertilisers be set at 15 parts per million (ppm).

Kebs has for years struggled to control the level of harmful metals in foodstuffs, fertilisers and other products aimed at safeguarding consumers and the environment.

Cadmium is used in the manufacture of phosphate fertilisers. The harmful effects of heavy metal can affect body systems, including cardiovascular, reproductive, kidneys, eyes and skeletal deformation, especially in children.

The element also leads to cancer and affects blood pressure as well as irreparable damage to the environment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified cadmium as a Class One cancer-causing substance.

An importer bringing in fertiliser with minimal amounts of cadmium would be forced to invest in a technology that removes the toxic metal from the commodity.

Importers, however, opposed cadmium limit, saying low level permissible in Kenyan imported fertiliser poses a serious threat to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s food security agenda.

The meeting that Mohammed called in 2017 resolved that Kebs carries out studies to determine out whether cadmium was harmful in high limits, and whether Kenya should either increase the limit or lower it.

The Kebs National Standards Council was tasked with carrying out the study. In 2018, the council recommended that the limit remains at 15ppm.

The council concluded that the 15ppm limit has not curtailed Kenya’s access to wider sources of supply of DAP fertilisers. In September 2018 the SK157:2018 standard was gazetted - putting the limit stands at 15ppm.

In November 2019, importers made a fresh bid to have the limit increased. Kebs again constituted a sub-committee to deliberate on their demands.

The committee presented a report on December 10, last year. It was a big win for importers of the high cadmium commodity. It proposed that a vote be taken by members of the Kebs technical committee to decide the limit.

The vote was taken in April this year. Intense lobbying within the committee ensured importers of high cadmium fertilisers took the day.

Kebs was now forced to increase the limit to 60ppm, and open the Kenyan market to all manner of fertiliser brands.

Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini confirmed that the technical committee took to the ballot and indeed ratified the increase in the toxic metallic pollutant contained in imported fertiliser. “A request for a review of the Kenya cadmium standard was received and was acted upon,” said Mr Njiraini.

Mr Njiraini also stressed that standards are usually meant to safeguard the health of consumers, protect the environment and promote fair trade practices. In setting standards for undesirable elements such as cadmium, in this case, Njiraini said, such trades practices are given the utmost attention.

 “If what is coming to the market is lower than set maximum limits the better for the country, and the industry is encouraged to achieve as minimum as possible. The levels set are based on research, risk assessment and international best practice,” Njiraini said.

“The debate on cadmium regulation in the EU has been going on for more than two decades. A key outcome of the debate which was based on advice from one of its scientific committees was, to gradually introduce lower limits over an agreed specified period.”

With the renewed scrutiny from Parliament, it remains to be seen what Kebs will do to curb toxic and cancer-causing ingredients such as cadmium in imported commodities.

Parliament Kenya Bureau of Standards PCPB
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