According to FAO, pollinators such as bees, birds and bats, affect 35 per cent of the world's crop production, increasing outputs of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide, plus many plant-derived medicines. Across the globe, three out of four crops that produce fruits or seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators.
This year, as we mark the World Bee Day, it is imperative for all of us to take action to protect pollinators that in essence are the reason we have food on our table. Pollinators are declining due to biodiversity loss as a result of intensive agriculture and the use of toxic chemicals. With the decline of pollinators such as bees, our food security, which is already affected by the vagaries of the changing climatic patterns, is further stressed.
Food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Many a time we ignore the ‘safety’ aspect so long as there is food on the table. It is deemed wrong to think of safety when people have limited food to eat, especially in the last few months when the country has been facing a drought.
Talking about harmful pesticides in our commonly consumed foods then becomes a complex matter to address. But this talk has to happen as consumers are at risk, and the health of the citizens becomes of key priority. Further, our environment and biodiversity is still compromised which means future generations will ultimately pay for these adverse effects, if not us.
The recommendations by the Health Parliamentary Committee on public petition (no 70 of 2019) regarding withdrawal of harmful pesticides in the Kenyan market has not been fully implemented by respective State agencies. Having harmful chemical residues in our foods can cause severe harm, both short-term and long-term chronic toxicities, due to bioaccumulation in the human body over time and this will mean a dent in our health system.
The cost of illnesses and hospitalisation are a huge burden to mwananchi. Families that have had relatives with cancer and other chronic illnesses can attest to the devastating effects of such diseases. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand while the public is exposed to chemical residues in foods. A look at our open air markets and foods sold there is a clear indication that all is not well. For example, research has shown that some of the tomatoes, kales, among other vegetables, end up on our tables. Do not forget that these are some of the most frequently consumed foods in the Kenya.
It’s time to think of options to safeguard the health and safety of our citizens. Every time I talk to my rural folks about farming and chemical use, they seem ignorant about this subject. The older or greying population will remember the time they would have plenty of harvest without using pesticides. But now, they can barely get enough yields to sustain their own households. So are these chemicals the solution? Your answer is as good as mine. We have depleted our biodiversity and important pollinators such as bees are disappearing. Soon, we will be hiring pollinators for our farms if we continue with this trend.
Further, the cost of inputs has doubled or tripled, increasing the cost of food production. This means families can only produce enough to eat and less to sell which compromises their livelihood and income sources. For most rural households, farming doesn’t make commercial sense any more. It’s marred with losses and low quality crops that cannot fetch good prices in the market despite the high cost of inputs such as pesticides.
Scientists have worked tirelessly to come up with safer alternatives that are now available. The big question is, why haven’t these options been explored? Why do we still have toxic pesticides in use? Who should be held responsible? In a food system and for every food value chain, it’s the responsibility of every actor to assure that food is safe at every point. Clearly, there are gaps that need to be addressed to ensure safe food production and ultimately food security.
Food safety is of utmost importance to the public. It’s the right of every citizen to access safe and nutritious food. It’s high time we identify emerging issues, and help the government prioritise future actions with regard to pesticide use.
As a scientist, I look forward to the day we will have data-driven policy changes that can transform our food systems. Further, we need leaders who can assess the impact of pesticides and take a clear-eyed look at their effects and how to address them. This should come from the leading voices in the agricultural development space, from parliamentarians, researchers and representatives of regulatory agencies mandated to assure safe food production and consumption.
The right to food entails access to safe and nutritious food for everyone. It’s the responsibility of every stakeholder engaged in manufacturing, advertising and distribution of pesticides to assure that the pesticides in the market are safe for use by farmers. This requires transparency, openness and accountability to safeguard the safety and health of every consumer. Let’s keep our food systems safe and our consumers assured.
-Dr Kunyanga is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi's Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Technology. [email protected]