Arrive in any remote village or town in Kenya and chances are high that the first thing you will spot is an agrovet shop stocked with all manner of pesticides. These chemical compounds are commonly used in agriculture and animal husbandry to kill pests, including insects and rodents, and to remove fungi and weeds and control disease vectors.
Synthetic pesticides are a child of the Second World War. In her book The Silent Spring, Rachel Carson notes that in the course of developing chemical weapons, some of the chemicals created in laboratories were found to be lethal for insects. The discovery was not entirely by chance as insects were widely used to test chemical agents intended for chemical warfare.
The association of synthetic pesticides with the Second World War has not deterred their usage across the globe. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that globally, about 4.12 million tons of pesticides were used in agriculture in 2018. In Kenya, where they are presumed to have been introduced during the colonial era, the demand for these pesticides (fungicides, herbicides, fumigants, and insecticides) skyrocketed from 6,400 tonnes in 2015 to 15,600 tons in 2018.
This demand can be attributed to Kenya’s agricultural sector being heavily dependent on conventional methods of food production. This is often characterized by the heavy application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in an effort to increase yields. For instance, in the larger tea and coffee plantations in Kenya, herbicides are seen as an effective method of weed control. A study by Chepkirui, Gatebe, and Mburu reveals that small-scale tea growers in Bomet County preferred to use glyphosate to control weeds in the tea farms, with Roundup (distributed by Monsanto, now Bayer) being the most preferred at 53.7% compared to other formulations of glyphosate (Glycel, Touchdown, Wound-Out).
Glyphosate, a pesticide in the category of organophosphates, was first introduced in 1974 by Monsanto (now Bayer) and has been under great scrutiny for its ability to cause cancer. In March 2015, glyphosate was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer based on a positive association between exposure to glyphosate and cancer. One such case was Dewayne Johnson’s, a groundsman in the United States, where Monsanto was found liable for causing his cancer through exposure to Roundup.
Organophosphate pesticides (malathion, glyphosate, fenitrothion and chlorpyrifos) have been shown to be highly toxic to non-target species including humans, although they are still widely used in households and in agriculture. These chemical compounds were initially developed as human nerve gas agents in the 1930s and 1940s and later repurposed as insecticides.
Their insecticidal properties were discovered by a German scientist, Gerhard Schrader, in the late 1930s and soon afterwards the German government saw the value of these chemicals as new and devastating weapons in chemical warfare and the work on their development was declared a state secret. Some such as sarin and tabun were developed into deadly human nerve gases while others of a close chemical structure were used as insecticides after the Second World War.
Malathion is a neurotoxic organophosphate pesticide that has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable carcinogen. Yet it is still sold in Kenya and is contained in 14 products according to information on the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) website. Fenitrothion, another organophosphate pesticide that is known to be an endocrine disruptor (alters the hormonal system) and that is not approved for use in the European Union (EU), was used by the Kenyan government to control the locust infestation that occurred in early 2020.
These and other organophosphates are responsible for thousands of cases of poisoning in Kenya. In 2016, R.K.A Sang and J. Kimani reported that 35 out of 716 individuals aged between 15 and 40 years attending Kericho Referral Hospital in March and April of that year suffered from organophosphate poisoning. These harmful effects are not only associated with organophosphates but also with other pesticides. For instance, a study to examine the impact of pesticides on the health of residents and horticultural workers in the Lake Naivasha Region found that horticultural workers who underwent a clinical examination exhibited more cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological disorders compared to other workers.
These pesticides not only impact our bodies but also the soil, food, and water resources. Organochlorine pesticides (DDT, aldrin and endosulfan) were found in the soils in the Nyando River Catchment in 2015 despite being banned from use in Kenya in 1986, 2004, and 2011, respectively. Kenyan exports of horticultural produce have been rejected by the EU for surpassing the maximum residue levels allowed. Sukuma wiki (kales) and tomatoes from Kirinyaga and Muran’ga counties were recently found to contain high levels of harmful pesticides.
Pesticides should therefore be a concern to us and their use and disposal should be more strictly regulated as they have the capability to enter and alter the most vital processes of the body in deadly and sinister ways. In Kenya, the PCPB, a statutory organ of the government, is responsible for the regulation, importation, exportation, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, sale, disposal, and safe use of pest control products. It was formed under the Pest Control Products Act, Cap 346 of the Laws of Kenya. Since its enactment in 1982, this law governs the registration of many conventional chemical pesticides and biopesticides.
Currently, there are 19 active ingredients not listed in the European database and 77 have been withdrawn from the European market or are heavily restricted in their use due to potential chronic health effects, environmental persistence, and high toxicity towards fish or bees.
The Pest Control Products (Registration) (Amendment) Regulations, 2015 (Form A4 sections 3.7a, 3.8 and 3.9) require an applicant to show proof of registration of any new pesticides in the country of manufacture and in other countries. Also required is information on whether the new pesticide is registered in the country of formulation. It is therefore uncertain on what basis these pesticides were registered for use in Kenya.
Moreover, for any pesticide to be sold, used, or withdrawn from the EU, it must be authorized in the EU country concerned as per Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009. This legislation regulates the introduction of pesticides in the EU market and lays out the rules and procedures for their authorization.
Following the renewal of approval of an active substance, all pesticides containing that active substance must undergo a renewal assessment to make sure that products comply with the updated assessment of the active substance and with the new scientific and technical knowledge.
It is clear that some pesticide manufacturers do not register or re-register products they know would not be authorized in their home country within the EU but, for profit-making purposes, continue to produce and export those products to other countries such as Kenya. Manifestly, the PCPB does not carry out due diligence before approving such pesticides for use in Kenya despite its mandate to ensure that pesticides sold in the country have been assessed for safety to humans and the environment.
Pesticide registration standards in Kenya are often benchmarked against the EU systems since the EU follows a comprehensive regime and best practices in food systems as well as strictly applying the precautionary principle. Yet the fact is that the EU is the second-highest exporter of pesticides to Kenya after China, and the products registered in Kenya, which have been withdrawn from the European market, are sold by European companies (77 products).
Despite there being 36 different European companies in the sector, more than half of the products (57%) are registered by BASF, Bayer Ag, and Syngenta. Coincidentally, BASF and Bayer were part of the chemical companies that formed I.G Farben, a German chemical conglomerate, in December 1925. In the 1920s and 1930s, I.G Farben screened Zyklon B (a toxic gas made from hydrogen cyanide and originally developed as a pesticide) for Adolf Hitler’s program to exterminate the Jews and used nerve gases on victims of the Holocaust in concentration camps. I.G Farben also specialized in the production of sarin and tabun, both of which are classified as organophosphates and were used as nerve gases in the Nazi concentration camps.
Kenyan farmers and consumers are highly exposed to lethal pesticides whose impact goes beyond altering the hormonal system of plants and insects and degrading the environment to also damage the immune and nervous systems of the human body. Given the financial muscle of the manufacturers, the use of these harmful pesticides remains unchallenged by the government agencies supposed to protect Kenyans.
It is on these grounds that civil society organizations such as Route to Food, Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) and Greenpeace Africa are seeking support from members of the public through a petition to place a ban on these harmful pesticides and encourage the use of biopesticides and plant extracts in food production.
Biopesticides and plant extracts such as Neem, chili and garlic are effective in the control of pests and diseases with no negative health and environmental impacts. Ecological and organic farmers have been using these ecological and traditional methods to combat pests such as the fall armyworm and they have proven to be efficient. These methods have also been shown to increase soil fertility without the use of harmful chemicals, improve farm biodiversity, encourage the use locally available resources (indigenous seeds) and help put producers rather than corporations in control of the food chain.
It is therefore time to advocate for these safe agricultural practices that guarantee us safe food, clean water and healthy soils. Our collective voice is critical in ensuring that our human right to safe food and to a clean and healthy environment, enshrined in our constitution, is upheld.