Kenyan farmers are bearing the brunt of strict European Union (EU) regulations on pesticides which threaten to cripple the horticulture sector. Fruits and vegetables are highly prone to pest and disease attacks due to their succulent nature thus informing the widespread use of pesticides.
However, there are growing global concerns of their impact on consumer health, especially in the traditional Kenyan export markets of Europe. The EU has placed restrictions on certain chemicals as well as maximum residue levels (MRLs) in marketable produce.
Farmers worldwide are now turning to bio-pesticides as alternatives. The technology involves a contraption of biological pesticides, including naturally occurring chemical substances, for example, plant extracts or hormones as well as live organisms such as insects and bacteria.
Some of the commercially available bio-pesticides include neem, pyrethrum and garlic extracts. Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium, has been used for many years in Kenya to control various caterpillars in vegetables.
More recently, fungi such as Beauveria bassiana have been used to control insects. Less commonly known are semiochemicals, which are hormones that disrupt normal pest cycles thus controlling their numbers.
The worldwide pest control market has taken note of the potential of bio-pesticides. It is estimated that these make up three per cent or $1.3 billion (Sh114 billion) of the global crop protection business.
Bio-pesticides do not persist in the environment and are generally not subject to MRLs. Environmental degradation is minimised and safety to people and animals is almost assured. Pests are also less likely to develop resistance to bio-pesticides.
Yet despite these benefits, few farmers have embraced this technology in Kenya. It is estimated that out of about 4,000 hectares under flowers, predators are used on only 600 hectares for mite control. Biological control among small holders is near zero.
While there are research efforts towards local development of bio-pesticides, their commercialisation is hampered by restrictive regulatory processes thus keeping them out of reach of many famers.
It is to be hoped that the recent meeting in Nairobi on bio-pesticides that brought together scientists, regulators, policy makers and the private sector to discuss policy and regulatory incentives will trigger higher uptake.
It is only with the right policy and regulatory framework that such cutting-edge technologies can get in the hands of famers to improve productivity and boost Kenya’s competitiveness as a horticultural exporter.
Dr Kamau is Lead Consultant, Pesticides and Agricultural Resource Centre