Be wary of false drive against pesticides

Be wary of false drive against pesticides
Be wary of false drive against pesticides. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Living languages evolve, gaining new words all the time. But it still isn’t common for journalists to invent new words entirely. An exception, however, is a word coined by Washington Post journalist James K. Glassman in 1997: ‘Zohnerism’.

The word came from a school project by 14-year-old Nathan Zohner that produced such shocking results it moved to the world stage, as a warning to all. For Zohnerism is officially ‘the use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion’.

And it was an example created by Nathan that is being repeated in Kenya today, not by a student for a school project, but by a small group of paid celebrities. And, yes, I am brave to take them on, and, yes, they will abuse me for it. But the truth matters and the wellbeing of the Kenyan masses matters too. So, let’s go.

So what did Nathan do? He presented a project about a chemical dihydrogen monoxide.

The chemical, he explained, could cause severe burns, accelerate the corrosion and rusting of metals, kill thousands of people every year, has been found in the tumors of terminally ill cancer patients, is a major component in acid rain, causes sweating, excessive urination and bloating in humans, and many other health and environmental problems.


Based on his powerful presentation, 43 of 50 high school kids voted to ban the chemical.

Yet dihydrogen monoxide is known to us all by another name, which is ‘water’.

Glassman observed that these kids were all studying chemistry, yet none of the kids asked what dihydrogen monoxide was.

In fact, Nathan’s winning project was titled ‘How gullible are we’ (Gullible: easily persuaded to believe something).

Well, last week, I read a set of questions on a group chat, sent by a Kenyan journalist. The journalist stated that research has shown pesticides used on our food can cause cancer, change our genes, affect our hormones or damage our nervous system. Funny, isn’t it, that no one noticed that until one of our politicians did.

In the group, dominated by scientists, doing the equivalent of a ‘head in hands’, one of them commented: which research?

In fact, pesticides cannot be approved in Kenya – without exception – unless they are cleared as safe for use by a leading pesticide regime, such as the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency is no pussy cat. To be used here, any pesticide must have undergone typically nine years of testing, through some 150 types of tests to show that it will NOT turn us all into infertile producers of deformed children, or kill, maim or harm us if used to kill locusts or army worm.

Kenya is signatory to all the global conventions on hazardous chemicals and observes them all. It doesn’t have some secret, extra list of pesticides that it allows that other African nations don’t, or that the US doesn’t or Australia, Japan, or Canada.

But facts have been twisted. The EU recently changed its laws and no longer assesses the risks of pesticides. All pesticides are banned - unless they can be shown to present zero hazard (danger). So, water, with its capacity to cause burns, probably wouldn’t be able to gain EU approval now (although I cannot say definitively).

It’s a controversial law in Europe, causing its own disputes. In our nation, however, it’s being used as proof Kenya isn’t assessing pesticide risk properly.

Our campaigners also use the word ‘toxic’ a lot, so we can say toxic water, toxic bananas, toxic cabbage, toxic everything, and if we say it enough, then we can slate the President for letting us all down by allowing these toxic things - tested over decades and used all over the world – into Kenya to stop our livestock dying, and our crops from being consumed by insects and fungi.

And the real test: how gullible are you? Are you interrogating these claims, or just opting to slash our food production?