Columnists

Exercise caution in pesticides ban push

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For pesticides can be very toxic when consumed, or breathed in, or put onto our skin, but they also increase our harvests by around 40 percent. FILE PHOTO | NMG

jenny

Summary

  • The support for organic farming is widespread and the methods growing all the time, but one only needs to look at the devastation caused to last year’s maize harvest by the Fall Army Worm, which arrived before there was guidance or availability of pesticides to control it, to see the case for pesticides.
  • Farmers lost 70 percent of the crop estimated at Sh2bn of earnings.

I lived in France for some years, and still recall a neighbour getting rushed to hospital having gulped down a bottle of pesticide. His wife had made it up in an empty mineral water bottle to spray her vegetables and left it on the kitchen table. It was a hot day: he came in and drank it.

He survived: his stomach was pumped, he spent a couple of days in hospital, but he didn’t suffer any permanent damage. Nor did France ban pesticides on his accident.

For pesticides can be very toxic when consumed, or breathed in, or put onto our skin, but they also increase our harvests by around 40 percent thanks to the insects, diseases, and weeds they save our crops from. They just aren’t built to be drunk.

The same is true of household bleach. Drink it and your chances of going into a coma and of dying are quite high. Drop it onto your skin, and it will burn. Yet it remains in use in almost every household, because it kills germs that would otherwise by killers themselves. So we clean with bleach - and stop milk companies from putting it into our milk.

With pesticides, beyond not drinking them, and wearing protective clothing as we spray to stop us breathing in the fumes or getting the chemical onto our skin, we likewise need to pay attention to preventing chemical residues from being left on our food. The first step in this is the scientific assessment of their health impact, which leads to the setting of a maximum safe residue level. Below that level, that particular chemical is deemed to be safe if left in some tiny quantity on our green beans.

However, controlling residue levels requires that pesticides are used correctly. So, for instance, if a pesticide should be used at least seven days before harvesting, and a farmer uses it just three days before, more of the pesticide will be left on the crop, because pesticides break down over time. Incentives are there for farmers to use pesticides correctly.

For any farmer exporting to the EU, excess residues will see the crop refused entry, and the food will be lost.

For farmers selling locally, residue levels are tested continuously by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KePHIS)

Yet, with all these safeguards in place, our parliament is currently considering a petition from several NGOs - committed in general to banning pesticides and switching to organic farming - asking for a ban on most of the pesticides used in Kenya.

The support for organic farming is widespread and the methods growing all the time, but one only needs to look at the devastation caused to last year’s maize harvest by the Fall Army Worm, which arrived before there was guidance or availability of pesticides to control it, to see the case for pesticides. Farmers lost 70 percent of the crop estimated at Sh2bn of earnings.

However, the NGOs state that most of the pesticides used in Kenya are damaging to human health and have not been tested for their health impact in Kenya. Which they have not been.

For pesticides to be registered for use in Kenya, Kenyan law demands that they must already have been approved by one of the world’s leading pest control regulators, such as the EU or US. Getting that approval requires comprehensive health testing. So Kenya gets an automatic barrier to excessively risky pesticides without managing costly testing and health approvals that replicate the world’s best testing.

This structure means Kenyan citizens are protected from pesticide toxicity to the same level as European or American citizens. The only weakness could come if there is some reason why a pesticide would have a different health impact on Kenyans than on other nationalities.

Overall, it’s a robust legal framework that doesn’t get limited by capacity issues, but ensures we are all protected to globally leading standards.

However, if you’re anyway against pesticides, maybe its fair game to twist words and try to get pesticides comprehensively banned because they aren’t health tested locally: and just overlook the years of testing necessary for them to even qualify for Kenyan registration.