Ideas & Debate

Is it reasonable to ban 262 pesticides?

The ‘butterfly effect’ is no longer a new idea, first put forward in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, who realised that tiny changes could have a huge impact. His one idea now sits within the much broader chaos theory, which ascribes everything that happens to cause-and-effect relationships, but with so many causes and variables that each can be close to impossible to spot individually.

A more popular idea springs from the same well as the tipping point, put forward by Malcolm Gladwell, which is the moment when many, many small changes move us off into a different direction and set of outcomes.

And so it is with Kenyan politics today, that very many changes, across a new constitution, greater education, multiple laws and organizational developments, have put us into a place of great vulnerability to a butterfly effect or tipping point.

For every action has consequences: yet we have empowered individual activists to overturn entire ranks of legislation, without building enough checks and balances on the consequences.

For sure, we have begun, with the Statutory Instruments Act, passed in just 2013, that lays out the case building that must support any law or regulation proposed by the government. It requires an impact assessment.


Before we get overly excited about that, the impact assessment can be poor. Indeed, some notable ministries barely nod towards it, replacing it with a couple of paragraphs saying a problem exists, with nothing to show how the new regulation resolves it.

As a foundation for large actions, this is akin to the kind of policy process that spots a pest, introduce another species to squash it, and then the new species creates a way bigger problem than the one it was brought in to eradicate.

Yet, despite the relative weakness of our still-new impact assessment mechanism, our politicians are finding whole circuits around even those requirements.

A prime example is the current petition to parliament seeking to ban 262 pesticides in Kenya. We have a procedure and organisation to screen out pesticides that could be cancerous or dangerous, staffed by scientists and backed by Sh23 billion of tests per chemical.

But a clutch of NGOs against all pesticides have petitioned seeking a ban outside the approvals process, and the parliamentary Health committee has been considering the matter, as a group of politicians not designed to approve or ban pesticides. Thus, they didn’t remember to ask why the US uses these 262 pesticides as safe. They also forgot to check where these pesticides are used, to stop which pests and save which crops, aiding which livelihoods.

After all, if you’re a politician and heading off for a hearty Christmas from your Nairobi home in Runda, Ridgeways, or Kitisuru, how painful really is the 40 per cent of crops and harvests, yields and incomes at play here? Why even assess the impact? So, we have the equivalent of the French Revolution: let the people eat cake.

We don’t even care to research how many families might starve as a consequence. And that’s life, outside the statutory instruments’ rigour of an impact assessment.

Nor are our food security-ending petitioners alone in seeking action outside the normal legislative process of impact assessment. Also in health – seemingly our current black spot for statutory adventurism – we currently have the private member’s bills placed by a single MP - where the ministries of Agriculture and Health could never agree on a shared government version - for a food and drugs authority.

The plan for a Sh4 billion-plus spend to create the new authority, disband five government agencies, manage 10 more, and leave seven further agencies operating in the same space, but independently, is supposed to give us greater food safety.

But not one word of how, of what problems it solves, or on the impact of all those changes: it’s just a blank.

And thus we stand at risk. An MP, a petitioner, alone, in this system, they can kill thousands, untested and unchecked. Our parliamentarians will become pesticide-approval scientists, our MPs will rule on new authorities without a single sentence on what they add and how compared with our bureau of standards and 22 other agencies. So now watch the butterfly effect.