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Tackling unsafe food to boost health, exports

pesticides-

A small-scale farmer sprays pesticide on his farm. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • Pests and diseases are responsible for losses in agricultural produce estimated at between 30 and 40 percent, highlighting the need for pesticides, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
  • Health and food experts around the world are, however concerned that use of harmful agro-chemicals, as well as their residuals levels in food, and mishandling of food are placing a huge burden on the health of Kenyan consumers.
  • This also hurts the country’s exports.

Pests and diseases are responsible for losses in agricultural produce estimated at between 30 and 40 percent, highlighting the need for pesticides, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Health and food experts around the world are, however concerned that use of harmful agro-chemicals, as well as their residuals levels in food, and mishandling of food are placing a huge burden on the health of Kenyan consumers. This also hurts the country’s exports.

Whereas the Constitution guarantees Kenyans access to quality food, in reality getting safe food is a struggle for most households. But there is hope yet following a fresh push by experts and policymakers to promote food safety. They are calling for a holistic approach to promote safety standards of diet consumed in the country.

Prof Erastus Kang’ethe, a public Health and Food Safety specialist at the University of Nairobi, notes that despite the government developing robust regulations, efforts on food safety standards have not yielded much.

He puts Kenya’s losses at Sh1 billion annually due to food-related diseases and poor diet.

multi-agency approach

“The government bears the greatest responsibility in ensuring that all citizens access quality and safe food. The government comes up with policies and regulations to guide stakeholders,” explains Prof Kangethe.

“We need to pay more attention to food safety. We have many regulations but they are not enough. We need to engage all stakeholders to improve compliance and facilitate safety of food instead of policing.”

According to Leonard Kimtai, Senior Public Health Officer, Division of Food Safety in the Ministry of Health the government has established a multi-agency approach to boost food safety.

He observes that Kenya is also banking on the establishment of mini-laboratories across the country as it steps up campaigns to boost food safety standards.

“Most people have not given attention to illnesses related to food because the approach is more curative as opposed to preventive. People focus on curative since they don’t feel pain at the prevention stage but we want to encourage the public to adhere to food safety,” Dr Kimtai observes during a food safety workshop.

The agencies in the food safety drive include Agricultural Food Authority, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis), Pests Control Products Board (PCPB) among others.

“We are urging farmers to only apply pesticide registered for that purpose. Apply according to what is written on the label. Disposal of cans should also be done properly in a safe area to ensure that chemicals don’t contaminate the environment or harm animals or human health,” says Prof Theophilus Mutui, Kephis managing director.

According the Horticultural Crops Directorate’s (HCD) 2020 report, the value of horticultural exports stood at Sh160 billion compared to Sh150 billion in 2019. But with high quality fresh produce, Kenya has the potential to increase its earnings.

Export earnings

The HCD report indicates that flowers accounted for 71 percent of the exports, vegetables like French beans, peas, Asian vegetables and spices, comprised 20 percent while fruits such as mangoes, avocado and passion fruit accounted for nine percent.

European Union countries such Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria remain the main export destination. For instance, Holland accounts for 57 percent while United Kingdom (13 percent).

Prof Mutui observes that Kephis was involved in the coming up with various protocols. For instance, it recently developed mango export protocols that facilitated exports of the fruit to Italy after undergoing hot water treatment, a new technology that allows treatment underspecified duration and temperatures.

“We are looking to diversify away from the traditional markets for our agricultural produce. We are engaging the United States and China to export our avocados to allow exports of our fresh avocados,” he notes, adding that they are also engaging the South Korea to allow exports of unripe bananas and broccoli.

In 2019, the government appointed Kephis to carry out continuous monitoring of the quality of food in the Kenyan market.

Exports resumption

“We are engaging with a number of international markets such as South Korea. Recently, Kenya exported some quantities of mangoes to Italy,” said Prof Mutui.

In 2014, Kenya introduced a self-imposed ban on mangoes to the EU market over fruit flies but is optimistic it will resume exports later this year.

Some of the laboratories include the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs). Kenya Dairy Board has also unveiled a laboratory in Nairobi to boost milk safety standards.

Another laboratory that is being constructed at Pests Control Products Board’s (PCPB) headquarters in Nairobi, is expected to conduct analysis on different aspects of conventional pesticides, botanical and bio-pesticides. This will include research for information generation on new pest control products.

PCPB managing director Esther Kimani says construction of the laboratory that began in 2018 is expected to be completed by December.

“It is hoped that once well-equipped it can become a centre of excellence for pest control products quality assurance in Eastern and Central Africa. There-after we will need to be able to carry out various analysis,” she explains.

Right investment

Dr Kimani says the agency had already initiated a risk assessment of the pesticides in the market following the parliamentary committee on health recommendations.

Recently, counties under North Rift Economic bloc (Noreb) in collaboration with UN agencies organised meeting on food systems. The forum that was attended by five governors sought to find ways to improve on productivity and safety of food and will culminate to global UN summit on food systems in September.

Dr Kiplimo Lagat, Nandi county agriculture executive notes that the right investment in the food systems, from production to consumption, can help tackle most health problems.

“About 80 to 90 percent of diseases such as non-communicable diseases or food borne diseases can be addressed through access to proper food nutrition and safe food. We can reduce a huge expenditure in health sector by empowering communities to produce clean and safe food,” says Dr Lagat, who also chairs the Noreb county agriculture executive caucus.

He puts the region’s post-harvest losses at between 30 to 50 percent, largely due to poor storage facilities and weak market linkages.

PCPB attributes high levels of chemical residues in crops to lack proper information and knowledge among farmers. Similarly, for lack of knowledge some small scale farmers handle and apply pesticides without the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPEs) putting their health at risk.

Professionals Greater role

Dr Kimani notes that there is need for creation of awareness on the safe use of pesticides and ensuring professionals have greater role in the food chain will improve safe use of pesticides.

“What we are encouraging is that professional take advantage of business opportunities such as spray service providers in the market to assist the farmers to manage pests and diseases,” she says.

With the high residual levels, low amount of Kenyan produce have accessed some of the international markets such as European Union.

Through a Sh400 million European Union-funded programme in collaboration with the Kenyan government, United Nations Industrial organisation and other stakeholders are currently promoting food safety in 12 counties, aiming to improve market access for locally grown crops such as macadamia, groundnuts, passion fruit, mango, herbs and spices to increase exports.