By Isaac Mwangi
Kenya’s farmers and its horticultural industry are going through difficult times owing to a ban by the European Union on imported produce containing dangerous chemicals.
Members of the E.U. have been testing all produce from developing countries to ensure strict adherence to specified levels of maximum residue limits. These rules prescribe maximum levels of various chemicals for all farm produce entering the European market.
This has forced farmers to use lower quantities of chemicals on crops. It has also led to huge losses for farmers because of the expensive tests conducted locally and abroad. Losses are even more severe when products have to be destroyed, since the farmers are not compensated.
Despite efforts, Kenya has not fully complied with the new E.U. requirements, said David Nduati, the liaison officer at the Thika station of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.
These efforts include training farmers on the use of chemicals and establishment of “Kenya Gap,” a series of measures designed to ensure that produce is exposed to acceptable levels of chemicals.
Apart from the research institute, other stakeholders involved in addressing chemical levels in Kenya’s produce and flowers include the Ministry of Agriculture, the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, the Horticultural Crops Development Authority and the Kenya Flower Council. Horticultural products exported to western countries include flowers, French beans; snow and snap peas; Asian vegetables such as karella, chillies, aubergines and okra; mangoes; avocados and passion fruit.
Corrupt government officials are partly to blame for the current situation, Nduati said. For example, imported seeds that should have been tested were found recently to be infested with the mosaic virus. This led to losses of millions of shillings.
“Corruption needs to be tackled because with proper measures, some of the banned products would not be in the country,” Nduati said. “Sectors mandated with testing of imported products should be thoroughly scrutinized.”
His sentiments are shared by John Njoroge, director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, who says organic farming holds the key to solving the problems caused by agrochemicals. Fertilizer, Njoroge says, is best provided through the use of organic compost and manure.
“What is needed to grow a good crop is not pesticides. It is the fertility base of the soil that is important,” he said. “The European settlers who came to Kenya encouraged a lot of fertilizer application and chemical farming, mainly because they were doing it for commercial purposes. When Kenya became independent, many farmers followed what the Europeans were doing. A lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been imported.”
The chemicals were unnecessary, Njoroge said. “The more chemicals we use in food production, the more the deterioration in the health of our people. We need the government to connect the two so that as we treat people in hospitals, at the same time we reduce the sources of these diseases by providing good food without chemicals.”
Njoroge cited other examples of poor management of chemicals. For example, the chemicals used for storing grains may not be washed out before milling, exacerbating the problem of human exposure, he said.
“People are literally eating grain laced with chemicals,” he said. “Nobody ever tests how much pesticide residue is contained in flour, and which pesticides these are.”
Kenyans held general elections March 4. “I hope our new government will make a difference,” Njoroge said. “The government should be able to protect the people.”
Whether Kenya’s new government will do so remains to be seen. Powerful lobbies have often frustrated efforts to rein in industries. Since the horticultural sector is one of the country’s main foreign income earners, it is unlikely the government will want to rock the boat.
Pesticides used in farms should be based on organic materials and not synthetic chemicals, Njoroge said. And pesticides banned elsewhere should also be banned in Kenya.
Among these banned chemicals are the “Dirty Dozen” targeted by the Stockholm Convention, which came into force in 2004. In 2010, the “Nasty Nine” were added to this list. These dangerous chemicals include DDT, Dioxin, Polychlorinated biphenyls, Chlordecone and Lindane. These dangerous chemicals are linked to environmental pollution, cancers, reproductive problems and other serious health problems.
However, not everyone agrees that organic farming can offer the solutions to address food insecurity and simultaneously satisfy demands of western markets for clean farm produce.
“It is impossible to feed the large population through organic farming,” Nduati said. “This is because organic farming is expensive, labor-intensive and impractical. Humus for organic farming is unavailable and expensive to make because it has to be transported from livestock-rearing regions to the farms. The humus also takes a long time to be turned to absorbable nutrients that can benefit crops. The organic (methods) advocated by organic-farming crusaders have not been fully tested to show their efficacy.”
The problems facing Kenya’s horticultural sector are further compounded by western lobby groups in some countries urging a boycott of Kenya’s products due to exploitation of flower farm workers. Working conditions on horticultural farms are intolerable, Nduati said.
“The women working in flower farms are under oppression,” he said. “The problem is affecting the marketing and sale of products from Kenya.
“A lasting solution can only be found through enforcement of government rules and labor laws to protect the workers. The employers under the Kenya Flower Council are the beneficiaries of cheap labor.”