A European Union ban on produce that does not meet stringent maximum residue limits for various chemicals is having a devastating effect on exports from the developing world.
Kenya’s horticultural produce has been facing serious challenges in overcoming these obstacles to access the European market.
The E.U. and developed nations are the major producers of agrochemicals and fertilizers, which they export to developing world countries like Kenya. Yet, they do not want products grown using these chemicals to enter their markets.
John Njoroge, director of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, spoke to Isaac Mwangi about maximum residue limits, organic farming, phasing out agrochemicals and related issues.
AFKInsider: There has been much discussion about the European Union demand on maximum residue limits. Is it feasible to reduce these and use agrochemicals at acceptable levels?
John Njoroge: The Kenya Institute of Organic Farming has been promoting natural methods of farming and working without conventional chemicals. The reduction of synthetic chemicals would produce healthy food that does not carry pesticide residues.
We believe in natural methods of farming, where organic fertilizers for the soil are mainly organic materials such as compost — and in utilizing the natural resources available on a farm. If there are pests, the farmers look for plants with pest-repelling qualities such as pyrethrum, neem, garlic, chillies, marigold and many others.
AFKInsider: What you are advocating, then, is not just a reduction of agrochemicals but totally doing away with them?
John Njoroge: Farmers are not encouraged to buy poisonous pesticides. We say there should be as little as possible or even no conventional pesticides. The aim is to build a natural farm using resources available on the farm.
AFKInsider: You have been advocating elimination of the use of chemicals in farming. Is it possible to maintain high production levels of organic agriculture without using chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals?
John Njoroge: Yes, it is possible to have high output from farms using natural resources. What a crop requires for proper growth is good fertilization, and organic matter can provide an abundance of this from compost and organic manures.
The second important thing is to reduce losses through pests and crop diseases. This can be done through natural repellents. Some of these are not well known by farmers, but we do train them. Many farmers do not know, for instance, that simply mixing wood ashes with harvested grain would reduce damage by weevils and other storage pests.
AFKInsider: Considering global climatic changes, is organic farming practical?
John Njoroge: Actually, organic farming is being used as a way of stabilizing climatic changes. It doesn’t put too much carbon in the atmosphere; rather, it helps in restoration. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have a lot of negative effects on the climate.
AFKInsider: The E.U. and developed nations are the major producers of agrochemicals and fertilizers, which they export to developing world countries like Kenya. Yet, they do not want products grown using these chemicals to enter their markets. Do you see a contradiction?
John Njoroge: Of course there is a contradiction. Companies like Syngenta and Bayer produce products that they sell widely, but soon the users in the West discover that those products are no good. Eventually, lobby groups emerge and those products are banned in their home countries. These companies then have the problem of where to take their products. Eventually, these chemicals that are banned elsewhere find their way here. A good example is DDT, which is banned all over the world, yet sections of the government are still encouraging its use.
These banned products are imported under different brand names or as gifts. Our government needs to be very careful about the country’s needs.
The West has discovered that the same chemicals that are banned there are used to grow crops in Kenya that are then exported to Europe and America. They are now very keen on testing for MRLs of various chemicals in farm produce. A lot of farmers are losing out by finding that their produce is not accepted in foreign markets and has to be destroyed.
This is where the government has to step in and tell farmers not to grow crops using inputs that are banned.
AFKInsider: Would you urge the banning of fertilizers and agrochemicals from the marketplace?
John Njoroge: It would be difficult to ban them at once, but it is possible to accept that there are alternatives to products that are detrimental to the health of consumers and to the environment. Existing research institutions can be used to identify the active ingredients of those resources with useful ingredients; introduce them into the market; and train farmers to use them. Gradually, we would then phase out the use of chemical fertilizers.
For the past five years, for instance, we have been talking about the detrimental effects of diammonium phosphate (DAP) on the soil. Yet, the government is very quiet about this and continues to import more DAP. Why?