Killer pesticides in Kenya: Is it about food production or big business?
Pesticides have not only become a prominent concern globally but in Kenya today. Proponents of the pesticides argue that they are vital in pest and disease control in food systems, while the antagonists raise alarm about the potential toxicity of these agrochemicals to human health and the environment.
The point of contention is the toxic nature of certain pesticides sold in Kenya but been banned in their countries of origin. According to a 2023 Route to Food Report, 76% of the total volume of pesticides used in Kenya are categorized as highly hazardous and 44% of these pesticides are banned in the European Union.
This means that Kenyan farmers and consumers are exposed to pesticide products have the capacity to disrupt the human hormonal systems, nervous systems, induce genetic mutations and cancer, and are pose threats to the reproductive systems and the unborn children. Moreover, from an environmental perspective these pesticides are extremely harmful to fish and bees.
What is extremely concerning is that these killer pesticides are extensively used by farmers in the cultivation of the major crops in Kenya such as maize, wheat, potatoes, coffee, and tomatoes. In 2020, Kenyan farmers spent 72.7 million dollars (KES 10.8 billion) on the purchase of pesticide products. It is crucial to note that these pesticides are manufactured by large agrochemical corporations such as Syngenta, Bayer AG, Corteva Agriscience, BASF, FMC Corporation and Adama Agricultural Solutions. These companies have effectively dominated the pesticide market in Kenya, Africa and globally. The global pesticide industry is a multi-billion industry. The Pesticides Global Market Report 2022 shows that the global pesticides market is expected grow to $105.39 billion dollars in 2026 from $78.16 billion in 2021.
In Kenya, Syngenta leads the pesticide market with a substantial 20% market share, followed by Bayer AG with 15%, Corteva with 7.7%, FMC Corporation with 5.7%, and Adama Agricultural Solutions with 4.4%. Switzerland-based Syngenta, in particular, dominates the market, offering 40 pesticide products, with the highest volume of pesticides in Kenya, amounting to 544 tons, of which 68% are classified as highly hazardous.
Despite the acceptance of these pesticides among farmers, their use comes at a cost: they contaminate our food and soil, pollute our water and air, and harm our biodiversity. In 2016, research found that 35 out of 716 individuals aged between 15 and 40, treated at Kericho Referral Hospital in March and April, suffered from pesticide poisoning. In 2021, bee colonies in Kenya declined by 16.76% and pesticide use was identified as one of the factors contributing to this decline.
The concern therefore about toxic pesticides in Kenya and across the African continent is fundamentally about safeguarding our health and protecting our environment. It is sad that the pesticide proponents disregard the plea by scientists to phase these pesticides out of the Kenyan market as misinformation on these highly hazardous pesticides. Kenya has the utmost right to protect its citizens by phasing out the use of these toxic chemicals. This is why we advocate for the adoption of safer alternatives in food production.
It is disheartening to note that a mere 2% of the pesticide products used in Kenya are biopesticides. Strikingly, the highly hazardous pesticides are the most affordable option for Kenyan farmers, and they remain available on the market despite widespread criticism. Although these pesticides may be cheaper, the hidden social and environmental costs are significant. The under-prioritization of biopesticides and other integrated pest management practices is primarily due to their incompatibility with the commodification and market control pursued by pesticide companies.
To reduce the long-term risk of toxic pesticide contamination in Kenya, it is imperative that we increase the presence of agricultural extension officers who can educate farmers on effective pest and disease control methods such as biological controls, crop rotation to maintain soil health, and companion planting. Additionally, farmers must be informed about the associated dangers of using toxic pesticides to facilitate informed decision-making.
Furthermore, we urgently require the registration of more biopesticides within the country by the Pest Control and Products Board. This will help reduce our overreliance on toxic pesticides. Lastly, the government, through the Pest Control Products Board, must take decisive action to phase out the use of these harmful pesticides in our food systems. It is incumbent upon us to stand up against the escalating contamination of our food, soil, air and water systems driven by profit-driven agrochemical companies.
By Claire Nasike
Claire Nasike is an agroecologist, writer, Wangari Maathai and Wageningen University Fellow and the founder of the Hummingbird Foundation, a school food gardens project in Kenya. She can be found on X @MissNasike , Facebook: Claire Nasike Akello LinkedIn: Claire Nasike Akello