Pesticides myths and a Kenyan call for agroecology
Food security is not mutually exclusive from food safety. Kenya has an unfortunate track record when it comes to food safety violations, including mercury-laden sugar imports as well as aflatoxin maize, rice and peanuts. We eat, half expecting that bombshell exposé revealing truths about the quality of our food. Relevant government bodies charged with protecting the public are lax and complacent with corruption and rent seeking. This has undermined trust in the government’s ability to safeguard mwananchi’s interests in food matters.
The general atmosphere has made it easy for less prominent food injustices to have a firm chokehold in this country. Little attention is paid to local food production and the excessive use of pesticides. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is an army of regulatory agencies for horticultural exports. Before an export consignment departs, there are several food safety checkpoints with dedicated officials making sure the verification system is a well-oiled machine of efficiency. By comparison, there is virtually no oversight on food available in local markets and no form of traceability or accountability when things goes wrong. And things are, going wrong.
Pesticide imports have more than doubled in the last 5 years, while the land under cultivation only grew marginally within the same period. Farmers are using more pesticides, and more pesticides are finding their way into Kenya. More pesticide residues are also present in our food. More studies continue to prove this (Irungu J, Raina S, Torto B, Marete GM, Shikuku VO, Lalah JO, Mputhia J, Wekesa VW).
But are farmers really to blame? It is not easy being a farmer in Kenya. You need to feed your family while also feeding the nation. In your way stands an unconcerned government providing you with little to no extension support and a vicious wall of brokers ready to lick the flavour off your hard earned produce with their paltry offering. It is tough to be a farmer indeed.
Enter the myths. Farming is a business. It is a billion-dollar business for multinationals peddling pesticides and other inputs. The doubling of pesticides available was no fluke; it was a carefully engineered outcome. Farmers are always looking for an edge, something to give them an advantage in the unforgiving jungles of production and marketing. Various myths find fertile ground due to such circumstances.
One of the main myths is that modern farming uses pesticides to ensure a good harvest. That is to say, to be a modern farmer is to use pesticides. This is a common myth churned out constantly through vernacular media stations. When Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.” Somebody was listening and taking notes.
Farmers are encouraged to rely on pesticides and spraying regimes. Agrochemical companies have this information in very attractive packages. Is using pesticides really a testament to modernity? Well that is and is not the question. The main question is why use the pesticides in the first place. The answer is to get rid of the various pests, diseases and weeds present on the farm. Pests, diseases and weeds occur frequently on farms because there is usually an imbalance, and using the pesticides is akin to treating symptoms without addressing the root cause.
A good marketing campaign using flashy adverts and words will do wonders to affirm the illusion. Pesticides actually cause more harm than good; you can temporarily forestall the problem but the resurgence is usually more potent.
Research shows that use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) achieves better results in the long term than pure reliance on synthetic pesticide regimes. Science supports this fact. Agroecologically managed farms experience far less pest, disease and weed pressure. Despite the flashy appeal, use of pesticides will soon become the outlier as more scientists and farmers find more sustainable ways of managing farms. Take a look at this study that found that the more informed the farmer the more likely they would use agroecological methods than blind reliance on pesticides. Well who is more modern?
For any type of farming to be profitable, use of pesticides is essential. This is by far the most common myth. Farming is a business like any other and profit usually dictates practice. If looking for the shortest path to profitability and increased revenue, pesticides seem to offer that. They deal with the diseases and pests at hand; they quell those pesky weeds and make farming a predictable process of spraying regimes and regular visits to the agrovet – until they stop working. By that time, the farmer is so deep in a hole and so set in certain ways that they will keep pumping in chemicals just to keep their head above water.
Globally the world is moving in a different direction. Research is showing that contrary to the myth, use of pesticides negatively effects profitability in the end through environmental degradation, killing of beneficial insects such as bees and other macro and micro fauna.
Agroecology on the other hand, increases diversity on the farm and promotes establishment of a balanced ecosystem which helps to suppress pest and disease incidences, costing the farmer less in the long term. Several studies have shown that agroecologically managed or full converted organic farms have far greater profitability and reduced overheads compared to similar sized conventional farms. When you factor in cropping diversities, the profit gap grows even higher.
Large-scale farming is not possible without pesticides. This myth is paired with the one that states that organic farming cannot feed the world and that pesticides are necessary if we are to end hunger by 2050.
Over 90% of global food production is by smallholder farmers who are typically farming on less than 2.5 acres! This means we do not have to go large-scale to feed the world. Small-scale farmers are enough. In Kenya, small-scale farmers grow most of the food. These farmers, like in most sub-Saharan countries, are faced with challenges that come about as a result of climate change including unreliable rainfall patterns, high pest and disease incidences and unsustainable farming practices which lead to greater environmental degradation. These challenges have an overall impact of reducing the amount of food produced.
Research shows that agroecological systems are more stable and resilient in weathering out climate change and its attendant effects. Agroecological farmers outperform conventional farmers in produce diversity and withstanding environmental shocks such as drought or flooding.
When it comes to large-scale farming, by using agroecological methods, which include crop rotations, cover cropping and minimum tillage, organic farmers were found to be more productive. The premiums that come with certification offset the initial costs of conversion..
In another study, when farm mechanisation is fully realised in large-scale organic systems, the productivity and cost of production was far lower than in similar conventional systems, since the high labour costs were offset. Labour costs are the biggest challenge when it comes to large-scale organic farming. Having a good cover crop and rotational schedule will significantly lower labour costs. Studies in Kenya have shown that in the medium-term, agroecological systems are more productive and profitable.
When thinking about food security in the context of climate change, agroecological systems outperform conventional systems. Since most farmers in Kenya are smallholder in nature, the use of pesticides actually further impoverishes farmers, because they are expensive to buy and expensive to use in a way that mitigates risks. Most of the studies supporting conventional systems do not put into account the negative externalities that come with the manufacture and use of such chemicals (environmental pollution, health costs, high carbon emissions etc.), they only highlight the short term benefits which are easily wiped out in case of environmental shocks such as drought and flooding.
Despite the evidence calling for a paradigm shift, the myths persist and farmers continue to use pesticides indiscriminately which end up as residues in our food and animal feed.
All is not lost, however. With the liberalisation of information access and as more farmers discover the benefits of agroecological production, these myths will be challenged. The agrochemical companies might have the financial muscle, but that will not be enough to silence the awakening conscience of a motivated collective of informed farmers, traders, retailers and consumers all beckoning towards an era of environmentally conscious and sustainably grown food.
By Martin Kimani, Programme Officer at Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN)