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Kenya and the pesticides

In Switzerland, we vote on the pesticide and Drinking water initiative and can put a stop to the unhealthy use of pesticides. A report by the Biovision Foundation from Kenya shows that more and more synthetic chemical pesticides are being used there and what consequences this has for health.

It has long been her dream to become a farmer’s wife. As a young woman, Sylvia Kuria moved from Nairobi to the countryside and planted her first vegetable garden. Because she was worried about pests, she was advised to spray synthetic pesticides. However, her children got severe rashes and allergies from it. So she looked for ecological alternatives. Today, Sylvia Kuria is considered an organic pioneer in Kenya who distributes healthy and affordable food.

The negative experience of Sylvia Kuria makes many in Kenya. Many doctors working in agricultural regions also confirm how serious the health consequences of pesticide use can be.

Cancer risk increases for years

For example, the physician Dr. David Omollo Owuor, who practiced in Kiambu and Machakos. The two communities are among the main producers of vegetables and fruits in Kenya. “I remember treating patients who came to me with rashes and reported that they got the rash after spraying the plants. Others complained of numbness on the skin, for example, if they accidentally spilled something while mixing an agricultural chemical.“Especially in recent years, the cases of cancer have increased, so Dr. Owuor.

An increase in chronic diseases such as asthma is observed by Dr. Peter Mokaya, who has been working as a medical officer in the health sector for 30 years. “There are different risk factors, but we see a correlation when people are often exposed to pesticides.“This observation also confirms Dr. Victor Ng’ani, who worked for many years as a hospital doctor in a well-known flower growing area: “In agricultural areas, the most common diseases are malaria, gastrointestinal diseases and allergies. This could be due to the exposure of agricultural products.”

Establishing a direct link between a disease and the use of pesticides is difficult, because there are many factors at play, says Dr. Owuor. “But in most cases, patterns can be seen within a region. Some of the diseases can be described as idiopathic, i.e. the doctor cannot identify the immediate cause, but can attribute it to the continuous intake of toxic substances, e.g. in food. Also, the fact that most of these chemicals remain in the environment and can affect people who are not direct users makes it difficult to associate diseases with the use of pesticides.”

Cases of poisoning and long-term consequences

Dr. Teresa Omwoyo worked for many years in Kisumu, a heavily agricultural region where two of the largest factories for sugar and rice production are located. She says: “Cases of poisoning are frequent. I remember a young girl who was taken to the hospital with strong symptoms of poisoning. It turned out that she had drunk organophosphate from a carelessly discarded pesticide container.”

Although most cases – such as that of the girl mentioned – can be treated well, long-term consequences can still be seen many years later: “If the substances find their way into the central nervous system, they can lead to diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and attention disorders over time.”

Protective measures and disposal-a big problem

One way to counteract this is to better protect the farmers who apply the pesticides in the fields. “Small farmers have to make ends meet. They often do not know that they should wear protective equipment when spraying. And those who can read the instructions may not be able to afford the recommended measures.“Many left the chemical containers in unprotected places where they can get into the hands of children.

There were also plant managers who paid attention to protective measures, said Dr. Teresa Omwoyo. But sometimes it also fails the field workers themselves. She says, " I provided field workers with protective clothing, but they didn’t wear it when they worked in the field because it was too hot and uncomfortable.“Also, Dr. Victor Ng’ani says that many would ignore the instructions. “So you are exposed to all the toxic fumes and substances that harm your body either immediately or in the long run.”

Solutions from organic farming support to political regulation

But where do we start to address the problems? Dr. Teresa Omwoyo sees a solution in the state support of organic farming and hopes for stronger political regulations: “The government has the responsibility to promote the production of organic food. One possible way would be to introduce control mechanisms in order to control what reaches the farmers. If agricultural consultants could reach farmers with training on safe food production, there might be fewer health problems, " says the district doctor.

Dr. David Owuor also sees educational work as a good starting point: “Farmers need to be informed about the effects of harmful pesticides.“And those who import the products must be held responsible, because they are primarily interested in the profits. “The question is: even if importers have the knowledge of the effects of some of these pesticides, would they be ethical enough to refrain from trading in potentially dangerous substances?“The physician therefore believes that the authorities should enforce stricter requirements for the import of certain products so that they do not even reach the market. Then the judiciary " would also have to do its part to ensure that the defined criminal measures are carried out against those who violate the law.”

Dr. Viktor Ng’ani affirms: “Enlightenment is the key.“The public must be informed about the risks of the use of harmful substances in chemical-synthetic pesticides. “Secondly, there should be clearly defined regulatory measures, such as those introduced by Western countries.“We need to ensure that knowledge about the effects of certain agricultural chemicals on human health flows into every learning platform, so that it is anchored in the consciousness of both food manufacturers and consumers.

Authorities must be convinced

But there are alternatives to the use of chemical synthetic pesticides. Dr. David Owuor sees them in integrated crop protection. These are ecological methods that rely on holistic and environmentally friendly measures. They are successfully practiced in many Biovision projects. However, the research must also convince the authorities of the effectiveness of the methods. “Stakeholders promoting integrated pest management and safer alternatives need to involve policy makers and show them that these alternatives work and are effective.“If policymakers follow suit, these approaches could become a multipliable model and” facilitate accessibility and affordability for food producers.”