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Is starvation the answer for farmers not reading the label?

‘Responsible use’ doesn’t sound like a subject that would set Kenyan against Kenyan, but for one outspoken set of journalists and influencers, it’s a battleground more important than starvation. For farmers, they say, are not using pesticides properly, and the answer is to ban the crop protection products and have farmers survive with uncontrolled locusts and Fall ArmyWorm.
“How many times have you bought a product and read its direction of use? Now, imagine you continuously use this product the wrong way and it ends up harming you in the long run. Well, that is exactly what is happening with our use of toxic pesticides. For various reasons, farmers are not using pesticides properly,” said Caroline Mutoko, a media personality in Kenya.
The answer, she claims, is to ban hundreds of pesticides that are approved globally and throughout Africa, so as to save Kenyan farmers from harming themselves from not properly reading the instructions for use.
For many farmers, such as Florence Anyona, a kale farmer in Kisii, it’s a path that would destroy her income.
Currently, Anyona sells one to two bags of Kale a week at the local market, for Sh1200 per bag. She has achieved this by managing to control the aphids and leaf miners that used to attack her produce with the pest control product recommended to her by a local agro-dealer and by intercropping the kales with onions, coriander and garlic.
“Initially, I used to sell nothing, since three quarters of the farm would be infested, leaving me short of supply, but now, I can harvest one or two 50-kilogram bags each week,” said Anyona.
The ‘three-quarters’ that Anyona cites is, in fact, the typical level of infestation for Kenyan farmers who cannot protect their crops from pests and crop diseases that include aphids, whiteflies, green mite, stem borer, FAW, and blight.
Most recently that list has included locusts too, with the pesticides the journalists want banned spanning those that have been used to manage two waves of locust invasions this year, bringing up to 80 million locusts.
The campaigners have never explained what Kenya should use if it bans the pesticides that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has recommended for eradicating locusts. But in the last wave, which was only brought to a close with pesticide spraying, the pests destroyed more than 115,000 acres of crops, while the FAO warns that the next wave of swarms could be 400 time greater if pesticide spraying of the eggs laid by the swarms does not proceed.

The same goes for Fall ArmyWorm. In 2017, Kenya lost 16m bags of maize valued at Sh2bn to Fall ArmyWorm due to the absence of a pesticide regime to control it. Farmers have since reduced the destruction with insecticides, but, evidently, if they were to stop the use of pesticides on their crops now, the impact would be catastrophic to food security.
Local food sales would cease, as three quarters of our harvest became unharvestable, farmers would have no income, and non-farming Kenyans would starve. In addition, the country would suffer from decreased supplies of animal feeds, as industries using crops as raw materials would close down, jobs by traders in the value chain would be lost, and productive land would go uncultivated if farmers could not break even after feeding the worms and flies too.
Thus, the answer may be a little harder for the NGOs and campaigners and may involve campaigning to get farmers to respect the risks of misusing crop protection products. For example, a public health campaign and legislation that work to enforce ‘responsible use’ will protect farmers’ health while maintaining the production of human food.
In short, we, and all our members and all our legislators should be working on rallying our farmers to use pesticides responsibly, rather than taking away their livelihoods and all options to tackle the pests.
At AAK, we have begun on that path by training now hundreds of spray service providers, teaching them how to use pesticides responsibly and equipping them to apply pesticides for smallholder farmers for a small, negotiable fee.
This is a practical solution that creates jobs, protects farmers’ health, and feeds us all. For the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted why we need to be food self-sufficient. Supplies of our staple foods; maize, wheat and rice, which is largely imported, have been disrupted; planes have been grounded; countries have instituted food produce bans; and agriculture labour has disappeared due to lockdowns, preventing harvesting.
As a result, food shortages have become one of our greatest concerns, with 86 per cent of Kenyans now worried about food, according to a survey by research company GeoPoll on the impact of Covid-19 to African nations.
It is now upon us to work together to educate and sensitise farmers on the importance of following the application instructions stated on each pesticide, which explain how many days they must wait after spraying before harvesting, how to protect themselves while using the products and how to dispose of the packaging. Observing these instruction means avoiding toxifying themselves and their families and producing crops with residue levels below the prescribed health limits.
For, as the World Food Programme warns of a famine of ‘biblical’ proportions in 2020, now is not the time to hand our food over to the locusts, instead of reading the label.