Friday

12th Apr 2024

Investigation

Poison for sale — the pesticides banned in EU in use in Kenya

  • The import of pesticides into Kenya has increased massively, from 500 tonnes in 2000 to an estimated 18,000 tonnes by 2018 (Photo: Dennis Mavingo)
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Outside Kagio, a small town in central Kenya, Joshua Murimi Wanjohi stands at the edge of his tomato field and watches one of his farm workers stirring chemicals into a blue plastic barrel: the fungicide Topstar from a Chinese manufacturer, which he uses alternately with the insecticide Belt from the German company Bayer.

Both contain highly hazardous ingredients whose approval has not been renewed in the EU.

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  • Bayer supplied 15 percent of the pesticides in Kenya in 2020. These include, for example, the insecticide Belt (Photo: Dennis Mavingo)

The mixture starts to foam. The worker fills the liquid into a portable pump, which he straps to his back. He carefully sprays all the tomato plants. A cloud settles over the farm, the bitter smell stings the nose. No mask, no gloves, no plastic boots.

Beneath Wanjohi's field runs a river, serving as a crucial source of drinking water for hundreds of people in the region.

Meanwhile, Kenyan president William Ruto has declared agriculture a "leading sector of economic transformation" to lift people out of poverty. To increase yields, farmers are to rely more than before on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, many of which are produced in China and India, but also those manufactured by the German multinational corporations BASF and Bayer.

In recent years, the import of pesticides into Kenya has increased massively, from 500 tonnes in 2000 to an estimated 18,000 tonnes by 2018.

But the German government promised that exports of certain pesticides, that are not allowed for sale in Germany, would be restricted in future.

Bayer, which in 2020 supplied 15 percent of the pesticides in Kenya, claims that with "proper application", their products are safe for use. It takes years to develop the products in highly-controlled laboratories in Germany and then test them under similarly controlled conditions on fields.

The fundamental difference? The market in Kenya is in no way like the market in Germany.

Germany's agriculture is highly-industrialised. Kenya's agriculture is majority subsistence farming, in direct proximity to houses and water sources. Only vegetables for export are tested for pesticide residues — rejected products go back into the local market, according to Daniel Wanjama from the Seedsavers Network.

'All they have in mind is money'

Researchers report that there is very little knowledge about the long-term effects of pesticides in Kenya.

However, a study shows that pollen and honey contain residues of pesticides that are harmful to bees. One of the active ingredients is imidacloprid, which is used in several Bayer products, as well as competing products and has been banned in the EU for years because of its potential harm to bee populations.

One of Bayer's bestselling products in Kenya is, according to a Route to Food report, Thunder, which contains Imidacloprid.

Henry Muriuki from the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network knows farmers who have to pollinate their flowering pumpkins by hand because there are so few pollinating insects in the area nowadays. He has been trying to fight the uncontrolled use of pesticides for decades, as he witnessed how the introduction of pesticides coincided with an increase in bee mortality. He wrote letters to universities, and tried to meet with county politicians.

"All they have in mind is money, and I don't have money. But the agrochemical companies have lots of money", he says, frustrated.

For Bayer, the development of an active ingredient is like a bet: it takes years and costs more than €400m.

Heiko Rieck, head of insecticide research at Bayer's Crop Science, says: "If an active ingredient would not be approved, our investment would be gone."

So that the investment can pay off, Bayer is spending a lot of money to exert public influence: €2m a year for a so-called liaison office in Germany, and more than €6m a year on lobbying the EU.

"We protect everyone involved as best we can," Rieck says. "Alongside drugs, crop protection products are perhaps the most studied and analysed product group."

But even in Germany, mistakes are apparently being made in its use. In 2008, residues of the insecticide imidacloprid on maize seed possibly led to massive bee mortality in Baden.

CropLife Kenya

CropLife Kenya, the local branch of the world's largest lobbying association for pesticide manufacturers, is powerful in Kenya. Half of the income generated from import duties on pesticides flows directly back to CropLife.

The other half goes to the Pesticide Control and Products Board, which is chronically underfunded.

A representative of the authority explains that they rely on the research the companies themselves submit for the registration and evaluation of products. The agrochemical companies also finance travel and training for the authority, he explains.

Few farmers in Kenya adhere to the advised safety measures. Neither when it comes to protection equipment, nor when it comes to physical distance to houses, or the waiting period between spraying and harvesting.

"They spray today and harvest tomorrow", says Erastus Mwangi, agronomist at the Bayer Center of Excellence Central Kenya, which opened in 2022. They want to teach farmers the importance of adhering to the safety precautions. But, as David Ndungu, head of sales at Bayer East Africa, says, the central question is: "By how much can we increase our business by having a Center of Excellence in Central Kenya?"

Daniel Wanjama has worked with Kenya's ministry of agriculture for 10 years. He is still irritated, when he recounts the many occasions on which representatives from big agrochemical companies used to present to a full room of ministry employees their newest products.

"Even the very senior ministry officials would attend these functions and say we will support you in this", Wanjama says. "That made everyone believe that the solution to any situation in the field is basically the chemicals that the companies are producing."

Potential dangers were not part of those conversations.

Lobbying

When the German minister of agriculture Cem Özdemir declared in September 2022 that efforts would now be made to ban the export of harmful pesticides, Bayer and BASF readied themselves.

Internal documents from one of the regional ministries of agriculture in Germany show that Bayer, as well as BASF, reached out to the minister by email about this topic and were granted follow-up meetings.

In November 2022, BASF wrote to the ministry: "In the medium term, a national export ban on certain PPPs (plant protection products) would lead to an exodus of domestic production facilities with high standards and jobs."

In the following weeks, BASF provided a legal opinion on how problematic the planned export ban would be, and, again, threatened to relocate the production of pesticides.

Their efforts appear to have paid off. A bill, scheduled for implementation a year ago, has now come to a standstill.

In Germany as well as in Kenya, there is a growing call for change in civil society. Wanjama and his team at the Seedsavers Network are part of it.

They offer agriculture training that does not rely on harmful pesticides as farmers seek their support after pesticide poisonings, or because the water from rivers in their area has become undrinkable due to the uncontrolled use of pesticides.

The problem is, Wanjama said, that "modern agriculture" is presented as something to make money, not to produce good food. "You're being told to make money on one acre of land, which is very small. So maybe it will not give you money. It will only give you problems if you upset the system with fertilizers and pesticides."

In 2022, Bayer Crop Science generated sales of more than $25bn [€23.02bn].

Meanwhile, people like Muriuki grow avocado trees, cabbage and zucchinis, with wildflowers blooming in between and using his own pesticide, made by the urine of his rabbits, goats and cows. It is not intended to kill the insects, but only to repel them.

Studies suggest that such products can be successful. In Kenya, the international insect research centre ICIPE is also conducting research into low-threshold, environmentally friendly bio-pesticides. But there is not enough money for large-scale commercial production and marketing.

This research has been supported by Journalismfund EU

Author bio

Birte Mensing is a freelance multimedia-journalist based in Nairobi. Paul Hildebrandt is a freelance journalist, based in Berlin, working for media outlets, such as Deutschlandfunk and die ZEIT.

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