By Eric Kimunguyi
If any of us were given a warning by an alien, in a language we didn’t understand, with symbols we had never seen before, we would not emerge warned – which is a fact that is now driving legislative reform in Kenya to ensure warnings on pest control products are understandable to every farmer. The aim is to ensure farms reap far higher yields without causing any damage to themselves or their lands.
As it is, the pest control products used in Kenya have been through around nine years of safety testing and more than 100 kinds of tests in order to gain approval for use in their countries of origin, such as the US, Australia and other national regimes that only approve pesticides when they are proven to be risk-free for the prescribed use.
Until they have achieved that, Kenya’s law prohibits their use in Kenya.
But even once they have been tested to identify safe ways of using them – for instance, only up to 7 days before harvesting – if farmers use them in other ways, they can still be a hazard. And here lies the problem legislators are now trying to address, in ways that will put Kenya at the vanguard of hazard regulation in Africa.
For, while the country’s law governing the safety and approvals of pest control products remains the strongest on the continent and subject to few reforms, legislators are now looking again at new regulations designed to further prevent the misuse of pesticides.
This is because misuse is often dangerous, even where the correct usage is not, just as with many household products. For instance, bleach and even hand sanitizers, which can save lives by destroying germs on surfaces, can kill if consumed as a drink.
In the case of pest control products, safe use requires set intervals between spraying and eating to ensure the chemicals have broken down before human consumption, protective clothing to stop spray getting onto skin where it can cause irritation or into eyes or lungs, and other safeguards.
But, very often, farmers are not understanding the instructions, which can be written in English, or other languages. Research in northern Côte d’Ivoire found that only one of three farmers correctly understood the label warnings on potential negative effects on animals and the environment. Some farmers even thought the label on the potential effects on rivers and fishes meant they should not go fishing after completing a pesticide field operation, reported the researchers.
Another study in Tanzania in 2017, published in the International Journal of Science and Technology, found that 60 per cent of the farmers interviewed could not correctly interpret the warnings symbols and pictograms on pesticide labels, and while 76 per cent read the pesticide label before use, the majority could not understand the instructions due to the use of technical language.
For these reasons, Kenyan legislation already ensures instructions are given in both English and Swahili on our labels, but the new regulations are going much further, adopting the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), which presents hazardous properties in safety labels, safety data sheets and through hazard classifications.
The US, European Union, Australia, and China have all implemented GHS labelling, but its uptake has been slow in Africa due to a lack of resources.
According to 2020 European Chemical Industry Council report, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Tanzania, and Seychelles, as members of Southern African Development Community, have shown intentions to implement GHS by 2020. But it is Senegal, Nigeria, and Kenya that are now actually moving towards GHS adoption.
This will see new labels that emphasize direct risks and help users to understand them – for example, stinging eyes, diarrhea, or nausea – through signal words and pictograms, together with instructions on how to prevent them from happening.
The labels show users how to protect their eyes, nose and mouth using respirators and goggles, and when to use boots, or wear chemical resistant gloves, on the basis that pesticides are easily absorbed through the skin and eyes. The instructions also give the specific directions for safe use, spanning: What, Where, When and How.
They also state how long the crop should remain in the field after spraying to ensure the residues have disintegrated.
Thus, while Kenya has long demanded rigorous testing and data on pesticides for approvals, the new regulations will put in place more measures still to ensure that once the science has shown what’s safe, the farmers use the products exactly that way too.
Simplifying the labels will make it easier for small-scale farmers to understand why they need to protect themselves and how, thus minimizing risks while delivering the benefits that come with eradicating Fall Army Worm, locusts or whitefly that are otherwise decimating food crops.