Kenyans are feeding on flour laced with pesticides

The Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF) has been behind sustained efforts to discourage the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by farmers. The Institute’s director, John Njoroge (pictured) spoke to Metro’s Anne Kiruku on the dangers presented by agrochemicals and the alternative offered by going organic.

Q. Does the government support your efforts to encourage organic farming, knowing that it is behind the provision of subsidised fertilisers and chemicals?

The government does not support non-governmental organisations such as KIOF. We have worked with funding from external sources, and from training fees and consultancies. We have not had any funding from the government.
Q. But is the government supportive of efforts to enhance organic agriculture in the country?
At the moment it is. The government has in fact created a desk at the Ministry of Agriculture to look into food security, and they are emphasizing on organic agriculture as one of the methods of combating hunger and malnutrition. They are encouraging every family to grow food for self-sufficiency using resources available on their farms. We have had officers from the government and also from research institutes coming to KIOF for training in organic farming.
Q. Does the government use extension officers to encourage organic agriculture?
At the moment, the government is not explicit about organic farming. It is only recently that it has started developing a policy on organic agriculture, but this has not yet been put into effect. The fact that an Act of Parliament was passed in favour of genetically modified organisms seems to discourage organic agriculture.
The organic movement in Kenya is very active. So far, we are in the process of getting the government to commit itself and to accept to promote organic farming.
Q. How widespread is organic agriculture in Kenya? What proportion of farmers has accepted this message and what acreage is under organic farming?
Only 25 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable. Most of the country’s land is semi-arid. The European settlers who came to Kenya encouraged a lot of fertilizer application and chemical farming, mainly because they were doing it for commercial purposes. When Kenya became independent, many farmers followed what the Europeans were doing. A lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been imported.
 It is difficult to estimate how much ground organic farming has won. At the moment, we have close to 200,000 hectares under organic production, a lot of it producing horticultural crops, natural oils, honey and so on. Small-scale production is however still very conventional and depends on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The organic movement is also growing because of influence from the outside world. When Kenyans go to other countries, they come across organic foods, restaurants and supermarkets. When they return, this exposure makes them look for these products.
Q. With population explosion, is organic agriculture sustainable for purposes of feeding greater numbers of people?
This is a question that is asked quite often. Organic agriculture can feed the world. Each family has certain resources that can be used: left-overs from their harvests, livestock manure and vegetation. These resources can be turned into good organic matter and give every family the ability to feed itself.
What is needed to grow a good crop is not pesticides. It is the fertility base of the soil that is important. The fertile soil also needs to be protected against soil erosion, which nature is able to do. Soil should not be exposed by burning or clearing the land all the time. These are things that can be learned easily.
Q. Organic produce fetches premium prices, which the poor obviously cannot afford. What solution does organic agriculture have for the urban poor with no land as well as for the poor in rural areas with tiny plots of land?
The rural poor should be taught to access the available resources. For the urban poor, it is possible to develop urban agriculture using containers, old bags and tyres. These can be filled with soil and we then use every available space to grow crops. What urban dwellers need to learn is to use the space they have.
Premium prices arise because of high demand. Organic products require a lot of scrutiny to confirm that they are truly organic, which gives rise to middlemen. But where organic farming is accepted and practiced widely, then you don’t need an agent to confirm the quality of the products, meaning prices will be lower.
Q. The labour input in organic farming is very high compared with conventional agriculture. Is that sustainable?
A lot of people view organic farming as labour intensive. We don’t see it that way at all. In fact, there is less labour involved in organic than in conventional agriculture.
Imagine that you have to measure out small quantities of chemical fertilizer for every hole that you have to plant and every plant that you have to spray. When you make compost, it’s a single operation in a month. Most of the operation is left to nature.
The only significant difference is that with organic manure, you have to provide the labor with your family or a few casuals. With chemical fertilizers, you have to buy and yet these are very expensive.

Organic agriculture advocates for rotational farming. Is it practical for poor farmers to leave the land bare for a season?
That information is not quite true. We don’t say that the farmer should leave the land fallow for a season.  What we promote is that the farmer should have a schedule of crops that are not of the same family and which he plants at different seasons. There is no time the soil will have to be left to rest, and no farmer can afford to do that.

What many small-scale farmers do not know is that they should not plant the same crop one season after the other. Some farmers have adequate land and they can put a crop of maize in one area and beans in another, then interchange these the following season. It is also possible to inter-plant.

Q. What assurance is there for the local consumer that what they are buying is really organic considering that we don’t test the products for the local market?
That is the problem that this country is having. We need our government to realize that the health problems afflicting our nation of cancers, urinary problems, have a connection with the many chemicals that Kenyans are consuming from agricultural products. The more chemicals we use in food production, the more the deterioration in the health of our people. We need the government to connect the two, so that as we treat people in hospitals, at the same time we reduce the sources of these diseases by providing good food without chemicals.

Consider the chemicals used in storage against weevils for stored grains. Does anybody ever wash out those chemicals before the grains are milled into flour to be used by millions of Kenyans? So, people are literally eating grain laced with chemicals. Nobody ever tests how much pesticide residue is contained in flour and which pesticides these are.  I hope our new government will make a difference. The government should be able to protect the people. Pesticides banned elsewhere should also be banned here.