The recently proposed dairy and crop laws have incensed farmers across the country. Harsh punitive regulations are being recommended including fines, jail terms and more for farmers who sell milk at the farm-gate level and use (raw) manure and harvested water to grow crops. Farmers are being punished for doing what farmers do.
Government documents show that agriculture is the mainstay of the Kenyan economy, directly contributing 26 per cent of the GDP annually, and another 25 per cent indirectly.
The sector accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s total exports and provides more than 70 per cent of informal employment in the rural areas. Clearly, the sector is not only the driver of Kenya’s economy, but also the means of livelihood for the majority of the Kenyan people.
The regulations, therefore, have incensed many of us. And if we ever were the backbone of the nation, the nation now has a crippling backache.
The rules state that raw milk consumption and raw manure use on crops can be dangerous to the consumer. This is true. Raw milk can carry many bacteria as well as aflatoxin and diseases like brucellosis. Only 20 per cent of the milk produced in Kenya from the dairy herd of 3.5 million cows, reaches the processors. The rest is consumed and traded in the informal markets. The bill assumes that the milk-borne diseases and illnesses will vanish if all the milk goes to the processors. Would it?
If the processors had the capacity to receive such a tsunami of milk, would the problems quickly go away? What is missing here is clarity of the complex dairy value chain and respect for the millions of farmers who feed the nation.
If the problem is poor milk hygiene, poor quality, livestock diseases and aflatoxin, it makes sense to find out where these ills originate from and why.
Once we have mapped out the causes, we should then engage farmers, feed producers, consumers, regulators and other stakeholders in designing farmer-friendly, supportive and respectful measures to solve them. After which we can then embed these quality assurance processes and systems along the informal value chain.
Possible solutions for farmers may include annual brucellosis vaccinations of all cows, training on milk hygiene and training on consumer rights. Extension providers could administer the milk tests and trainings as well as log the milk quality assurance records into a national database.
Traders could also benefit from the same training as farmers on milk hygiene, quality and consumer preferences, whilst feed producers could be required to test and condemn aflatoxin riddled feeds.
To validate the processes, tests should be taken before and after the changes are put in place.
Regarding the use of raw manure, the government has often pledged to promote sustainable food production systems with particular attention to increasing soil fertility, agro-biodiversity, organic methods and proper range and livestock management practices.
Yes, our government has until now supported the use of manure. The proposed Act states that raw organic manure is not allowed, yet it’s not explicit about the meaning of raw.
Our soils are alive and healthy soils must be managed to stay alive. It is the micro-organisms that break down the biodegradable matter in the soil resulting in nutrients that can be taken up by plants. Healthy soils produce healthy crops with strong immunity to disease and strong cell walls that help prevent pest damage.
Composting of manures and crop wastes results in the growth of our soils and should be widely encouraged. Equally important players in our soils are the mycorrhizae (fungi).
They play a key role at plant root level and are extremely important in plant nutrition, soil biology as well as soil chemistry. Both microorganisms and mycorrhizae need moisture and stable pH to survive. Combined, they also give our soil the ability to soak and retain water acting as our water tanks in the ground.
Synthetic chemical fertilisers, on the other hand, degrade soils. They affect the pH and disrupt the healthy environment for micro-organisms and mycorrhizae. Most Kenyan soils are too acidic due to overuse of chemicals.
This results in crops with weak immunities which are then susceptible to pests and diseases. The practice of adding volumes of synthetic chemical fertilisers to combat poor crop quality exacerbates the problem and finally leads to dead soils, which lead to topsoil and land erosion.
Weak crops attract pests
To add further insult to injury, weak crops attract pests. This leads to increased use of toxic pesticides which not only kill our vital pollinators, but ultimately end up in the human and livestock food chain and water ways, contributing to poor human and livestock health, antibiotic use in livestock production and antibiotic resistance in humans.
The knock-on effect of poor soils is colossal and a huge economic burden to any country. All food chains depend on soils. Soil fertility is the cornerstone of human health.
The most cost-effective route for smallholder farmers to improve their soil fertility is through adding composted livestock manure.
Going forward, I hope the government will listen to us citizens and is ready to provide a stakeholder platform where we can engage, deliberate and come up with pro-smallholder policies and a pro-soil policy.
We are dependent on both. One is the master of the other.
Ms Kahumbu is a smallholder farmer and CEO of Green Dreams TECH Ltd, a social enterprise. Email: [email protected]