The award by a US jury of $114 million (about Sh11.4 billion) this week to a man who said his use of weed killer Roundup caused his cancer, has sent shockwaves in Kenya, where the chemical is widely used.
The verdict in the Herdeman v. Mosanto case before the San Francisco Federal Court found that exposure to glyphosate, a key active ingredient in Roundup, caused Mr Edwin Hardema’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Following the ruling, lobby groups in the country are protesting the continued use of the chemical, and have challenged the government to recall and ban the herbicide.
The precedent set by the US court could swing open litigation flood gates in Kenya and elsewhere, as Mr Hardeman’s case is only the second of 11,200 lawsuits against Roundup set to go to on trial in the US.
Mr Eric Ogumo, the chairman of Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisers of Kenya, said the development must be taken seriously to ensure that local farmers do not suffer similar consequences.
“This is not the first time farmers are challenging the use of the herbicide. The government now needs to do more research on the safety of the chemical and also benchmark its findings with other countries to find out the truth,” said Mr Oguma, a food safety expert.
Mr Stephen Mutoro, Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) executive officer, asked farmers who have been using the product to stop immediately and go for medical check-ups.
Mr Mutoro said they are considering legal action against Roundup manufacturer’s Bayer-Monsanto, if similar cases are found in Kenya.
“Should the local users of Roundup be found affected by the chemical, we will not hesitate to go to court for compensation,” Mr Mutoro said.
The lobby groups also asked the government to crack down on other products that contain glyphosate.
Officially, there are no guidelines in Kenya to the sale and use of Roundup. Our efforts yesterday and in the past to reach the Pest Control Products Board were futile since there was no one in their office, and they did not respond to our text messages.
The board’s mandate is listed as regulating the importation, export, manufacture, distribution and use of products that control pests.
But even as lobbies urged for the ban of glyphosate, our survey on Sunday found most dealers had the herbicide in stock, with farmers unaware of the landmark ruling in faraway California. Some were also oblivious of the danger they could be exposing themselves to by continued use of the herbicide.
In counties like Uasin Gishu, Narok and Trans-Nzoia where wheat, barley and maize are grown on huge plantations, spraying is the main method of weed control.
The herbicides, especially Roundup, is also preferred by farmers practising minimum tillage, which is becoming common across the country for conserving water. The herbicides contain glyphosate, which enables them to kill weeds.
Many youths in farming regions across the country have ventured into spraying weeds as source of income. Mr Joseph Korir, 29, sprays farm chemicals for a fee in Eldoret. He says he wears protective clothing when working.
But not all farmers are as careful They simply get a knapsack sprayer then embark on the job.
Mr Peter Musyoka, a farmer in Muthetheni in Makueni County, for instance, does not have any safety gear apart from an apron.
“I had them, but they wore out. I usually take milk after spraying as a precaution, though,” he says. But drinking milk after exposure to harmful chemicals is no remedy, experts warn.
While no research in Kenya has established the link between cancer and the use of Roundup, cases of the disease have shot up in recent years. The latest research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that cancer of the windpipe is the top killer in Kenya.
In March 2015, WHO’s international agency for research on cancer announced that glyphosate — a key ingredient in Roundup — is “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
The court, which awarded $5.9 million (Sh590 million) in compensatory and $75 million (Sh7.5 billion) in punitive damages to Mr Hardeman, ruled that Roundup was defectively designed, and that Monsanto had not warned of the herbicide's cancer risk.
Meanwhile, Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year for $63 billion, (Sh6.3 trillion) has denied the claims, arguing that studies show that Roundup is safe, and vowed to appeal the decision.