Top government officials are sharply divided on whether to ban agro-chemicals containing glyphosate, a compound said to cause cancer.
Two ministry officials differed before a joint Senate committee Thursday, with Health Principal Secretary Susan Mochache calling for removal of all herbicides containing glyphosate from the Kenyan market in view of findings pointing to grave health risks to humans and the environment.
But her Agriculture counterpart Hamadi Boga challenged her stand and wondered why the danger had not been pointed out in the 30 years that the compound has been in use.
Prof Boga said the country should not risk its food security on the basis of scare-mongering propagated in journals by lobbyists and businessmen.
Monsanto has marketed the product said to contain glyphosate under the brand name RoundUp.
“Exposure to glyphosate increases the risk of a cancer called Non-Hodgkin by 41 per cent, according to a new analysis. Inert ingredients in RoundUp can kill human cells and increase the risk of kidney failure, among other possible human health effects.
"In this view, the ministry recommends the removal of all sulphate herbicides to safeguard the public against the risks, harm and exposure to this product,” Ms Mochache told the Standing Committee on Health and Agriculture chaired by senators Michael Mbito and Njeru Ndwiga.
She said two years ago, the ministry had issued an advisory to the Kenya Pest Control Products Board on the need to review licensing of the product.
But Prof Boga retorted that glyphosate is still being allowed and used in many parts of the world since no scientific evidence has linked the chemical to cancer in humans.
“In 2016, The Joint Food Agricultural Organisation and World Health Organisation meeting on Pesticide Residues reviewed the risks associated with glyphosate and concluded that it is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet. As a general rule, it is recommended that appropriate protective clothing is used by workers during handling, mixing or applying pesticides due to hazards associated with them,” said Prof Boga, noting that it is also used in the US, Canada, Australia and Japan.
The committee had sought to know the dangers of using glyphosate and the ban on Genetically Modified Organisms.
On the concern that glyphosate endangers insects and the environment, Prof Boga said the herbicide’s mode of action targets plants, not insects.
Ms Mochache however, asked the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) to research on the chemical and provide a report.
Dr Mbito and Mr Ndwiga said the committee would wait for the Kemri report to help it make suitable recommendations.
The two ministry officials nonetheless agreed that there should be no blanket ban of GMO crops in the country since not all are harmful.
The government approves the use of the technology on a case-by-case basis. GMO cotton, for instance, is approved.
Lobbies have been calling for a ban on agrochemicals that pose hazards to human health and the environment.
Uasin Gishu woman representative Gladys Shollei has initiated a bill seeking to outlaw dozens of pesticides.
However, experts and lobby groups have warned that the ban could have devastating effects on the country food security and export industry.
Dr Andrew Edewa, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) national project coordinator, Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Hosea Machuki, and Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisers of Kenya CEO Rikki Agudah said use of pesticides is crucial to Kenya’s agriculture.
The organisations instead want laws to ensure that farmers are trained on safety precautions while using farm chemicals.
“Kenya is in the tropical region, which is warm, moist and conducive for disease-causing pests affecting crops. It’s impossible to produce food free of pesticides,” said Dr Edewa, noting that organic farming cannot produce enough food for export and local consumption.