I recently read an article by Annie Gowen in the Washington Post titled “An Indian state banned pesticides. Tourism and wildlife flourished. Will others follow?” and it got me thinking.
But what really caught my eye was one paragraph:
But with the indiscriminate use of pesticides came a spike in cancer rates in industrial farming areas. Rivers became polluted and soil infertile. Sikkim’s leaders say they were driven to go all-organic by those concerns and because pesticide residue — including from some chemicals banned in other countries — was tainting fish, vegetables and rice.
The paragraph helps untangle what has been a puzzle in Kenya for several years now after the phenomenal increase in cancer cases.
It is obvious that our polluted rivers and infertile soils are the result of chemical pollutants but it has never occurred to policymakers that we have made very expensive choices over simple solutions as in the state of Sikkim.
This tiny Indian state, Gowen writes, launched a radical experiment: Its leaders decided to phase out pesticides on every farm in the state, a move without precedent in India — and probably the world.
Today they are reaping the benefits of the bold decisions they made fifteen years ago.
ALTERNATIVE FOR CHEMICAL FERTILISER
At the introduction of these radical changes, residents did not even know what organic farming was all about. The state started a programme educating the citizens on the benefits of organic farming.
They created an organic certification board that set standards and ensured that farmers complied with those standards.
The board also handled all policy issues as a strategic plan, stopping procurement of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and eliminating existing subsidies to farmers for procurement of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
To ensure there was total compliance, they criminalised the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in the state.
In the place of chemical fertilisers, farmers were encouraged to develop compositing pits for making organic compost. The state introduced organic farming as a subject in the school curriculum, and ensured compulsory training on organic farming and its advantages as part of capacity building among the general public.
Fifteen years down the road, the health of the population has improved, soil has recovered from pesticide pollution, and the state has improved alternative revenue sources with the growth of ecotourism and farm tourism.
The wildlife and dwindling bee populations have recovered and as a result, the country’s yield of large cardamom — dependent upon cross-pollination from bees — has increased more than 23 percent since 2014.
The national government has noted this remarkable progress. As Gowan notes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has embraced Sikkim and organic farming throughout India, pouring about $119 million into supporting organic farmers nationwide.
India is betting that Sikkim can be the global model for other jurisdictions around the world that want to go all organic.
This is a case where the cost of healthcare has been minimised through health foods while at the same time ensuring food security.
As Kenya embarks on the Big Four agenda, we must ask ourselves many questions. Do we want to achieve the targets but lose many lives to the growing cases of cancer? Is it necessary to continue subsidising fertiliser when we can make compost that will rejuvenate the soils and increase productivity?
In my view, we can very easily achieve what Sikkim people have achieved if only we could get the right kind of leadership in at least one of the counties, the better to lead the way. Other counties would certainly follow the example of success, as the current fascination with the success of Makueni County reveals.
The good thing is that the growing middle class will form the backbone of the demand for organic foods. Although Kenya is not known to be an organic foods destination (see chart below), it has a significant market to sustain initial demand for such foods.
Kenya does not feature among the top ten countries by number of organic food producers but this an area where our farmers can compete given the use of readily available resources.
As in Sikkim, education is key to the development of human resource capacity to successfully develop a sustainable organic foods production.
Linking excessive use of chemicals to the incidence of cancer is important because we have had previous studies pointing to environmental factors as major causes of cancer in Kenya.
The risk Kenya faces is that there is very little research that traces the impact of polluting chemicals.
For example, we don’t know the damage polluted rivers cause downstream, especially with animals. Early last year, reports emerged that the waters of the Subukia river had turned red. Chemicals from the flower farms upstream were suspected to have sipped into the river.
The recent deaths of rhinos in the Tsavo have not been explained thus far. It was said that they died of drinking saline water but no conclusive tests were conducted.
A WAKE-UP CALL
The damage from pollution therefore has not been properly assessed but from the experiment in Sikkim, we can conclude that chemical pollutants may be costing the country a future.
The Sikkim experiment is a wake-up call to assess our actions, painfully review our practices and collectively work towards our shared good.
It takes great leadership to convince people to abandon an established way of doing things and to collectively think of a common future as happened in Sikkim.
Our false refuge in democratic processes could be our Achilles heel in trying to achieve the common good in health and food security.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”
We can achieve both food security and universal healthcare simply by going back to the basics, eliminating chemicals, making our own compost and constantly conducting research to understand our role in destroying our environment.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito