The importance of following instructions on pesticide product labels cannot be overstated, if farmers are to reap higher yields without harming themselves or their lands. However, very often, many farmers do not understand the instructions, which is driving legislative reform in Kenya to ensure that the warnings are clearer.
Pest control products used in Kenya have undergone nine years of safety testing and more than 100 different kinds of tests, to gain approval for use in their countries of origin such as the United States, Australia, and others that approve pesticides only when they are proven to be risk-free.
Until they have achieved that, Kenyan law prohibits their use.
However, even after they have been tested to identify safe ways of using them – for example, ‘Use only up to 7 days before harvesting’. If farmers use them in other ways, they can still be a hazard. Herein lies the problem that legislators are now trying to address in order to put Kenya at the vanguard of hazard regulation in Africa.
For, while the country’s law governing the safety and approvals of pest control products is the strongest on the continent and subject to few reforms, the legislators are looking at new regulations to further prevent the misuse of pesticides.
This is dangerous just like many household products. Bleach and hand sanitisers that save lives by destroying germs on surfaces, for instance, can kill if ingested.
Challenges to safe use of pesticides
Safe use of pest control products requires set intervals between spraying and eating to ensure the chemicals have broken down before consumption. Protective clothing prevents sprays from getting to your skin, eyes, and lungs, causing irritation.
However, farmers often do not understand the instructions on labels. Research in northern Côte d’Ivoire showed that only one in three farmers correctly understood the warnings. Some farmers even thought that warnings about the potential effects of the chemicals on rivers and fish meant that they should not go fishing after completing a pesticide field operation!
A study in Tanzania in 2017, published in the International Journal of Science and Technology, found that 60 per cent of the farmers interviewed could not correctly interpret the warnings, symbols, and pictograms on pesticide labels. While 76 per cent read the pesticide label before use, the majority could not understand the instructions due to the technical language. For these reasons, Kenyan legislation ensures instructions are given in both English and Kiswahili.
The new regulations
However, the new regulations are going further, adopting the United Nations’ Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS), which presents hazardous properties in safety labels, safety data sheets, and hazard classifications.
The US, European Union, Australia, and China have all implemented GHS labelling, but its uptake in Africa has been slow, due to limited resources.
According to a 2020 European Chemical Industry Council report, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Tanzania, and the Seychelles, as members of the Southern African Development Community, have shown intentions to implement GHS by 2020. Senegal, Nigeria, and Kenya are moving towards GHS adoption.
This will see new labels that emphasise direct risks and help users understand them. They will list stinging eyes, diarrhoea, or nausea, through signal words and pictograms, together with instructions on how to prevent them from happening.
The labels show users how to protect their eyes, noses, and mouths using respirators and goggles, and when to use boots, or wear chemical-resistant gloves, on the basis that pesticides are easily absorbed through the skin and eyes. The instructions also give the specific directions for safe use, spanning: What, Where, When, and How?
They also state how long crops should remain in the field after spraying to ensure the residues have disintegrated.
Thus, while Kenya has long demanded rigorous testing and data on pesticides for approvals, the new regulations will put in place additional measures to ensure that once – science has shown what’s safe, farmers use the products exactly as required.
Simplifying labels will make it easier for small-scale farmers to understand why they need to protect themselves and how, minimising risks while delivering the benefits that come with eradicating the Fall armyworm, locusts, or whitefly that decimate food crops.
Eric Kimunguyi is the CEO of the Agrochemicals Association of Kenya