Building alternatives to toxic pesticides: peasant agroecology in Kenya

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 | News and analysis
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Kenyan Peasants League
While the UK produces and exports dangerous, banned agrotoxics to the Global South, our partners in Kenya are creating new, organic alternatives, while opposing the import of toxic pesticides.

The UK is the leading European exporter of agrotoxics – highly hazardous agricultural chemicals, mostly pesticides, which are banned both in the UK and across Europe. Many of these agrotoxic pesticides are highly dangerous to humans. They are known to cause cancers, reproductive problems, damage the nervous system, and adversely affect the endocrine system – which regulates all biological processes in the body. This is especially dangerous for farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities in the Global South, who are constantly exposed to agrotoxic pesticides during fumigations.

Some of these agrotoxics, including the widely used pesticide paraquat, are lethal. One sip can kill. Syngenta – one of the most powerful seed and agrochemical corporations in the world – continues to manufacture paraquat at its plant in Huddersfield, England, before exporting it to countries in South America, Asia, and Africa.

Paraquat is sold widely in Kenya, under the commercial name of Gramoxone. Farming supply stores dealing in seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and animal feed, sell paraquat to smallholder farmers in even the most isolated rural communities across the country.

In 2020, Kenya suffered two waves of locust invasions that heavily damaged crops all around the country: this was on top of the Covid-19 related economic and health crises the country was already facing. In response, the Kenyan government announced a “smart” climate agriculture programme to tackle the emergency, which involved an increase in the use of agrotoxics, and further relaxation of the already loose regulation around pesticides – with devastating consequences to farmers’ health and livelihoods.

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David Otieno from the Kenyan Peasants League discusses fighting unregulated pesticides from Europe and UK.

Quote mark If a chemical pesticide can cause cancer in the UK, it can also cause the same cancer in Kenya.
David Otieno
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Kenyan Peasants League (KPL)

Food production crises, such as in Kenya in 2020, are exacerbated by Global South countries’ higher dependency on imported agricultural products, such as pesticides and fertilisers. The way the current global food system is organised, with its structural inequalities (e.g. unequal trade rules, and chronic debt crises in many Global South countries), highlights the urgent need for sustainable forms of food production based on the principles of food sovereignty. Peasant farmers would have the independence to store and reproduce their own seeds every season, and use affordable and safe pesticides on their crops.

Our partners in Kenya, the Kenyan Peasants League (KPL), have decided to step up and find alternative solutions to the crisis, by organising on a grassroots and national level to ban the import of agrotoxics from abroad, and to create alternative, affordable, and safe solutions for their members.

They have begun work to develop and test two organic pesticide formulas which can then be distributed to their members and to other farmers. The first formulation has been developed by researchers at the University of Graz in Austria, with the second developed by a local Kenyan farmer and member of the KPL.

Initial results are promising. Dick Olela, National Convener of the KPL, said that both organic formulations were successful in stopping aphids from attacking vegetables: “We sprayed the leaves of kales infested by aphids, and after one week the aphids were already cleared and the leaves turned green and healthy”. Both organic formulations are now being tested on maize and other plants.

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KPL testing pesticides
Kenyan Peasants League testing pesticides

Building collective knowledge: challenging multinational corporations’ ownership of science and agricultural knowledge

While multinational corporations operating in the agricultural sector continue to expand their areas of influence, and co-opt key decision-making spaces such as scientific panels at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); grassroots movements around the world are challenging the ownership of science and knowledge, by proving that food sovereignty and peasant agroecology (sustainable farming that works with nature, is inspired by natural ecosystems and is led by smallholder farmers) are real alternatives to rural poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation.

Building scientific evidence to prove that alternative solutions work is key to bringing about change. Transnational corporations such as Syngenta, Monsanto, and lobbying networks such as CropLife, have direct access to the corridors of power. While on the other hand, peasant agroecology movements around the world do not have the same financial resources, or direct access to power, to influence change on a local, national, or international policy level.

As such, movements fighting for food sovereignty around the world, including the KPL, (and most of War on Want’s partners,) are using evidence-based advocacy to bring forward peasant-based agricultural alternatives in their countries.

This evidence-based advocacy approach is currently enabling the KPL and its members to test the effectiveness of an organic pesticide formulation in a Kenyan climate context, and for local farms. While at the same time, farmers across the movement can use the results of the pesticides’ effectiveness as a clear advocacy roadmap for their widespread use, to inform and influence planning, policy and decision-making on a national level.

More generally, the development of organic pesticides, or biopesticides, will also help facilitate consultative forums, certification processes for locally produced products, and collective knowledge:  farmers can then take ownership of these products and processes to produce their own pesticide formulas, which suit their own social and ecological conditions.