Toxic pesticides banned in Europe being peddled to Global South farmers

Saturday November 05 2022
Banned pesticides

Pesticides that are no longer allowed for use in countries where they are manufactured in the European Union due to their potentially harmful human health and environmental impacts are being pushed to countries in the Global South. PHOTO | MICHEL GUNTHER | BIOSPHOTO VIA AFP


Pesticides that are no longer allowed for use in countries where they are manufactured in the European Union due to their potentially harmful human health and environmental impacts are being pushed to countries in the Global South, a new report on pesticide use released in Kenya has shown.

Global civil society organisations warned last week that farmers are increasingly using these dangerous chemicals to grow food.

For instance, despite being banned in the EU, Kenyan imports in 2018 and 2019 included iprodiones and acetochlorines from Belgium and 1,3-dichloropropene from Spain. South Africa imported imidacloprid, which is hazardous to bees, from Germany and France – where it was banned in 2021 and 2022.

In total in 2018 and 2019, the EU countries and the UK approved the export of 140,908 tonnes of pesticides that are banned from being applied in European fields because of unacceptable health and environmental risks.

In Kenya, 44 percent (1,362 tonnes) of the total volume of pesticides used are banned in Europe — where they are exported from.

Highly hazardous


“Sales data shows that over 76 percent (2,353 tonnes) of the total volume of pesticides sold in Kenya equals to 195 products contains one or more active ingredients categorised as highly hazardous pesticides, proven to provide a potentially high level of acute or chronic risk to health or the environment,” said ecotoxicologist, Dr Silke Bollmohr.

She was on Friday speaking at the launch of The Pesticide Atlas 2022 – Kenya edition, jointly published by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (HBF) Kenya and HBF Berlin, as well as Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, Belgium, Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz, Berlin and Germany PAN Europe- Brussels, Belgium.

At the launch, German legislator and Chairperson of the Committee on Food and Agriculture, Karl Bar, criticised the practice by EU Member States including his native Germany of exporting EU banned pesticides to the Global South, because it externalises the health and environmental impacts of these hazardous substances on the most vulnerable.

The double standard

“Our Federal Minister for Food and Agriculture, Cem Özdemir has proposed banning export of pesticides that are harmful to health and are banned here. A ban will end the double standards of banning active ingredients here because we unanimously agree they are too dangerous, while at the same time German companies still export these to other countries outside the EU. We should end these double standards,” said Mr Özdemir.

Since 2016, the HBF in Nairobi has joined hands with community partners and scientific experts to amplify the concerns being raised by Kenyans, through a campaign dubbed Toxic Business, spearheaded by the foundation’s Route to Food Initiative.

The atlas maps the problem of pesticides in the local context but also how global events are affecting the local agricultural landscape, for example, the influence of a few powerful corporations on national agricultural policies and the profit potential in selling pesticides to smallholder farmers in developing countries.

In Kenya, pesticides that are not categorised as HHPs only make up 22 percent and only 2 percent comprise biopesticides. Maize, wheat, coffee, potatoes, tomatoes, tea and other vegetables — in that order — consume the highest volumes of pesticides including HHPs.

Food production in sub-Saharan Africa as depicted by Kenya is increasingly dependent on chemical pesticides.

High annual growth rates

The African market for pesticides is projected to witness high annual growth rates, for example in West Africa. Use increased there by 177 percent between 2005 and 2015. In the same period total pesticide imports into the region roughly tripled, with particularly rapid growth in the three largest agricultural markets – Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Coupled with population growth, and the need to improve productivity, pesticide companies are increasingly seeing the 33 million small farmers on the continent as an attractive market.

“Over the past five years, pesticide imports by Africa have increased significantly, particularly Western and Eastern Africa,” said Dr Bollmohr.

“In West Africa, the imports doubled in five years from 218,948 tonnes in 2015 to 437,930 tonnes in 2020. In 2020, Nigeria’s imports alone (147,446 tonnes) exceeded the total imports of Southern Africa (87,403 tonnes) and North Africa (109,561 tonnes).

Irreversible damage

Despite increasing imports in these regions, the informal nature of agricultural production has made it difficult to record how pesticides are used hence the big differences between the imported quantities and use data. For example, in 2020 the FAO recorded the value of imports in Southern Africa at 87,403 tonnes, compared with 27,000 tonnes of pesticides that were used.

According to the FAO pesticide use data from 2020 and in terms of leading countries in each region, South Africa leads in the South (26,857 tonnes), Egypt in North Africa (11,352 tonnes), Cameroon in West Africa (7,322 tonnes) and Ethiopia in East Africa (4,128 tonnes).

Kenya’s pesticide imports more than doubled in just three years from 6,400 tonnes in 2015 to 15,600 tonnes in 2018.

A total of 230 active ingredients are registered in Kenya, including 51 that are no longer permitted in the EU, such as atrazine (Syngenta), trichlorfon (Bayer) and fipronil (BASF).

Pesticide consumption

Globally, pesticide consumption stands at 4 million tonnes. Half of the substances applied are herbicides, used against weeds; about 30 percent are insecticides, used against insects that can harm harvests. And about 17 percent are fungicides against fungal infestation.

The global pesticides market size reached a value of nearly $84.5 billion in 2019, with an annual growth rate of more than 4 percent since 2015.

In the next few years, the rate of growth could increase further. By 2023, the total value of all pesticides used is expected to grow at a rate of 11.5 percent to nearly $130.7 billion.

Experts at the launch said they were concerned that in spite of pesticide imports into Africa increasing, there is not enough information about how they are used and the impacts they are having on human health and the environment.

“Most African governments do not have adequate resources to monitor the impacts of pesticides or the capacity to prevent negative human health and environmental consequences. The widespread adoption of pesticides means that millions of smallholder farmers are exposed to the risks associated with using these chemicals on their farms. Monitoring programmes to measure impacts on biodiversity loss, soil degradation, negative effects on a wide range of non-target organisms, contamination of surface and ground water, are not in place in Kenya,” said the authors of the report.

In Kenya there are 862 products currently registered for use in horticulture, of which 32 percent are toxic to bees and 52 percent are toxic to aquatic life.


“In Europe, soil analyses revealed that more than 80 percent of 317 agricultural topsoils tested contained pesticide residues. The most commonly found and most highly concentrated pesticides were the long-banned insecticide DDT, the herbicide glyphosate as well as its degradation product AMPA, and broad-spectrum fungicides such as boscalid, epoxiconazole, and tebuconazole,” said Dr Bollmohr.

“How polluted Kenyan soils are… we don’t know.”

In 2018, under the requirements of the USAID FOODSCAP Project, 1,139 samples of fresh produce intended for export and local markets, tested by Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), found 46 percent of the samples to contain pesticides, while 11 percent had residues exceeding EU maximum residue levels. The food items with the highest residues were kales, peas, and capsicum.

“In Kenya in 2020, a total of 25 different active ingredients were found in tomato and kale samples – 51 percent of the detected active ingredients were already withdrawn from circulation in the EU long ago. Of the total of 25 samples, 60 percent exceeded the EU maximum residue levels. This is alarming in particular, because these two vegetables are often bought from local markets in rural areas and in the city and are used in many Kenyan dishes,” said Dr Bollmohr. “In some cases eight different pesticides have been found on one sample, yet there exists no maximum residue levels (MRLs) for multiple residues in food.”

No regular monitoring system

“With no regular monitoring system in the Kenyan market, the consumer simply doesn’t know the pesticide exposure they are facing,” she added while calling for consistent, transparent and accessible testing of farm produce. “Whereas products for export are tested regularly, and results in cases where amounts exceed announced publicly in some instances, as recently happened with too high levels of chlorpyrifos in coffee exported to Japan, we never get to know the situation for the local market.”

In neighbouring Uganda, where some of the pesticides used in Kenya come from, every fourth shop sells repackaged pesticides which means that instructions on how to use a product ‘safely’ have been removed. Here, the report says 94.3 percent shops operate without a government-approved up-to-date license, 10.5 percent of products on the shelves were unmarked or unlabelled products, 73.4percent of sales were done without technical advice and 90.1 percent of the shops lacked safety equipment.

In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer – an intergovernmental agency that forms part of the World Health Organization of the United Nations – classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. A 2019 University of Washington scientific meta-study found that the overall meta-relative risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in individuals that were exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides increased by 41percent.

Action against harmful exports

Together with Germany other European states that have taken national action against the export of harmful pesticides include France, where a law forbidding the manufacture, storage, and export of EU banned pesticides came into force in January 2022. These substances can no longer be used to maintain green spaces, pathways or forests. Switzerland has banned the export of five particularly toxic pesticides since 2021, with other active ingredients to follow.

In 2019, following the Route-to-food initiative, the Parliamentary Committee on Health called for a review of all pesticides registered in the country. In 2020, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, through the PCPB, kickstarted this process by considering technical evidence – submitted by the public and industry actors alike – on a shortlist of 30 pesticide active ingredients.