Seeds of Gold agronomists last week detailed the dangers of agri-chemicals to our crops. In today's part 2, about the public health issues arising from mindless use of agricultural chemicals by farmers, agronomists advise farmers the best practices of using the chemicals that include pesticides and herbicides.
Smallholder farmers are the greatest producers of the food we eat but they have to constantly fight pests and crop diseases in order to get the food. This is mainly due to the warm and wet climate in the tropical region where we live which favours not only quick growth of crops but also rapid eruption of pests and diseases.
To deal with the challenge farmers must either resort to organic methods of pest and disease management or to use pesticides (often referred to as conventional means). Pesticides are manufactured poisons specifically meant to kill targeted organisms that attack plants. They are applied by spraying, dusting, or fumigation.
Seed dressing is the practice of applying a pesticide or a poisonous substance on a seed to kill any insects, rodents, or birds that may try eating the seed.
Other agricultural chemicals used by farmers are manufactured to kill weeds and they are referred to as herbicides.
There are yet other chemicals manufactured to kill parasites such as ticks and tsetse fly or nuisance insects such as spiders and mites. These are known as acaricides. The chemicals that are used to fight fungi are referred to as fungicides.
However even if the chemicals are made to destroy particular organisms they can be harmful to human beings, animals, and the environment if they are not handled properly. If they are swallowed they can cause sickness and death. Eating foodstuffs such as vegetables --- tomatoes --- and fruits that have pesticides residues can cause health problems and even death.
Animals that eat large amounts of grass which has been sprayed with the chemicals fall sick or die. Some agricultural chemicals are known to remain in the soil indefinitely and impede the growth of organisms that live naturally in the soil to sustain its health and fertility.
Many agricultural chemicals are harmful to the human skin and they should never be touched with naked hands. They are also harmful to other untargeted and quite innocent living organisms such as bees and other pollinators, certain birds, and small wild animals.
Given their poisonous effects the best thing should be avoiding their use by farmers except in circumstances under which there is no biological, physical or cultural way of fighting the pests, weeds, or parasites.
Mr David Ntale, an agricultural chemicals trader, extension worker, and proprietor of VADIP Farmers' Shop in Kiwangala Trading Centre, Lwengo District has told Seeds of Gold, "It is difficult to guide most farmers about how to use the chemicals. Most of them come to the shop with their own beliefs and conceptions about the chemicals they want to buy. Often they get the wrong information from their fellow farmers and relatives.
They do not want to listen to what we tell them. For example the spray pumps normally come with face masks and gloves. We always tell them to use the gadgets and to wear gumboots when spraying the chemicals.
We also tell them to read all the leaflets (literature) that come with the chemicals after explaining to them in plain language which rates to mix and how to apply them. However when they get to their farms many of them mix the chemicals according to what their fellow farmers and relatives tell them. They don't wear face masks and gloves and touch the chemicals with their bare hands. We have told them to kill weeds sometimes by physical means using hand hoes or mulching to prevent weed growth but they prefer using herbicides all the time," says Dr Ntale.
Ntale's views are supported by the findings of a study carried out in Wakiso District by Journal of Cleaner Production which indicated that little is known how farmers develop an information need, seek, and use pest management related information.
Pesticide misuse is linked to numerous human health and environmental risks but so many farmers and food consumers do not seem to pay enough attention to obtaining correct information from those qualified to provide it.
Dr Deogratias Sekimpi and Mr Aggrey Atuhaire who headed studies under the "Pesticide Use, Health and Environment (PHE) Project" have called for an immediate country-wide public sensitisation on agricultural chemicals and food safety.
"Farmer education and practical guidance by the country's extension service system and pesticide sellers is still a glaring gap that must be bridged as a means towards improving consumer protection," they wrote. Their contention is that farmers must be helped to understand the role of agricultural extension services providers in educating them how to use agrochemicals.
They also blamed the problem on the skyrocketing trade in and distribution of counterfeit agrochemicals that has hit the agro-input industry. "A practical and sustainable mechanism to curtail this illicit behaviour is urgently needed," says Sekimpi.
Sekimpi and Atuhaire advise consumers to always wash vegetables bought from common market stalls with warm water and, in the case of tomatoes, to peel off the outer skin so as to reduce the risk of ingesting the chemicals. "As a consumer, whenever you can make an effort to grow your own vegetables at home utilising any available space," reads a statement in the brochure prepared by PHE.
PHE further recommend that local governments strengthen the capacity and mandate of community water use committees to protect water sources from inappropriate pesticide application and handling practices such as mixing and/or washing pesticide application equipment.
The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is asked to link up with the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) and National Drug Authority (NDA) to put in place practical and sustainable mechanisms of collecting and responsibly disposing of empty pesticide containers and obsolete pesticides.
PHE goes on to recommend that the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) and NEMA work with Local Government Natural Resource Production and Health Departments to protect water resources through sensitizing farming communities, establishing pesticide application buffer zones and penalizing polluters.
PHE also calls upon the Ministry of Health (MoH) and its related agencies like NDA, and National Medical Stores to ensure regular supplies of essential medicines for dealing with poison cases in all health facilities and to regularly organise refresher courses for health care workers, especially pesticide toxicology and management of pesticide poisoning.