Banned pesticides cleared in Uganda

A woman in a garden. Ugandan food is treated with dozens of chemicals that are banned from use in other countries. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Ugandan food is treated with dozens of chemicals that are banned from use in other countries, with a study capturing the most pesticide residue in Ankole sub-region, Chris P Kayonga writes.

Farmers in Uganda are increasingly reliant on highly hazardous agro-pesticides despite their known harmful effects on human health and the environment.

When the Ministry of Agriculture updated its register of agricultural chemicals on July 24, among the active ingredients cleared for use were glyphosate found in the popular weed killer, cypermethrin, the pesticide carbosulfan and mancozeb used in fungicides applied on tomatoes.

In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a group of experts working for the World Health Organisation, classified glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Due to this risk, well known brands such as weed master and round up which have glyphosate are not approved for household use in France, Netherlands and Belgium.

Germany, where the company (Bayer) that produces the drug is based, has also not approved it for use in public spaces and a campaign is underway to withdraw approval for its use by the end of this year.

However, this drug was registered for use in Uganda and is imported and distributed by companies such as Balton and Bukoola Chemical Industries. Mr Solomon Seruwo, the head of marketing and business development at Bukoola, claims that the narrative around glyphosate is more nuanced.

“The approval of glyphosate in the EU will expire this December. It was renewed last year after its five year registration was about to expire. As I speak a number of companies have submitted applications for renewal and this has already been considered,” he told the Monitor recently.

The glyphosate controversy notwithstanding, cypermethrin which is found in pesticides applied on maize, coffee and tomatoes is approved for use in Uganda and yet it is considered highly toxic, posing adverse gastrointestinal effects in human and faces a legal challenge to its approval for use within the EU.

Mancozeb was registered for use in Uganda despite the fact that on December 14, 2020, the European Commission declined to renew approval for use after January 4, 2021. The grace period for farmers to use up stocks of mancozeb ended on January 4, 2022. This was due to its detrimental effects on the human thyroid glands.

Carbosulfan is an active ingredient used in insecticides however it is toxic to bees which are pollinators and key to sustaining the ecosystem. It is not approved for use in the EU.

Environmentalists have lamented double standards in the trade of agrochemicals in Uganda. Marcos Orellana, the UN rapporteur on toxins and human rights, has decried this discriminatory practice. In 2020 SEATINI, a civil society organisation in Uganda, sued the Government of Uganda for failing to ban the use of glyphosate.

While a court decision is pending, Sekalema Zumiana a programme officer at SEATINI, also decried weak enforcement in Uganda.

“You might find when you look at our investment code they don’t speak to investor-state disputes. When you take that route they are actually not decided by the courts. It is a tribunal set up to handle such an issue. Experience has shown that these tribunals can comprise an executive from a company or lobby group. [...] It is not fair for the countries and of late we have been advocating State to State dispute settlement to be reflected in our investment code,” he said.

Demand for such hazardous agrochemicals among smallholder farmers is driven by factors including their affordability in relation to less toxic alternatives.

Ms Margaret Nakamuli, a smallholder farmer, cites declining soil fertility for her decision to use hazardous agrochemicals.

”I have just started using agrochemicals. I never used them before but when the soil lost its fertility I started using agro chemicals,” she says.

Nakamuli adds that her use of agrochemicals has had adverse health effects.

“Initially, I used to spray myself but I can no longer do so. I got exposed to the chemical so now even the sight of it is distressing; my eyes hurt. I never used to wear protective clothing as I sprayed except wearing gum boots. So I now hire someone to spray,” she revealed.

A study of poisoning trends in Uganda between 2017-2022 reveals that males, children under five years and Ankole region were the most affected by pesticides poisoning among agricultural communities.

While misuse of chemicals by farmers is rife, which increases exposure to hazardous material, Mr Augustine Tosa, a smallholder farmer reveals that they receive some guidance from retailers.

“We get the chemicals from shops and the shopkeepers show us how to use the chemicals in the right dosages. Typically, we measure the doses in millilitres and we use a soda bottle top to measure the dose when applying chemicals to maize,” he says.

But despite this sensitisation, lapses by farmers in the prescribed safety measures are common as Hamid Mukiibi, an agro chemical input dealer, reveals.

“The most common issue farmers report to us is eye problems after using certain agrochemicals. They come back to us saying the drugs you gave us hurt our eyes. Then we ask, did you use safety goggles? They say no. Did you take safety precautions? They say no,” he says.

Agrochemicals dealers need regulation given the key role they play in the supply chain, Winnie Kyobutungi, the natural resource officer of Gomba District, argues.

“Very many people are selling chemicals but they don’t know what they are selling. Chemicals are being sold like salt; anybody can sell. We need qualified people to know the type of chemical, to know the description, to know the dosage. But now you find a 15-year-old in those shops selling chemicals. They don’t have any training,” she pointed out.

There are less toxic alternatives on the market known as biopesticides that can be used to control fungal diseases and insects, however demand for these is not strong as Mr Valentine Ssekivuvu, the acting agriculture officer in Mpigi District, explains.

“When we come up with the bio concoctions which are being made in Uganda that are safe, these are organically made. These can be a good substitute. If we can use our organic chemicals alongside the synthetic chemicals it will reduce the over use of these synthetic chemicals,” he suggests.

There is evidence of increased pest resistance leading to increased exposure to hazardous agrochemicals which Ssekivuvu attributes to the misuse of agrochemicals.

“What causes resistance is misuse. You’re using the wrong dose. You are subjecting a chemical to a pest with a lethal dose that may not kill it. When it is not killed it will recover. Another way is fake agrochemicals. There are dealers bringing chemicals onto the market [who provenance is in doubt]. Someone makes a pesticide from nowhere and gives it to farmers. Those fake agrochemicals can lead to resistance,” he warned.

Industry insiders estimate that the Ugandan market for agrochemicals is worth $120 million. Given the size of the market, the incentive for profiteering is at the root of the continued (mis)use of hazardous agrochemicals in the food supply chain, as Mr Lawrence Ssebina, a smallholder farmer, reasons.

“Everyone is driven by the profit motive. You don’t expect someone who makes money from agrochemicals to tell you to use organic alternatives. You have to be discerning. That is why I also use cow dung, not just agrochemicals. A lot of the advice we farmers get is driven by people seeking to profit and market their goods,” he says.

Mr Hakim Baliraine, chairperson of the East and Southern African Small Scale Farmers Forum, reckons that as a consequence, the agency of farmers buttressed by traditional knowledge is now at risk in the current context.

“You have bought the seed, you have to buy implements for irrigation, you have to buy fertiliser. Then you have to buy pesticides. When you harvest, you think you are comfortable, but you have to get chemicals to store the harvest. This is making us slaves for others,” he says.

A loss of farmer agency has implications on the nation’s food security amid an international trade regime that serves to create dependency in countries such as Uganda as Ms Suzan Nakacwa, a civil society activist, argues.

According to Ms Nakacwa, “Trade deals promote an agribusiness model which is far from sustainable. Agribusiness is monocultures, chemicals, markets and business! It is never about you or your health. It is about the market, profits and business. They push for rules, regulations and policies that help industry at the expense of our own farming systems.”