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Risky pesticides on sale in Africa

Each year around 30% of the US$900 million pesticides marketed in developing countries do not meet internationally accepted quality standards. They are posing a serious threat to human health and the environment, according to a joint statement from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Farmers in Africa have little choice over the products they use. This farm worker near Thiès, Senegal, wearing no protective clothing, is scooping dimethoate from a drum into his sprayer. Photo Barbara Dinham

Poor farmers in developing countries are paying an estimated US$300 million for pesticides that do not meet internationally-accepted quality standards. In developing countries, pesticides are mainly used for agriculture, but also for public health, such as insecticides for controlling malaria vectors.
    ‘These poor-quality pesticides frequently contain hazardous substances and impurities that have already been banned or severely restricted elsewhere,’ said Gero Vaagt, of the FAO Pesticide Management Group. Such pesticides, he added, often contribute to the accumulation of obsolete pesticide stocks in developing countries(1).
    Possible causes of low quality of pesticides can include both poor production and formulation and the inadequate selection of chemicals. ‘In many pesticide products, for example, the active ingredient concentrations are outside internationally accepted tolerance limits,’ said Dr David Heymann, Executive Director of WHO’s Communicable Disease activities. ‘In addition, poor-quality pesticides may be contaminated with toxic substances or impurities’. The FAO and WHO statement said that the problem of poor quality pesticides is particularly widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, where quality control is weak. 

Increasing use of dangerous pesticides
A recent study by FAO(2) has highlighted a serious drop in export crop quality and in farmer access to input supplies. Less well documented is the impact of liberalisation and restructuring of public and private sector input supply services on pesticide quality and distribution networks in sub-Saharan Africa. Pest management commentators in West, East and southern Africa agree that one major consequence is the rapid decline in quality of pesticides and their effective regulation and control at retail level, following privatisation. Pesticides are increasingly sold via informal networks of small distributors and hawkers, many of whom have no technical knowledge of pesticide hazards or safe handling(3). Products are usually imported in bulk and repackaged into all kinds of containers for local retail but these rarely carry adequate or any labelling. Restricted and banned pesticides can still be purchased, suggesting that illicit trade, often across national borders, is a major problem. In Uganda, for example, farmers in 1999 were still buying dieldrin from small traders despite this active ingredient being severely restricted for several years(4).
    Adulteration, dilution and other illegal tampering with pesticides is of increasing concern both to farmers and to those working in pest management, human health and environmental protection. Actellic Super Dust, ASD (a mixture containing pirimiphos methyl and permethrin) is widely sold in eastern and southern Africa to protect stored grain from beetle pests. Farmer surveys in Tanzania have revealed that the ASD they purchase is often ineffective – partly due to adulteration and partly to poor processing(5). Blatant adulteration of products approved for grain storage by unauthorised dealers is a key problem in Tanzania and has become a major issue since liberalisation of input supplies. A Tanzanian newspaper recently reported a total of ten shops in Kitumbini and Dar es Salaam selling unregistered and dangerous pesticides. Even the registered pesticides had no instructions in the local language Kiswahili(6).

Dangers to health
Unregistered and non-approved use of pesticide products by farmers has also been recognised as a threat to farm families’ and consumers’ health. A survey of farmers’ maize stores in Benin asked smallholders about their current pest management practices, compared with five years before. The percentage of farmers using approved products for grain treatment had dropped from 13% to 0% in one province, while those applying field pesticides (i.e. products not approved for storage use) had increased from 24% to 53%(7). Misuse of organophosphates and fumigants carries the greatest risks to human and livestock health. There are anecdotal reports of acute poisonings in Ghana when highly toxic phosphine has been applied to grain or used as rat poison. 
    Many African countries are acutely aware of the health and safety issues around pesticide retailing and some are improving their legislation and policies on pesticide regulation and registration. Ghana was one of the first countries on the continent to sign the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent for importation of pesticides and the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency has banned nine problem pesticides in WHO Classes Ia, Ib and II(8). Zimbabwe has set up a coloured triangle code for pesticide labels to indicate hazard levels and recommended safety precautions(9). Many African governments are now pressing donors and the agrochemical industry to fund the clean-up and least toxic options for disposal of the huge stocks of obsolete pesticides.

PAN research in Africa
Serious problems of pesticide adulteration, illicit trading and deliberate or uninformed misuse are widespread throughout Africa. Several pest management experts concur in their observations that trade liberalisation is now pushing pesticide supply into the hands of untrained, uninformed, unauthorized or fraudulent distributors and opportunists, with significant risks to human health. Whilst more effective control and regulation mechanisms are obviously necessary, including stricter penalties for non-compliance, these mechanisms require adequate funding for training staff and for implementation. Of equal importance is the need to (i) raise awareness amongst the general public, key stakeholders and decision makers to the costs of pesticide use, and (ii) to encourage the promotion of safer, more sustainable alternatives to a dependency on chemical control of pests. 
    PAN UK will be researching these issues with African partners in 2001-2 as part of our consultancy for the European Commission’s Development Directorate on Progressive Pest Management for Food Security and the Environment. Through case studies in Senegal, Benin, Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia we aim to gain a better understanding of the linkages between pesticide use and liberalisation in cotton, vegetables and other cropping systems, and to investigate how pesticides affect the food security and livelihoods of smallholder farm women, men and children. (SW)

1. FAO/WHO: Amount of poor-quality pesticides sold in developing countries alarmingly high, press release, 1 February 2001. 
2. AW Shepherd and S Farolfi, Export crop liberalization in Africa, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin 135, Rome, 1999, 89pp.
3. PAN Africa, Regulation of dangerous pesticides in Ghana, PAN Africa Monitoring & Briefing Series No. 5, Dakar, Senegal, 2000, 16pp.
4. PAN Africa, Regulation of dangerous pesticides in Uganda, 
PAN Africa Monitoring & Briefing Series No. 6, Dakar, Senegal, 2000, 16pp.
5. P Golob, N Marsland, B Nyambo, K Mutambuki, A Moshy, EC Kasalile, BHM Tran, L Birkinshaw and R Day, Coping strategies adopted by small-scale farmers in Tanzania and Kenya to counteract problems caused by storage pests, particularly the Larger Grain Borer, Final Technical Report, Project R 6952, Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, 1999, 27pp.
6. Guardian, 3 February 2001.
7. WG Meikel, P Degbey, R Oussou, N Holst, C Nansen and RH Markham, Pesticide use in grainstores, PhAction News No. 1, October 1999, IITA, Benin.
8. Op. cit. 5.
9. PAN Africa, Regulation of dangerous pesticides in Zimbabwe, PAN Africa Monitoring & Briefing Series No. 2, Dakar, Senegal, 1999, 16pp.

For more information on, or to contribute to this research, please contact: Stephanie Williamson, International Project Officer (Progressive Pest Management) at PAN UK, or email

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No.51, March 2001, p3-4]

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