Agriculture is central to Uganda. The sector provides 24% of Uganda’s gross domestic product (GDP), generates 48% of export earnings, and provides direct and indirect livelihood support to 80% of all households, according to Platform for Agricultural Risk Management (PARM).
The utilisation of pesticides in food production has led to improved crop yields, positively impacting food security. However, fundamental questions have emerged on the safety of the food that ends up on our plates.
Excessive application of pesticides on crops, aimed at safeguarding them from pests’ harm and loss, contributes to elevated pesticide residues within these crops. This situation raises concerns about potential toxicity to human health, particularly if their application is conducted without adhering to good agricultural practices.
Concerns have been raised about the safety of consuming food that has been treated with these chemicals. There is an ongoing debate surrounding the consumption safety of pesticide-enhanced food in Uganda and its potential implications for public health.
These chemicals are designed to eliminate pests and pathogens that threaten crops, yet they also leave behind residues that find their way into the food chain and they damage the environment.
A 2022 study, which assessed the health risk posed by consumption of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables among Kampala residents and its metropolitan area, found very high pesticide residues in the studied samples. The study further found that children were at the highest health risk of pesticide residues.
Media reports recently showed that the Uganda Cancer Institute now receives between 7,000 and 8000 patients each year. This marks a significant rise compared to the 3,000 patients reported a decade ago. Given the surge in cancer cases and the heightened utilisation of pesticides along with the presence of pesticide residues in the consumed food within the country, it’s natural to question whether the latter could be influencing the former. This speculation arises from numerous studies that establish connections between certain cancers and the application of pesticides.
Risks associated with long-term exposure to pesticide residues in food and to the farmers themselves range from acute nausea and dizziness to chronic health concerns such as cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, and hormone disruption.
In addition to the health hazards, excessive usage of pesticides is a cost to the country. This is as result of our agricultural products being declined in European markets. They harm farm animals due to inhaling the pesticide toxins, and the degradation of soil quality.
Rapid market liberalisation, combined with poor regulation enforcement have resulted in widespread promotion of agro-chemicals and a large market for cheap, poor-quality products including counterfeits.
Amidst these concerns, there is urgent need for consumer education. Empowering Ugandans with knowledge about safe food handling, washing produce thoroughly, and making informed choices can contribute to minimizing potential risks associated with pesticide residues.
Government has taken steps to regulate the use of pesticides, setting maximum residue limits for various chemicals on different crops by setting up a policy and legal framework for quality control, sale and distribution of pesticides. Enforcement and monitoring and the framework to do so is largely inadequate. Media reports show government plans to become the sole importer of pesticides, a step in the right direction to weave out counterfeit agro-chemicals.
A robust regulatory framework should be accompanied with effective surveillance to ensure that food reaching consumers adheres to safety standards. Famers need to be informed about the right pesticides to use and their application. Formal supply channels should be set up to avoid purchase of counterfeit agro-chemicals.
Ensuring food safety, amidst widespread pesticides usage in Uganda, is a complex. Striking a balance between agricultural productivity and consumer health demands careful consideration, collaborative efforts, and continuous research.
Policymakers, farmers, and consumers should work together to ensure that the food on Ugandan tables is not only bountiful but also safe for all to consume. The path forward lies in embracing sustainable practices that safeguard both the environment and the health of our people.