Agriculture is arguably the most important sector of the Ugandan economy.
Records from the 2010-2011 Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, (MAAIF) statistical abstract, show that the sector contributes 22.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), accounts for 48 percent of exports and provides a large proportion of the raw materials for industry. Food processing alone accounts for 40 percent of total manufacturing in the country.
Eighty-seven percent of Uganda’s population live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture for survival, the Uganda Demographic profile 2012 reports. The agricultural sector employs 66 percent (8.8 million) of the working population, according to MAAIF statistics. The sector will continue to be the key determinant in the country’s efforts to reduce poverty in the immediate years ahead.
Despite this great potential, Uganda’s agriculture is characterised by low yields and this is partly a function of low application of modern technology. Fertiliser use, for instance, at an average of 1kg (2.2 pounds) of nutrients per hectare is among the lowest in the world, according to the Agriculture Sector Development Strategy and Investment Plan 2010/11-2014-15).
Pests, vectors and diseases are perhaps among the main causes of losses in the agriculture sector. Improved pest and disease control could therefore be a major contributor to increasing agricultural production and productivity. It will certainly be a prerequisite to accessing international markets for virtually all commodities and products.
Communities in Uganda grow a variety of crops and rear livestock supported by different ecological conditions which shelter a wide range of pests such as insects, weeds, vectors and vermin. To avoid agricultural crop loss and enhance productivity, farmers are increasingly taking on the application of agro-chemical pesticides.
However, the point of contention is that danger is manifested in emerging unsafe practices during the application of the pesticides.
Pesticides are chemical compounds that are used to kill pests, including insects, rodents, fungi and unwanted plants (weeds), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). They are used in public health to kill such vectors of disease as mosquitoes, and in agriculture to kill pests that damage crops. By their nature, pesticides are potentially toxic to other organisms, including humans, and need to be used safely and disposed of properly.
The production of chemicals in Uganda is still minimal, constituting less than two percent of the total demand of chemicals. About 98 percent of chemicals in Uganda are obtained through imports. A report on the sound management of chemicals in Uganda produced by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), states that thousands of tonnes of chemicals imported in Uganda are used in agriculture, industry, water, environment, health, and in such consumer items as food, drugs, beauty and cosmetic products among others.
In the dire need to sustain livelihoods, farmers in Uganda’s two districts of Pallisa and Wakiso in Eastern and Central Uganda respectively, readily use agro-chemical pesticides to boost both crop and animal product yields.
Pallisa is prominently a cotton-growing area, while Wakiso is a renowned green vegetable food basket for the neighbouring urban Kampala district. Over the years, farmers have gradually experienced drastic declining natural soil fertility crop production yields prompting them to scale up agrochemical usage.
Pesticides used in Uganda have been classified as insecticides that kill insects, mites, snails molluscs, round worms, fungi, rodents, weeds, shrubs and trees.
Specifically, they include the following agro chemicals: organophosphates (Bromophos, DDVP [Dichloro dimethyl vinyl phosphate], Diazinon, Dursban, Dimethoate, Malathion, Parathion); organochlorines (Aldrin, BHC, DDT, Dieldrin, Lindane, Thiodan, Toxaphene); Carbamates (Dithane M45, Dithane M22, Furadan); Pyrethrins/pyrethroids (Ambush CY (Permethrin); Ripcord (Cypermethrin, Decamethrin); Phenoxy Acetic Acid (2-4-D [Dichlorophenoxy acetic acid]; 2-4-5-T; [Trichlorophenoxy acetic acid]; MCPA (Monochlorophenoxy acetic acid); Inorganic Metals (Shell copper [copper oxide]; lead arsenate arsenic trioxide, Phenylmercuric Acetate) and Bipyridyls (Grammoxone [Paraquat], Weedol, Diquat).
Population growth and the corresponding increased demand for cash and food crop production necessitates increased use of agro-inputs, including pesticides. By 2002, Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture had registered 38 chemicals as pesticides for use in Uganda, according to the PAN Pesticides Database. Between 1997 and 2001, insecticides were the most-used Crop Protection Pesticides (CPP) in Ugandan agriculture. During that period, insecticide imports alone averaged about 62 percent.
A base-line survey was conducted in Pallisa and Wakiso districts in 2011. This was one of the pre-intervention components of a 3-year pilot titled Pesticides Use, Health and Environment (PHE) Uganda Project implemented by the Uganda National Association of Community and Occupational Health (UNACOH) and Dialogos of Denmark in collaboration with Makerere University College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and Makerere University School of Public Health (MakSPH). The project intended to make the use of pesticides safer for human health, more friendly to the environment, while maintaining and improving agricultural productivity.
This survey was carried out to assess the knowledge, attitudes, skills and practices of farmers, agricultural extension workers, agro-input dealers and health workers regarding the environment in which pesticides are used in agriculture. Knowledge and perceptions were obtained on safe use, handling, disposal, poisoning and other effects of pesticides.
Results from this study provided a situation analysis of exposure and effects of using agro-chemicals in the two pilot project districts. Among the critical findings is that the majority of the farmers (73.6 percent) using pesticides do not wear the recommended body protective gear. As a result, farm families risk exposure and “consume” the dangerous chemicals.
Several factors have been advanced to provide explanation as to why this scenario continues to happen. Poverty came out strongly as one of the factors that place both adults and children in potentially high-risk situations.
We are seriously affected by poverty, a farmer from Pallisa contends. Due to high poverty levels, small-scale farmers earn low income from their agro-produce.
“We spend all our income on meeting basic home essentials,” said one farmer. “We are unable to buy the recommended body protective gear.”
“I simply utilise my worn out rugged old cloths to cover my body, neither do I wear gumboots, overall, goggles nor utilise face masks’’ another farmer said.
Generally, study findings show that 79 percent of sprayed pesticide work was done by the farmers and other family members. Only 21 percent of farmers hired labourers to do the spraying. The fields were sprayed daily for between 1 and 3 hours or less following no particular spraying schedule.
Testimonies derived from farmers revealed that there is very low awareness and laxity with regard to proper pesticide handling and utilisation. This limitation cuts across the board ranging from the agrochemical dealers (selling or outlet points), transportation, storage, use, re-use, recycling and disposal.
Overall 99 percent of farmers mentioned the absence of labels on pesticide containers purchased from agro-dealers indicating toxicity levels mainly because farmers bought pesticides in small quantities. However, even if these labels were present, only 23 percent of farmers said they were able to read and understand them owing to illiteracy and poor eyesight.
This is verified by the fact that some farmers were not aware of the kinds of pesticides they used as the following statements reveal:
“For me I just use because I cannot read,” said a female youth from Pallisa.
“I don’t know, I have the bottles at home,” said an eldely woman from Wakiso.
Most farmers are known to use unsafe spray methods. Farmers rarely use a napkin spray pump because hiring it is expensive. Cheap spray pumps malfunction and often drip, leading to pesticide waste, as well as spillage on unprotected bodies.
“In circumstances, where we cannot afford to hire napkin spray pump, we resort to use of common household water basins and hand brooms to sprinkle the pesticide, said David, a vegetable farmer in Nangabo sub-county, Wakiso.
“At times, some use a hand spray pump. All this makes us prone to inhaling the toxic agro-chemicals.”
Since 77 percent of farmers are unable to read the technical pesticide usage labels, they consequently fail to mix and use the recommended dosage.
Others mix two different pesticides to make the pesticide stronger one farmer testified. This practice has serious implications for the farmer and the environment.
Under-dosage makes the pests resistant, while over-dosage kills the pests causing damage to the plant endangering the environment by killing useful soil micro-organisms and polluting water sources.
Surprisingly, many agro-dealers and their staff are not professionally trained and lack adequate capacity to offer proper guidance to the farmers. Most of the agro-dealers said they had attained post-primary education. Despite this moderately high level of education, almost 94 percent of the respondents confessed that they had difficulties interpreting the information that is normally provided on the pesticide labels.
Only 62.5 percent of the dealers that participated in the study were licensed pesticide dealers and 12.5 percent were members of the Uganda National Agro-input Dealers Association (UNADA).
The study shows that dealers repackage agro-chemicals into smaller quantities which farmers can afford to buy. Although this is a contravention of government and manufacturing regulations, 69 percent of the respondent agro-dealers admitted to re-packaging pesticides in their shops.
The only reason cited for carrying out this practice was that the smaller measurements were more affordable to the resource-poor farmers. The danger though, is that it compromises the established ethical quality-control standards and levels of exposure to the agrochemicals.
Gaps were exposed with regard to marketing and advertisement of pesticides, which is often uncontrolled or illicit. Misbranded or unlabelled formulations, including ready-made solutions in soft-drink bottles and other unlabelled liquid containers, are sold at open stands or brought to farmers’ homes by pesticide vendors. Low retail prices promote pesticide use, but weak legislation and inadequate law enforcement fail to control risks, WHO reported in 2004.
A key additional factor is that farmer extension services, which were at one time provided by MAAIF were phased out and replaced by the private-sector pay-demand driven system offered by the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS). Many poor farmers are not able to pay for the services.
Transportion of agro-chemicals in most cases does not adhere to recommended safety regulations. Agro-chemicals may be mixed with other products or exposed to direct sunlight and passengers often travel unprotected in the same vehicle.
Similarly, storage of the pesticide has got its own shortcomings. The majority of the farmers keep pesticides in their homes.
“I keep my pesticide in my suitcase,” said one of farmer.
Others hang their pesticides near the roof, under their beds or a dark corner in the house.
Besides poor storage, there are concerns over pesticide disposal. Empty containers and obsolete stocks should be destroyed at very high temperatures (1,000-2,000 degrees centigrade [1,830 - 3,630 degrees fahrenheit]) using an incinerator, according to NEMA. After using the pesticide, farmers often throw empty containers into a nearby bush or a garbage collection point. Other farmers dump them in their gardens.
While in some cases, the unsafe emptied containers are re-used to keep paraffin and agro-produce, some farmers also reported selling the metallic ones to scrap dealers:
“I collect them (metallic ones) and sell them to the scrap people to make spoons and saucepans -- the plastic ones are thrown in the bush or field.” said a male youth farmer in Pallisa.
Due to poor pesticide management, farmers have been affected disastrously. According to a joint report published by the United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) 2004, pesticide poisoning can occur via breathing, drinking or eating, or through the skin or mucous membranes.
The symptoms resulting from acute poisoning may range from fatigue, dizziness, nausea and vomiting to respiratory and neurological effects that may be life-threatening. Chronic and even low-level exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and damage to the nervous and the functioning of the endocrine system.
Results of the baseline study are in agreement with the findings of this report. Farmers in the project area -- Pallisa and Wakiso Districts -- reported experiencing symptoms ranging from mild to severe body respiratory and reproductive health problems.
These were manifested by such symptoms as skin irritation, headache, back pain, blurred vision, abdominal pain, extreme tiredness, dizziness, respiratory difficulties, nausea, dry mouth, speech difficulty, loss of appetite and salivation.
The most commonly reported symptom was itchy skin after spraying pesticides without proper protective gear. Other dangers mentioned included death to a person if they took the pesticide accidentally or intentionally -- affecting the body when eating crops sprayed with these chemicals and feeling dizzy once they came in contact with pesticides (inhale) and running noses as a result.
“Sometimes after using, you go home with an itching body and you take a shower scrubbing yourself hard as a person who has been in a sugarcane plantation,” said Ruth, an elderly woman in Wakiso.
Farmers mentioned several entry points of pesticide into the body. The skin was mentioned as the predominant entry point by 73 percent of respondents, through inhalation, (38 percent), through eyes (33 percent) and through ingestion (38 percent) and about 7.7 percent did not know the entry points for pesticides into the body.
It has been reported that an estimated one to five million cases of pesticide poisonings occur every year, resulting in several thousands of fatalities, including children, the FAO/UNEP/WHO 2004, report said.
“Most of the poisonings take place in rural areas of developing countries, where safeguards typically are inadequate or lacking altogether. Although developing countries use 25 percent of the world’s production of pesticides, they experience 99 percent of the deaths due to pesticide poisoning,” the report said.
Suicidal attempts, accidental and occupational exposure were presented as the leading forms of pesticide poisoning reported in the surveyed villages. The largest number of reported cases was for people in the 21-30 - and 1-5 year-old age categories. The least was for people in the 6-10 year-old age category.
Children face a higher risk from pesticides because they may be more susceptible than adults or more greatly exposed than adults, the report said. Children's behavior, playing and ignorance of risks result in greater potential for exposure. Malnutrition and dehydration increase their sensitivity to pesticides. Currently, around 200 million children are suffering from malnutrition, it said.
However, all is not lost, interventions are under way to prevent occurrence or mitigate the disastrous effects of potential pesticide threats to human life and the environment. A new global approach to and way forward aimed at making chemicals safer was agreed at an international conference in Dubai on Feb. 7, 2006.
This is the Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management (SAICM). Under SAICM, governments agreed to use and produce chemicals in ways that minimise adverse effects to health and the environment by 2020.
Scaling up public awareness and social mobilisation is critical for both prevention and remedial action for those already negatively affected by pesticides. A massive awareness campaign should be mounted by all stakeholders. This should be spear headed by all line ministries -- in particular the Ministry of Agriculture, Environment, Health, Trade and Industry.
This will develop alertness and involvement of all stakeholders with the subject through creation of attitudes and practice changing awareness. This can be partly done using multimedia “bang” information and education campaigns via television and radio programmes, mobile film, community and schools outreach drama infotainment.
Awareness should target players at the upstream (policy level), the suppliers, distributors, retailers (middle stream level), farmers and consumers of agro-produce (down stream level).
This should be coupled with enforcing national and international guidelines for handling, transportation, storage, usage, disposal of agrochemicals and their wastes. Regular monitoring and inspection should be done to ensure compliance and take appropriate action for those who do not abide by the established code of conduct.
It is equally important to conduct capacity building and empowerment of the poor farmers to understand and appreciate the effects of pesticides and mitigation measures. The most vulnerable group, women and children should be given special attention.
Promotion of Organic Agriculture in Uganda as a viable alternative to pesticide use is ongoing. Formal (certified) Organic Agriculture started in 1993 due to unfolding European market opportunities for organically produced products.
Organic Agriculture is centred on increased dependence on natural soil fertility regeneration ecosystems and reducing the use of agricultural pesticides through Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimise health and productivity of the interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, people and the general environment.