Farmers’ shift from tobacco farming will save lives

In March this year, hundreds of farmers in Migori county, transitioned from risky tobacco farming to production of more sustainable crops, through the Tobacco-Free Farms Project.

It was a joint initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in collaboration with the government.

Tobacco as a cash crop contributes less than one per cent of Kenya’s GDP. Its farmers and their families are exposed to serious health risks through nicotine absorbed through the skin when handling wet tobacco leaves, exposure to heavy use of pesticides and to tobacco dust.

To the farmers, tobacco workers are often unaware of the toxicity of products they are managing and consequently suffer related health effects such as birth defects in their offspring, benign and malignant tumors, and blood and neurological disorders.

Kenya was one of the first countries to ratify the legally binding WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2004 and has been a key player in implementing effective tobacco control measures.

The Convention and the Kenya Tobacco Control Act promote economically viable alternatives to tobacco production as a way of preventing possible adverse social and economic impacts on populations whose livelihoods depend on tobacco production.

Tobacco growing, the manufacture of tobacco products and their delivery to retailers all have severe environmental consequences, including deforestation, the use of fossil fuels and the dumping or leaking of waste products into the natural environment.

From the beginning to the end, the tobacco life cycle is a devastatingly polluting and damaging process.

The tobacco industry damages the environment in ways that go far beyond the effects of the smoke that cigarettes put into the air.

The environmental lifecycle of tobacco can be roughly divided into four stages: tobacco growing and curing; product manufacturing and distribution; product consumption; and post-consumption waste.

Deforestation for tobacco growing has many serious environmental consequences including loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Tobacco growing also usually involves substantial use of chemicals including pesticides, fertilisers and growth regulators.

These chemicals may affect drinking water sources as a result of run-off from tobacco growing areas.

Research has also shown that tobacco crops deplete soil nutrients by taking up more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than other major crops.

This depletion is compounded by topping and de-suckering plants, which increase the nicotine content and leaf yields of tobacco plants.

The labour demands of tobacco are also great, with widespread use of child labor. Tobacco farming causes Green Tobacco Sickness, a form of acute nicotine poisoning, among many who handle the leaf.

The chemical overuse and deforestation from growing and curing tobacco devastate ecosystems and thereby the long-term health and economic prosperity of entire communities.

Put simply, if farmers reallocated their labor, land and precious capital to other activities, it is likely that overall employment would increase and farmers’ livelihoods and communities would improve.