Grains are a staple food consumed by almost everyone in sub-Saharan Africa on a daily basis. Their sustainability and availability are extremely important for a food secure future. Stored grains in the region often suffer from 40 percent to 100 percent losses due to insect damage if untreated with chemicals and pesticides (Adejumo et al., 2014). In order to reduce these losses, grain handlers have fallen into indiscriminately using chemicals to safeguard their investments without considering the deeply hazardous nature. Pesticide application has posed a great threat to grain safety in the region, and the profit gained by using pesticides to protect grains is negated when considering the associated health toll. Apart from the high cost of pesticide importation (estimated at over $400 million), improper pesticide use has also caused millions of people to become ill in Nigeria. Grains that we assume to be safe have become a real health hazard due to pesticide misapplication.
The reasons for this are varied. Many pesticide handlers have low formal education and inadequate knowledge in their use and applications. Also, the rules and regulations guiding the use of chemicals neither exist nor are enforced. Other challenges include the rampant importation of banned toxic chemicals into the region and unfaithfulness of major marketers and distributors in adhering to the standards as specified by the manufacturers. The extension services by the government on pesticide application are in many cases unavailable, so users lack a proven understanding of how to apply them.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Agenda 21 emphasizes Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as the best tool for 21st-century plant protection services. IPM is an approach to protecting crops against pests by employing appropriate use of biological, physical and cultural resources with minimal reliance on pesticides. Hence, capacity building of pesticide handlers in IPM is very crucial for food safety in sub-Saharan Africa.
The pesticide handlers and grains merchants also need to undergo behavioral change on application methods. This could be achieved by awareness through mass media; legislation and enforcement on proper use of pesticides; and training on how to properly handle chemicals and the appropriate dosages with minimal hazards to people, animals and the environment. Researchers should develop safe, eco-friendly and cost-effective pesticides for crop protection. The recent success of Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI) in the development of non-synthetic chemicals for improved storage using nitrogen and Diatomaceous Earth (DEs) is a step in the right direction. DEs are fossilized skeletal remains of diatoms inhabited in marine and fresh water bodies millions of years ago. DEs have been identified as an alternative by Nigerian smallholder farmers because of its abundance, low skill in application and long term efficacy as grain protectant with very low mammalian toxicity. The storage of grains using nitrogen in silos developed by NSPRI is able to solve pest problems in grains and are particularly helpful for cowpea and groundnut, which are otherwise problematic. If these technologies, including hermetic structures developed for household storage, could be deployed in the region, then problems associated with pesticide applications will be minimized.