Killer beans – The Nation

  • Govts and farmers must collaborate on safe preservation methods

Days after Nigerians woke up to a trending video about sniper-treated beans in our markets, it is inexplicable that the foremost institutions in charge of food and public health have neither sought to douse public apprehension nor provided a guide to address the concerns stoked as a result. Indeed, if we had expected the foremost agency in charge of food and drugs – the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) –  to have offered the public a guide on the issue, mum has been the word since; the same is no less true of the health and agriculture ministries at federal or state levels: all, with the singular exception of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), have been practically missing in action, despite the serious public health and safety issues provoked by the video.

Thanks to CPC, we are again reminded that the video, far from being a hoax, actually depicts the common practice associated with beans preservation. The agency’s director-general, Babatunde Irukera, said this much in a statement days after that his agency “had recently confirmed by credible information that retailers, mostly in the open market are using a pesticide, 2,2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate (DDVP) compound, otherwise marketed and known as “Sniper” to preserve beans, and more particularly to eliminate or protect from weevils”.

Advising consumers of the grain to extensively parboil beans already stocked before consumption, as well as to make sufficient enquiries before engaging in new purchases, he warned that sniper is potentially injurious when “unduly exposed by inhalation, absorption, direct skin contact or ingestion”, and that the “risk of injury on account of consumption of beans exposed to, or treated with sniper is also existential, even though, an unintended consequence”.

To start with, this is certainly not the first time the issue of pesticides will rear its ugly head in the nation’s food supply chain. In June 2015, the EU actually banned the exportation of dried beans from Nigeria on the grounds that the produce contains high level of pesticide considered dangerous to human health. The ban was later extended to three years the following year because, according to the EU, “the presence of dichlorvos (pesticide) in dried beans imported from Nigeria and maximum residue levels of pesticides showed that compliance with food law requirement as regards pesticide residual could not be achieved in the short term”.

Today, it’s been more than three years since that ban; not only that, this latest cycle of information about ‘killer beans’ is coming seven months after the country resumed exports of beans to the EU on a pilot basis, and following the training of local farmers by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) on good agricultural practices. If the development is indicative of anything, it is of how very little has changed.

Rather than see the farmers and middlemen as culprits in what is evidently an old problem, we must admit that they are as well victims as the endangered beans consumer. Indeed, had the various ministries of agriculture and their extension services been alive to their responsibilities of transmitting modern practices in farming and preservation to the farmers, the problem would have been nipped in the bud. Taking into consideration that post-harvest losses, which is at the root of the problem, could sometimes be as high as 50 percent, an enduring solution would seem to us a programme of collaboration between state governments and the farmers to ensure the farming and preservation practices adopted are such that pose no risks to public health.

At this time, the least that states and local governments can do is educate the public on what they could do to avoid possible risks from consuming sniper-treated beans. If only for the already acknowledged public health implications of its uncontrolled use, it seems about time too for NAFDAC to evolve mechanisms to ensure a more restricted use of sniper.

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