Sustenance of agriculture production without toxins using organic agriculture concepts after COVID 1


By Dr. Nanda Senanayake
Additional Director (Retd)
Department of Agriculture

Sri Lankan farmers have faced many difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and some of the big-time farmers have even gone bankrupt due to lack of demand for their produce and also not having a streamlined marketing system for their production. Therefore, today they are a discouraged and frustrated lot and it may not be easy to persuade them to revert to effective production process. However, we need to produce as much food as possible in the country because the whole world is in for a lean production period and food scarcity might lead to a global famine. In Sri Lanka, we were encouraging organic agriculture production during the past decade and the produce itself was fetching higher prices though the organic production was still marginal.

People were discussing the value of traditional varieties and to invest on traditional varieties which invariably had to sacrifice some yields due to low production potential of these varieties. Organic agriculture is also low producing in Sri Lankan context because our present day varieties are fertilizer responsive and organic fertilization cannot provide the full compliments of nutrients by way of organic matter and compost, which has high application rates though very low production in the country at the moment.

Global concept of Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture is a production system where all inputs applied are environment friendly and do not harm the existing natural ecology and products are safe and toxin free. Organic agriculture is defined by the FAO/WHO in 1999 as a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system." However IFOAM in 2005 defined it as Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people.

It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved (IFOAM 2005) which is much more flexible than FAO classification. However, organic agriculture has yet given some flexibility of using inorganic chemicals as well as soil additives etc. which are not in par with organic definition and concepts.

Use of organic fertilizers

In the Sri Lankan context organic agriculture is defined and practised as a system of production of crops totally with organic inputs (pesticides and organic fertilizers) for all crop management practices. However, it is acceptable and correct not to use synthetic compounds for pest and disease control in organic agriculture due to pesticide residues (toxic compounds) in the final products exceeding Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) according to international standards. But the question remains that why the production management system cannot be maintained with inorganic inputs except for pest and disease management. The arguments in favour are discussed.

Difference between inorganic and organic fertilizers

There is definite difference between inorganic and organic fertilizers. Major differences are the bulky nature, very high application rate and slow release of nutrients of organic fertilizers compared to inorganic fertilizers.

Another important difference is that in inorganic fertilization crop is supplied with few selected elements where as organic fertilization will supply majority of seventeen elements necessary for normal plant growth. On the other hand, plants will absorb the necessary nutrients in elemental form irrespective of the nature of fertilizer applied. Therefore the plant will not recognize the different elements based on the origin and absorb them to the system through the natural forces of plant absorption. In other words, there is no difference in plant absorbed molecules, whether it originates from inorganic form or organic form. For example the mostly used element Nitrogen absorbed as NO3, NH4 etc. is the same molecule in both forms.

According to physical chemistry organic N do not have extra electrons or neutrons nor has any other advantage over inorganic N. This also indicates that application of fertilizer in inorganic form in organic agriculture should be permitted if the proper and accurate rates of application are used, which enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.

Organic fertilizers

In Sri Lanka compost, green manure and organic matter are recommended for organic agriculture, but the nutrient composition of these forms varies greatly, depending on many factors such as the raw materials used and the method of preparation, etc. It is extremely hard to find two compost samples having the same nutrient element composition. Therefore, recommending rates of application based on the nutrient requirement of crop varieties and to compensate for the inorganic fertilizer application is extremely difficult. It is also a known fact that finding the required quantities of compost necessary to all crops grown in the country and to achieve the higher yield potentials of the present day varieties is problematic and extremely difficult. Therefore there is always a crop yield reduction of fertilizer responsive varieties in organic agriculture though farmers are paid a higher price per unit of crop and have higher income.

Another recommended organic source commonly used in organic agriculture is poultry litter. Poultry litter as an organic fertilizer is little problematic when we consider the various nutrients fed to poultry for better and enhanced growth and the method of feeding and the wasteful feeding habits of poultry itself. Therefore, there is a very great possibility of having various chemical components with the poultry litter, which is against the concepts of organic agriculture. However, organic fertilizers will comply with the organic agriculture concepts such as sustenance of the health of soils, ecosystems and people though at the expense of yield reductions.

Organic Agriculture after CORID 19

Once we control the corona spread once and for all, we have to step up our agriculture production as much as possible, and we cannot go or encourage organic agriculture because of low production like the use of traditional varieties unless we do the production enhancing input use. As indicated in the previous paragraph the use of inorganic fertilizer in appropriate rates without disturbing the ecology, biological processes and biodiversity can be used. The reason is that neither there is any difference between nutrient elements absorbed by the plants nor the plant will recognize the nutrient elements whether it originated from an inorganic source or from organic source. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) Further, globally organic agriculture is allowed to use some inorganic compounds, additives etc. and is documented in the National list of allowable in USDA National Organic Programmes. For example national list says Copper sulfate must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation of copper in the soil. Also potassium chloride—unless derived from a mined source and applied in a manner that minimizes chloride accumulation in the soil. Therefore, why not inorganic fertilizers are used in organic agriculture in a manner that minimize the effect on soil ecology, biological processes and biodiversity.

Moreover, some of the organic manures we use in organic agriculture do have inorganic impurities in different forms. However, it is acceptable and correct not to use synthetic compounds for pest and disease control in organic agriculture due to pesticide residues in the final products exceeding internationally accepted Maximum Residue Levels (MRL). In Sri Lanka, there are many traditional farmer proven methods of pest and disease control and also includes the use of biological agents. But the biological pest and disease control is far behind in Sri Lankan agriculture and need to pay much emphasis to explore the locally available bio-agents. Prohibiting the use of inorganic fertilizers in organic agriculture, I believe, is a misconception, especially in a situation where some inorganic compounds are globally allowed within limits. The only disadvantage of the use of inorganic fertilizer is the bad effect on soil and ecology such as possible nutrient imbalances, soil adsorption, soil fixation, effect on fauna and flora. However, at present there are many technologies and vastly improved analytical procedures and even nanotechnology, where we can formulate inorganic fertilizer recommendations for crops, and they have the minimum effect on these aspects. Therefore it is suggested to use conventional inorganic fertilization without using synthetic pesticides in organic agriculture thereby we could maintain the national domestic production levels of different crops.

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