Friday 30th April, 2021
Local coconut oil manufacturers had a field day following the detection of unusually high levels of aflatoxin in an imported coconut oil consignment, a few weeks ago. They claimed that their products were safe and superior to the imported ones; some members of the public may have bought into their claims amplified by aggressive advertising, but aflatoxin has now been found in locally produced coconut oil as well.
The imported edible oil stocks containing aflatoxin are being re-exported, according to the Customs. The solution to the problem of harmful food imports is not re-exportation, for there is always the risk of such commodities being sold to unsuspecting consumers in other countries. Ideally, food items must be destroyed immediately if they are found to be harmful.
The question is what to do with the locally produced coconut oil containing aflatoxin. Reports say the company concerned has been asked to withdraw the contaminated oil stocks from the market, but what will be done to them afterwards? They will have to be destroyed if they are to be prevented from re-entering the market or being sold to food producers on the sly.
What basically causes coconut oil to be contaminated with aflatoxin is the unhygienic copra production, besides being mixed with substandard palm oil, as scientists have pointed out. The entire production process has to be monitored closely if the locally produced coconut is to be rid of aflatoxin. Places where coconut flesh is sun-dried are far from clean, and the fungi that produce carcinogenic aflatoxin can be seen on copra. Unhygienic conditions under which copra is produced are taken for granted, and it is only natural that coconut oil is contaminated.
Scientists inform us that aflatoxins are found in several other food items such as maize and peanuts. The process of producing and marketing all food products should be monitored, and stringent action taken against those who do not maintain stipulated standards. The problem, however, is that the state institutions maintained with public funds to ensure the quality of food products shirk their responsibility with impunity.
There are serious allegations against the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), which has lost its credibility. It is doubtful whether anyone takes ‘SLS’ into consideration when he or she purchases a product, unlike in the past.
The SLSI sought to downplay the recent aflatoxin controversy. It is the much-maligned Health Ministry that exposed the high levels of the carcinogen in imported coconut oil and made public its findings straightaway. If not for that detection, perhaps the contaminated oil stocks would have found their way into the local market and been consumed during the New Year period. How long Sri Lankans have been consuming contaminated edible oil is anybody’s guess. It is reported that the oil stocks being withdrawn from the market have been certified by the SLSI. An explanation is called for.
The SLSI has got into hot water by trying to make light of the issue of edible oil contamination. After weeks of dilly-dallying, the police have apparently begun probing complaints against the SLSI over some statements its Director General Dr. Siddhika Senaratne made in a Hiru TV interview on the aflatoxin issue, a few weeks ago. What one gathered from her answers to some trap questions from the interviewer was that the SLSI was lenient with some errant companies and was ready to go out of its way to safeguard their interests at the expense of the public.
The CID has recorded statements from the Hiru journalist, who interviewed the SLSI DG, and obtained the unedited video footage of the interview, as part of its investigations. This is the standard practice. But we hope that the police will not act like King Kekille, the legendary king, who always spared wrongdoers and punished the innocent and/or complainants.
From shaman’s syrup to docs’ pills
Tuesday 11th May, 2021
The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have been on the rise steadily since the conclusion of the recent avurudu celebrations. What we are experiencing at present looks the early warnings of a viral tsunami, whose landfall is only a matter of time. The national healthcare system has reached breaking point, as a collective of professional outfits––the Sri Lanka Medical Association, the Government Medical Officers Association, the Association of Medical Specialists, and the SLMA Intercollegiate Committee––have pointed out in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Unless urgent action is taken to reduce the worsening caseloads, people will start dying here in their numbers on roads without treatment, as in India. The first thing that needs to be done to prevent the rapid transmission of the pandemic is to impose movement restrictions, which the good doctors have recommended in their letter. If travel among districts had been banned, or at least restricted, during the recent festive season, the country would not have been in the current predicament. The government allowed the public to do as they pleased, for political reasons, and we are where we are today.
The doctors’ associations have, in their letter, made some science-based recommendations such as the imposition of movement restrictions, the isolation of areas depending on density of caseloads, the strengthening of the curative sector by supplying adequate facilities, especially oxygen, ICU facilities and laboratory services countrywide for diagnosis of COVID-19 with PCR testing, and the acceleration of the national vaccination drive.
Some of these recommendations may not find favour with the government, which tends to lay everything on the Procrustean bed of political expediency. But they are the proverbial stitch in time, which, if implemented urgently, will spare the government and the country a lot of trouble in the future. The pills that docs have prescribed are bitter but have to be swallowed.
It is popularly said in this country that when politicians have power, they have no brains, and vice versa—mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne. So, the problem with most government politicians is that they consider themselves far more knowledgeable than experts such as doctors, engineers, scientists and environmentalists. One may recall that a minister of the current administration once asked what the use of having oxygen was, during a heated argument with an intrepid female Forest Officer who opposed a move to destroy a mangrove forest, pointing out that environmental degradation would reduce the oxygen level in the air. He demanded to know whether oxygen could be eaten—oxygen kannada. A ministerial colleague of his did something cretinous, the other day, exposing the public to Covid-19.
Piliyandala, a populous section of the conurbation of Colombo, accounted for nearly one half of 755 Covid-19 cases reported from the Colombo District, yesterday. The health authorities’ decision to impose movement restrictions in the Piliyandala police area, last week, has been vindicated by the rapid increase in infections there during the past few days. If the restrictions had not been lifted at the behest of Minister Gamini Lokuge, the situation could have been brought under control. Lokuge has sought to justify his intervention to have the decision of the Director General of Health Services (DGHS), who alone can decide on lockdowns, movement restrictions, etc., countermanded, by claiming that such action would have affected daily wage earners in Piliyandala, which is his electorate. True, the vulnerable sections of society have to be protected, but an explosive transmission of the pandemic will have a far more devastating impact on them as well as others than a lockdown. Of economic hardships and an increase in the pandemic death toll, which is the worse? It is not only the residents of Piliyandala who undergo economic hardships owing to lockdowns and other such Covid-19 preventive measures. What if the ruling party politicians in other parts of the country emulate Lokuge? The DGHS will not be able to have any area locked down, in such an eventuality.
Meanwhile, other countries battling the new variants of the virus have adopted double masking, which has proved quite effective in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Why it has not been made mandatory here is the question.
One can only hope that the doctors’ letter at issue will knock some sense into the ruling party politicians and their officials in charge of the anti-Covid-19 campaign. There is no reason why a government that chose to do as a crafty shaman said, and even promoted his peniya or syrup, touted as a cure for Covid-19, should not take the views of respected medical professionals on board and act accordingly.
All hat and no cattle
Monday 10th May, 2021
The global pandemic situation is far worse than it looks. The University of Washington estimates reveal that Covid-19 has snuffed out 6.9 million deaths across the globe, and this is more than double the officially reported number. Many countries are struggling to save lives, and shocking scenes of mass cremations in India and other such heartrending instances reported from Brazil, etc., must be weighing on the conscience of the global community heavily, but the response of the developed world to the pandemic has been appallingly slow and woefully inadequate. It is now engaged in a vaccine patent row to the neglect of what needs to be done urgently to save lives the world over. Pope Francis got it right, on Saturday, when he declared that the world was infected with the ‘virus of individualism’, and the ‘laws of intellectual property, etc., had taken precedence ‘over the laws of love and the health of humanity’. The world is facing a ‘catastrophic moral failure’ as Head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Tedros A. Ghebreyesus has said.
‘Vaccine nationalism’, which characterises the developed world’s pandemic response, is a major impediment to efforts being made to achieve global herd immunity against Covid-19 through vaccination, according to the WHO, which has called for the co-operation of the rich nations to carry out an equitable vaccine rollout across the globe. This fervent appeal has not yielded the desired results if the slow progress of COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) initiative is any indication. As vaccine donations have not reached a satisfactory level, the pandemic-hit countries have had to think of alternative ways of meeting their urgent vaccine needs. Hence their desperate call for lifting vaccine patents in the hope that such action will help boost the global jab production.
India and Brazil are among the nations that have urged the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to lift patents on the Covid-19 vaccines to boost the world’s fight against the virus. This proposal has struck a responsive chord with most countries, but some European nations are not favourably disposed towards it. They are reportedly in favour of a voluntary licensing system similar to the one between Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India. The proponents of this method of boosting global vaccine production in the short-term point out that the rich countries could make the licensing system mandatory for their pharmaceutical companies, which, however, will have to be compensated; the WTO regulations permit this kind of arrangement.
Opinion is however divided on the effectiveness of the proposed patent waiver. The opponents thereof argue that patents are necessary as they provide incentives and encourages innovation; this is the reason why Covid-19 vaccines have been produced in record time, they maintain. It is also being argued in some quarters that even if the patents are lifted, it will take a long time to commence vaccine production elsewhere. This argument cannot be dismissed as baseless in that there is much more to vaccine production than recipes. Supply chains have to be established, personnel trained, facilities made available and necessary processes set up. All these could be time-consuming. The world cannot wait as the virus keeps mutating and destroying more and more lives, and the only way to neutralise it is to inoculate as many people as possible across the world so as to achieve global herd immunity.
French President Emmanuel Macron has exuded pragmatism in addressing the issue of vaccine nationalism. He has urged the US to abolish its bans on the export of vaccines and ingredients so that other nations can supercharge their production.
The US has, despite initial reluctance, agreed to the proposal for lifting vaccine patents temporarily, but there are better options, as President Macron has pointed out. Being a nation that never misses an opportunity to take moral high ground, the US should put an end to its vaccine nationalism and part with some of its huge vaccine stockpiles, especially the AstraZeneca jab, which it does not use. It does not have to do so as charity; it can make available those vaccine stocks to other nations at reasonable prices. Sadly, it has so far been all mouth and no action; assistance in other forms in dribs and drabs is of little use in a pandemic situation.
The world is not short of crusaders for human rights, and they, led by the US, even ignore the concept of national sovereignty (of other countries) when they want to make interventions purportedly in keeping with the much-vaunted global political commitments such as R2P (Responsibility to Protect). But they stand accused of abusing these universal commitments to advance their geo-political and economic agendas. Nothing is more valuable to humans or any other species for that matter, than the right to life, and the current pandemic has provided the self-proclaimed defenders of human rights with an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives by making Covid-19 vaccines available, and, thereby establish their liberal bona fides, if any.
The developed world is labouring under the delusion that the safety of its people can be ensured through efficient vaccine rollouts at the expense of others, but there is no guarantee that immunity so gained will last for more than one year, according to international medical experts; nobody will be safe unless the virus is beaten, once and for all, through a truly global vaccination drive. The only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).
Big, bold strokes or hemin hemin?
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appears, is a firm believer in big, bold strokes in taking far-reaching policy decisions. The recent decision to immediately ban the import of inorganic (chemical) fertilizer is one such. According to reports two fertilizer shipments have already been turned away from our shores. However, stocks of previous imports, believed to be sufficient for short-term requirements are said to be available in the country. So there is a little time yet available to change track if that be the wisest course. Many reputed scientists have published articles in the Lankan press since the ban was first publicized urging that the decision be reconsidered, adducing seemingly valid reasons on why this should be done. There has been no reaction up to now to this request nor has there been credible refutation of the reasons offered by advocates of re-thinking the ban.
There is no doubt that a world without without widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be a better world in environmental terms. But it may also be a hungrier world. Much of the successes in global food production today is attributed to boosting crops by using inorganic fertilizers and protecting them with chemical pesticides. Genetic engineering too has contributed to increased production although there have been many warnings against interfering with nature in some of the ways attempted. However nobody objects to the practice of hybrid agriculture, common for many years, involving cross pollination of two different varieties of plants to get the best traits of the parents in the offspring. We in this country today are able to buy a variety of mango superior to what we were accustomed – though at a price of course – thanks to scientific advances in producing better quality fruit and grain. Older readers will remember a time when there were no seedless grapes that are abundant today.
Writing to a recent issue of The Island, Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry of the Peradeniya University, said an inorganic fertilizer ban will have a “devastating effect” on our economy. Nobody can quarrel with the president’s desire that we make do with compost fertilizer instead of utilizing scarce resources for importing chemical fertilizers issued to farmers at subsidized rates. But the scientific view is that compost alone cannot provide the macro-nutrients necessary for the healthy growth of crops. The president does not disagree with the contention that these inorganic soil supplements mean better crops and resultant better incomes. This applies not only to peasant farmers but also plantations. But he says they pollute waterways – as they no doubt do – and are suspected to cause kidney disease endemic in some agricultural areas. The bottom line according to the president’s thinking is that the cost to society of chemical fertilizer use outweighs the benefits.
The country is virtually self-sufficient in rice today although occasional imports are necessary to tide over temporary difficulties. This has been possible due to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture as well as the development of high yielding varieties such as the ‘miracle rice’ bred at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the sixties. All the pluses achieved would be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertilizer, Ileperuma has said. He agrees that there are positive effects, such as improving soil texture and providing some micro-nutrients. But he says that compost cannot entirely substitute the fertilizer requirements of the high yielding rice varieties now being grown here. That will obviously reduce the income of farmers and also necessitate rice imports to feed the people. The professor has also revealed – what many many may not have known – that rice from some countries, particularly Bangladesh, is laden with arsenic which is an extremely toxic element. As for the argument that inorganic fertilizers is the cause of kidney disease, there is scientific evidence that this is so. It is a suspicion at most and by no means an established fact.
A hemin hemin (slowly, slowly) approach is what is required at this moment. There must be intensive study of the relevant evidence, meticulous evaluation of the various costs and benefits before an ironclad decision to ban fertilizer imports is implemented. We must also look at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Have other countries, many with far better facilities than we can ever hope to match, taken decisions to totally ban the use of chemical fertilizers? What happens in large countries like China and India? When Rachel Carson wrote her celebrated Silent Spring over 50 years ago focusing largely on the negative effects of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT, the world woke up to the dangers that President Rajapaksa has brought to the forefront of our national agenda. But can we forget that we eliminated the scourge of malaria which cost our country hugely in the thirties by using DDT? Very much later we shifted to the less harmful malathion.
There was also the recent decision to ban the import of palm oil which was amended after its impact on the bakery industry surfaced. Whether we will go ahead with the decision to ban cultivation of oil palm, believed by some to guzzle ground water at an unsustainable rate and replant existing plantations with rubber, will be implemented remains to be seen. The big, bold strokes that the president favours undoubtedly helped end our 30-year civil war during his tenure as Defence Secretary. But whether a hasty ban on fertilizer imports, in the teeth of the many dangers highlighted, will have a similar beneficial impact, remains doubtful.
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