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Agriculture and misinformation pandemic

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An Open Letter to President
Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Your Excellency,

Your recent endeavor to ‘rush’ the country from conventional farming to total organic farming, compelled me to write this letter to give a balanced view of the issues at stake. I should on the outset say that no well – informed agricultural scientists is against organic agriculture knowing the benefits of organic matter in the improvement of the physical, chemical and microbial properties of the soil which are critically important for sustained and productive crop production. However, the large majority of them are concerned about the possible negative consequence of substantially decreased productivity, leading even to hunger and starvation, if the mission is not based on achievable goals.

If you are driven for organic farming because of the negative aspects of conventional farming such as environmental pollution and human health; from an economic and sustainability perspectives, correcting the negative aspects of the latter and continuing with it should be far more beneficial, because organic farming is not devoid of those negatives.

Please consider the following:

 

1. The global organic farming scenario

Organic farming is confined to 1.5% the total global farmlands of which 66% is in pasture, and a mere 16 countries have achieved over 10% organic cover. Bhutan, for example, with access to substantial organic material such as leaf litter and farmyard manure, on account of its huge forest cover and animal population, set a target in2008 to reach 100% organic by 2020.The organic movement was supported by the royalty and the government. The country with a total area of 763,000 square kilometers has only 8% arable land. However, it was able to achieve only 10% of the target; and now the target date has been extended to 2035! It is critically important to review the global scenario before rushing into any decision.

 

2. The Taskforce.

A few days ago the ‘organic taskforce’ you have appointed, some 40 odd people, bulk of them politicians,, met you, but a notable omission from it appears to be the senior scientists from the agricultural research and development institutions and the leading academics from the universities in the field. Of course there were several of the die- hard ‘organic tribe’ therein! Interestingly, one of them was reported, some years ago, claiming to have discovered a ‘swayanjatha’ wee( a ‘self-generated’ rice variety ) that fed the ‘dasa maha yodayas’ (the ten warriors) of king Dutugamunu. It was later identified as a sorghum variety by the rice scientists of the Agriculture Department! And the other was reported in a Sinhala newspaper as having said that the weed killer glyphosate ‘even dissolved reservoir bunds, and what talk of kidneys’! He claimed that glyphosate was an etiolating agent of the Rajarata kidney disease but it has now been totally disproved! So the quality of some scientists you have appointed is questionable! You should, ideally have a balanced team of proven agricultural and other experts in the taskforce in the relevant fields to seek tangible views on the feasibility of achieving your objective; and accordingly an action plan within a realistic time frame should be drawn. The large majority of agricultural scientists are for promotion of organic farming as far as feasible, but is of the firm view that no country can go fully organic in the current context of population expansion and increasing demand for food from the existing farmlands. Several expert calculations reveal that without chemical fertilizers half the global population cannot exist!

3. The‘Wasa visa’pandemic

The masses have been gravely mislead by the connotation ‘wasa visa’ for any agrochemically- grown produce. The misinformation has spread like a pandemic! Apart from others, some of the key ministers are to be blamed for this fiasco and misleading the masses. For example, Hon. Chamal Rajapaksa, then Minister of Agriculture and Mahaweli Development, addressing farmers in Embilipitiya last year, had remarked that Sri Lanka is the country ‘consuming the highest quantities of ‘wasa visa’ in the world by way of agrochemical residues! Not to be undone, Hon. Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister of Environment recently remarked that our water bodies are highly polluted with agrochemicals. Surely, they should have sought advice and information from their officials before making faulty utterances. The evidence in the Tables attached below do not support their views. Then Dr Padeniya, a Pediatrician and strong supporter of organic farming has often claimed that agrochemicals are responsible for many of the non-communicable diseases. Can he provide evidence as to what the agrochemicals are and the associated diseases? He is also an ardent promoter of traditional rice varieties, purportedly because of some nutritional benefits. He was unaware of the fact that they yield less than half of our new improved varieties, and that some of the latter have many of the nutritional and health benefits of the old varieties! Anyway, the prime function of the staple is to provide the energy, and those nutritional and health benefits are easily obtainable from the other foods. Combining his prescription of organic farming with traditional varieties will decrease our national rice production to less than half, needless to say with dire consequences!

Sources: www.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.COM.Fert.2S; https//www.worldometers.info

As per the World Bank data in Table 1, we consume far less fertilizers and pesticides, than most countries in the region. Table 2 shows that after 2002, Sri Lanka has reduced by as much as 98%, the use of the most toxic pesticides of Classes 1, and substantially increased the use of less toxic pesticides.

 

Source: Dept. of Agriculture

On the whole, the pesticide residue levels reported, are not alarming as evident from Table 3. However, there should be a strong division within the Central Environmental Authority or under the Health Ministry that regularly monitor pesticides in the food and environment, establish tolerance limits, and at the same time, be responsible for enforcing the tolerance limits in the food and environment. Such effective and regular services are sadly lacking in Sri Lanka and should be of highest priority.

This is not to say that everything is ‘hunky dory’ with conventional farming. Misuse of agrochemicals is a serious concern, and this subject will be examined later.

 

4. CKDu-agrochemical myth

Then there is the other widespread myth of agrochemicals causing the kidney disease of the Rajarata. Regrettably, a 2013 WHO Report on the matter stated that several pesticides were above reference levels in the urine of CKDu patients and some of them are nephrotoxic (toxic to kidneys) implicating pesticides in the causation of CKDu . Surprisingly the Report did not have the pesticide residue data of people in the non-CKDu (Hambantota) area. However, subsequent re-analysis of the data (see Table 4) revealed that their urine had more than double or treble the pesticide residue levels compared to that of CKDu subjects! So agrochemicals are most unlikely to be the cause.

Table 4

Then, the International Consultation on CKDu that was held in 2016 in Sri Lanka, in its Final Report stated that there was no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of CKDu.

The most convincing finding was that people who drank water from the reservoirs, rivers and wells in the plains did not contaminate the disease, whereas those who consumed water from dug wells on high ground did so. It was dramatically established by the finding from two adjoining villages in Girandhurukotte, namely, Ginnoruwa on high ground and the other, Sarabhumi, in the plain, the people of the latter who drank water from the river or adjoining wells did not contaminate the disease, whereas those from the former village who exclusively consumed well water did! It was subsequently established that the hard water and high fluoride contents in those wells were responsible for causation of the disease. Eventually when these people stopped drinking well water but harvested rain water, no new cases of the disease were reported! In addition, research of the Medical Faculty , Peradeniya University with rats fed water from these wells as against distilled water, contaminated the disease! So agrochemicals are not the aetiolating agent of CKDu!

 

4. Agrochemicals & their misuse

Hardly any chemical fertilizer is harmful to human health and to other living organisms if its quality conforms to specified safe standards and used in the correct amounts. It is excess use of fertilizer that can be harmful. Chemical fertilizer has been used successfully by all countries for almost two centuries to meet their food demand, and countries moved away from organic farming as it could not produce it. We are not aware of a single country that has banned use of chemical fertilizers or of contemplating such action at this point of time. Furthermore, if we ban chemical fertilizers to protect our people from consuming toxins, we should also ban importation of wheat flour from Canada, milk powder from New Zealand and chilli, onion and masoor dahl from India and Pakistan as these countries use chemical fertilizers liberally.

The real problem with agrochemicals is their misuse. Most farmers work on the premise that more is better! An outstanding local example of this is the rampant excessive use of fertilizers by vegetable growers, especially the potato farmers, who use 5-10 times the recommended quantities of fertilizer. The excess fertilizer via erosion and leaching ends up in the downstream lakes in the Rajarata causing algal booms which interfere with water use, and also secrete toxins which are reported to damage the liver and kidneys. Misuse of pesticides is probably a more serious problem. An FAO study conducted in Indonesia, Sweden and Canada many years ago established that 50-60 percent of the pesticide used can be cut down without loss of crop.

What is critically needed is exhaustive training of farmers and the extension workers in the judicious use of agrochemicals. Sadly, the farmers get their instructions from the agrochemical sellers in the villages and not extension workers. The extension services deteriorated following its provincilization, and strengthening this service as also the research and development systems in the country is critically needed. These are matters the government should address as a matter of highest priority rather than switching to organic farming!

 

5. The unsaid side of organic farming.

Some of the products used in organic farming are as toxic as conventional agrochemicals. Sodium nitrate used in organic farming as a nitrogen fertilizer is mined in South America. It carries highly toxic sodium perchlorate as an impurity, which is known to enter the soil and water bodies. Then, sulphur, copper and copper sulphate are toxins for pests allowed for use in organic farmlands and the latter is a Class 1 toxin, which can also bio-accumulate.

Further, as large amounts of farmyard manure and other organic material of the order of 20-30 tonnes/ha are added seasonally, much larger quantities of heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead can enter the soil than through chemical fertilizer.

Further, rotenone and pyrethrum being natural pesticides are used in organic farming. However, rotenone is suspected to cause Parkinson’s disease and pyrethrum is carcinogenic. In short, natural pesticides can be as toxic as synthetic ones.

A serious problem with organic agriculture is the surreptitious mixing of chemical insecticides with organic ones. Some time ago, Prof. Nioki Motoyama of the University of Tokyo, showed that eight of the so-called organic pesticides in the market, contained abemectin and other highly toxic chemical pesticides.

So, when expanded on a national scale organic farming can lead to as many problems of the same scale as conventional!

Non-agricultural environmental pollution

It is regrettable that hardly any attention has been paid to air and other non-agricultural pollution issues which can be as serious as agricultural pollution. Significant pollution with increased industrial and population growth is obvious. For example, release of toxins from coal power plants locally is substantial. About 3 tons of mercury, 2 tons of arsenic, 2.9 tons of chromium and 5.7 tons of lead are reported to be spewed out annually from them.

Waterways are getting increasingly polluted with human sewage, and air pollution within cities such as Colombo and Kandy, especially with regard to ozone gas and fine particles, is a serious problem not addressed. The quality of air we breathe not only affects the health of our lungs but also other organs!

Motor vehicles have increased 20 times over the last thirty years of which the three wheeler increase is the highest being 88 fold! Thus, the importance of overall environmental pollution control cannot be overstressed.

 

Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha



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Opinion

Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady

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I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.

NIHAL DE ALWIS

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Opinion

Independence celebrations for whose benefit?

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Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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Opinion

Aftermath Of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne’s Assassination

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It was on Saturday March 2, 1991 when that fateful LTTE bomb blast shattered the life out of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, Minister of Plantations and Deputy Minister of Defence, in front of the Havelock Road University Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha.

Mr. Wijeratne used to take the same route from home to office every day. The LTTE had monitored his movements and found that it would be easy to target him on his way to office from a strategic point after receiving the information of his departure from home.

The LTTE targeted his vehicle right in front of the University of Colombo Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha. The suicide bomber crashed into the Deputy Minister’s vehicle and killed the Minister instantaneously.

I had dropped our elder son at Royal College for scouting and then went to the public library to return some books and borrow new ones. After having done that, I was returning home when I saw a large cloud of black smoke going up from somewhere on Havelock Road. As I neared Thummulla junction, a university vehicle (I was Registrar of the Colombo University) was going in the opposite direction.

I stopped it and asked the driver what had happened. He said the Shanthi Vihar restaurant at the Thummulla had been set on fire. The police did not allow vehicles into Havelock Road from Thummulla. I parked the car on Reid Avenue between Thummulla and Lauries Road and walked down the Havleock Road to see what exactly had happened.

As I got onto Havelock Road, a policeman accosted me and told me that I cannot be allowed to proceed. Fortunately, at that moment the OIC of the Bamabalapitiya Police station, Mr. Angunawela, came to that spot and recognizing me told the police constable to allow me to proceed.

As I walked down I saw the damage caused. But there were no signs of any vehicle or any dead bodies as the police had got everything removed. There was a large gaping hole on the road where the blast had occurred. But immediately this was filled up and that section of the road carpeted.

I do not know who had ordered it and why it was done in such a hurry. There were pieces of human flesh hanging from the overhead telephone wires. The blast had also affected the house in front where there was a P& S outlet and a lady who had come to buy something had got her eyes blinded by the shrapnel thrown by the blast.

The parapet wall and the Temple flower (araliya) trees that had been grown just behind the wall were all gone. As I went into the hostel, I saw that the front wall of the hostel building badly damaged. When I went in the girls in the hostel were looking terrified and shivering with fright.

Two of the undergraduates who had gone out of the hostel as they had to sit an examination in the university had got very badly injured and they been rushed to the national hospital. Later one girl who was from Kobeigane, a remote village in the Kurunegala area, succumbed to her injuries. The university paid for her funeral. The security guard who had been close to the gate was thrown up and landed back on the ground. Fortunately, he had no injuries other than feeling groggy.

The next job was to evacuate the hostelers from the building. I telephoned the university office and found the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of examinations was in office. I told her what had happened and to come to the hostel in a van. Thereafter both she and I packed all the hostelers in the van and sent them to the Bullers Lane Women’s hostel. This was done in three trips.

On inspecting the damage done to the hostel I thought the building would have to be demolished and a new building constructed to replace it. However, I contacted an Engineer, Mr. Upasena, at the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB,) who came, inspected the damage to the building and stated that he will get it repaired to be stronger than what it was.

He stated that it might cost around Rs, 20,000/- to get the repair done. I contacted NORAD and they agreed to give the funds required for the repair and renovation. Mr. Manickam from NORAD came and inspected the building and agreed to get much more done than what we wanted repaired and renovated. The repair and renovation were done very quickly and the hostelers were able to move in again.

The reopening ceremony was attended by the then Ambassador to Norway, Mr. Manickam and the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice- Chancellor thanked the Ambassador, Mr. Manickam and the CECB for getting the hostel repaired and renovated to be used again. He never mentioned what I had done to get this hostel repaired and habitable again. That is gratitude!

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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