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Agrochemical ban: Heading for national disaster?

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By Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

 

The President’s decision to shift totally to organic agriculture, from conventional, could lead to widespread hunger and starvation as it happened in Cuba in the 1990s. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands of which 66% is pasture. The world moved away from organic farming towards conventional (chemical) farming from the mid-19th century as the former could not support the rapidly growing global population then. If so, could it do so now?

 

The farmers should be thrilled hearing the President’s pronouncement at a media briefing a few days ago, that instead of the chemical fertilizer subsidy, they will receive cash donations. Basil Rajapaksa added that cash donations will be received without the hassle of red tape! So ‘money for jam’!

The truth is that the government is in a financial crisis for the debt to GDP ratio that stood at 94% in 2019, and was expected to rise to 110% in 2020. It is projected to grow in the succeeding years, ending at 120% by 2023. The decision to ban agrochemicals and move to organics, saving fertilizer costs and subsidies, is obviously because of this economic crunch!

With the money farmers receive, they have to make their own organic fertilizer! All that needs to be done is collecting the elephant dung, now freely available on their farms, with the frequent visits of the elephants, adding some tree lopping and straw and making enough organic fertilizer, at least for a small plot of crops to feed the family. Forget about the national food demand!

The President even boasted with a smile that Mother Lanka is going to be the first country going 100% organic! It is sad that he has failed to seek appropriate professional advice, before rushing into this decision. He should have also investigated the failure of the Yahapalana ‘Toxin-fee agriculture’ project, before doing so.

The global picture

‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’! The total world extent, under organic farming, yet remains at about 1.5% of the total farm lands. Of this, two thirds are grasslands, only 19% arable crops and 8% horticultural crops. Organic farming is thus a minor phenomenon in many countries, and is yet a long way from feeding the nations.

Only 16 countries of the world have more than 10% of the land in organic agriculture, but in many of them bulk of the extents is in pasture, for the rich to eat organic beef steak! There has also been marginal decreases in extents in India and China for want of organic fertilizers, some farmers reverting to conventional farming.

Several studies have shown that the world population supportable without synthetic fertilizer is only just over 50% of the total. Vaclav Smil, ( Distinguished Professor, University of Manitoba) in 1999 estimated that 40% of the then (1999) global population of 6 billion people were alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia, the raw material for urea fertilizer.

The President should have at least considered a five-year phased out programme, to move away gradually from conventional agriculture, training farmers in organic farming technologies, not that it will succeed! Sadly, he is making the same mistake he did with the palm oil cultivation ban.

There too he failed to seek the advice of at least the organization mandated for research and development on oil palm, the Coconut Research Institute. It would also appear that he has not had a meaningful discussion with the Department of Agriculture and other agricultural research Institutes, before taking this high-handed decision.

In fact, some high officials in the Agriculture Department and Ministry lamented that their advice has gone unheeded, and, according to them, although the Agriculture Minister has come out supporting the President, his personal view is against the decision!

The country also should have a professional body, like the Planning Commission of India, with high calibre professionals and other experts to advise the government on national policy matters. Premier Narendra Modi has gone ahead further revising and re-naming it as the National Technology Commission.

Yahapalana

failed Organic Agriculture Drive

The Yahapalana government, at the behest of President Maithripala Sirisena, vehemently supported by Ven. Ratana, went pell-mell into organic farming under the so-called ‘Toxin-Free Nation’ mission. They set up office at the Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA), and many organic farming projects were initiated across the country. Ven Ratana, however, did not appear to know the basic principles of scientific agriculture for, on one occasion, he contributed to an article in a Sinhala newspaper titled “Kale wawenne pohora yoda da?” (“Do forests grow with applied fertilizer”)!

Anyway, he was a prominent figure, seated with the current President, when the latter made the fertilizer policy announcement a few days ago.

In addition to the countrywide projects on organic fertilizer, an organic fertilizer manufacturing centre was set up at the Agricultural Research Centre, Makandura. Two organic fertilizer concoctions were also made by Ven. Ratana in a factory in Jayanthipura. As crops did not respond to these fertilizers, the farmers who used them had surreptitiously applied chemical fertilizer as they had to sell the produce as the organic!

The offered technologies and support was hardly taken up by the farmers, and the project was a total failure, and before the 2020 Presidential Election, President Sirisena closed it down, Before rushing into organic agriculture, the President should have at least investigated what went wrong with the Yapahalana project.

 

The Cuban example

The Cuban agriculture, as at present, has often been quoted as an example of the feasibility of switching over to organic farming, or ecological agriculture. Cuba was, in fact, compelled to go organic! That was a consequence of the collapse of its economy, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1989, and its total suspension of aid to Cuba. Cuba was nearly totally dependent on the USSR for its agrochemicals, fuel, agricultural machinery and equipment. Moreover, it had very favourable trade terms with the USSR, such as selling sugar to the USSR at five times the world price! The collapse of the Cuban economy drove the Cuban peasantry to near starvation with the per capita calorie intake dropping from 2900 to 1200 calories. These circumstances saw the end of the high chemical input agriculture policy of Cuba, and in the proceeding so-called ‘special period’ (see Table 1), major revisions to the land policy resulting in much of the state-owned farmlands being distributed among the peasantry. Substantial emphasis was also placed on agro-ecological concepts of farming: the use of nitrogen fixing and other microbial technologies, bio-fertilizers and crop rotations. These approaches to some degree mitigated the decline in crop productivity in the absence of chemical inputs. The concurrent development of urban agriculture, where all cultivable lands in the cities and suburbs were farmed, was unprecedented. The urban farms produced adequate fruits and vegetables for the cities. Perhaps the most admirable technology development was in biopesticides and other biological control methods of pests and diseases. Cuba now has over 200 centres called CREES for the production of pest control microbial agents across the country, run largely by qualified children of farmers. Fidel Castro himself was promoting these activities. Sri Lanka should benefit from learning these technologies from Cuba.

Despite all these endeavours, it is evident from the data in Table 2 that the nutrient supply was inadequate to produce optimal yields. The yield of rice, for example, a major staple of the Cuban diet, was comparable with that of Sri Lanka during the ‘Green Revolution period’ when chemical fertilizers were used. However, during the so-called ‘Special Period’ when agroecological farming technologies were introduced and the ‘Reanimation Period’, when these technologies were in full operation and stabilized, the comparative rice yields were lower than that of Sri Lanka. Similarly, yield of sugarcane, one of Cuba’s main export income earners, decreased considerably despite the new technology application and was 43% less in the 2008-2010 period, as against the period of the green revolution, when chemical fertilizers were liberally used.

Cuba had the large comparative advantage as against Sri Lanka in that it is nearly twice the size of Sri Lanka, but has half its population, implying that its land-man ratio is four times ours. Of the agricultural soils, 40% are highly fertile. These facts tell a lot as to how Cuba survived the crisis and managed to feed its people in some manner despite the lack of chemical inputs. Over the last two decades, Cuba has gradually increased using chemical fertilizers and now consumes about 50kg/ha/yr (2016 data) as against Sri Lanka’s 138Kg. And Cuba has its own glyphosate manufacturing factory!

 

Table 1. Comparative national crop yields (t/ha)

Source: FAOSTAT

 

Transition from Organic to Conventional (Chemical ) Farming

 

The transition from traditional agriculture where fertilizer comprised essentially farmyard manure (FYM) and green manures, to conventional agriculture (CF), as we know it today, took place in the mid-19th century with two groundbreaking inventions, the synthesis of soluble (super) phosphate and chemical nitrogenous fertilizer by two great scientists. One was John Lawes (1814 to 1900), an Englishman, who was later knighted. The other was a German, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Lawes’ invention of soluble phosphate was considered as a one of the greatest inventions in agricultural chemistry. Liebig was an outstanding chemist and a professor in the subject. He discovered nitrogen as a plant nutrient, apart from many other inventions such as chloroform. In 1909, another great German scientist, Fritz Haber, successfully synthesized ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, which revolutionized the production of commercial nitrogenous fertilizers.

These inventions, and the rapidly growing knowledge then in plant chemistry, lead to the substitution of natural dung with chemical fertilizer. The third important element, potassium, was provided largely by potash, a substance that had been known from antiquity. It has been said that without these inventions, the industrial countries of Western Europe could not have supported the dense population growth of the 19th century. Sir John Russell (1942) a reputed British Soil Chemist, in an article titled British Agriculture states that: “it is difficult for us in this distance in time to recapture the feelings with which the farmers received the information that a powder made in a factory and applied out of a bag at the rate of only a few hundred weights per acre could possibly act as well as farmyard manure put on the land as dressings of tons per acre”. This is ironically the fundamental question that we should ask. Is there adequate organic matter to meet the nutrient demands of crops, on a global scale today, if it was not so then?

Environmental pollution

Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution, not that organic farming is innocent! Heavy metal pollution and release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming. In Sri Lanka and other third world countries, an overwhelming issue is the indiscriminate and overuse of agrochemicals. The case of serious phosphate pollution of water bodies in the Rajarata, due to profligate and wonton use of phosphate fertilizer is a classic example. The vegetable farmers in the hill country are applying 5-10 times the recommended dose, leading to serious P pollution of water bodies downstream in the Rajarata.

As regards pesticides, their Judicious use with appropriate safety measures should greatly mitigate pesticide pollution. Some programmes in Sweden, Canada and Indonesia have demonstrated that pesticide use can often be reduced without loss of crop by as much as 50 to 60%. Over the last half century, there has been a gradual shift from highly toxic pesticides to less toxic ones; and the process continues. There is also now wider recourse to biopesticides and integrated pest management. The problem, however, is that the pests mutate into more virulent forms faster than the invention of remedies.

There have also been reports of pesticides detected in alternative (fake) crop protectants (so-called herbal formulations) recommended for organic farming . Dr Naoki Motoyama (Tokyo University of Agriculture – 2012) has reported the detection of at least eight toxic pesticides including Abamectin (LD50 = 10mg/kg), an insecticide, in the organic herbal formulations!

In conclusion, the advantage with inorganic fertilizers is that the exacting requirements of nutrients to crops can be provided as individual chemicals or mixtures, because crops differ in their nutrient requirements. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilizers as against chemical fertilizers, is the improvement of soil physical, chemical and biological properties by the former which is important for sustained crop productivity. Appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilizers can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and is the best option!

Although theoretical claims are made that organic agriculture can feed the world, organic matter is a constraint, and far more technologies such as microbial ones that can be widely applied need to be developed before that could happen.

Judicious and safe use of agricultural inputs is also a critical need of the day. This requires comprehensive farmer education and training, and regular monitoring of the environment for pollutants for corrective action. Is Sri Lanka equal to the task?



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Opinion

What went wrong?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?

Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”

Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.

If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.

It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.

Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.

What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.

Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?

We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!

All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!

The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!

We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.

It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!

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Opinion

The Organic Ideal – Killing Two Birds with One Stone!

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By I.P.C. MENDIS

The government has very boldly embarked on a long-delayed project of transforming our agricultural habits of heavy dependence on harmful chemical fertiliser to the old method of organic fertilisation. The chemical fertiliser lobby is as strong, if not stronger than the pharmaceutical one. The life story of Dr Senake Bibile speaks for itself! As for the fertiliser lobby, some decades ago, a high-up in a media institution confided in me how he was compelled to jettison his media campaign against chemical fertiliser, about which he was very forcefully using his pen through immense pressure brought about by the strong lobby.

Quite apart from the international connections, please permit the writer to relate a personal experience he had with a media institution, where a certain article he wrote, very much irked a then local high-profile businessman, almost ruling the roost at the time, where this powerful personality had come down hard on the Head of the media institution, threatening to withdraw his advertising budget of sizeable proportion! To the eternal credit of the Editor, he did not join his Boss who had decided to call on the irate customer (Head of a mighty Group then, mind you) who thought he had a right to intervene and control its media policy.

Being privy to the immense power, these lobbies wield, and how they will use it to sabotage any effort which would undermine their business interests, notwithstanding public and human interests, it would be utterly puerile, and even foolish, to confront them in any meaningful way, if political interests are to take precedence. Their money power and influence are capable of winning over, not only sections of the population, but also politicians. Governments can be toppled in the process.

The defeated forces have now received some oxygen, and we see even the high and mighty, who were sent reeling home at the polls, attempting to make their presence felt. There is everything which points to financing by the fertiliser lobby, against the organic fertiliser issue. It is left for the government to be wise about such and other possibilities, when steering on the drive towards its laudable goal. The government failed to rope in the hoarders of rice, despite its rhetoric, and now they are faced with a similar situation in the fertiliser shortage. The remedies the government suggests seem to be worse than the disease. People are sick and tired of seeing any government playing politics, and attempting to find solutions which would please the electorate or business interests, rather than what is needed, and good for the country. To hell with the next election and commission agents; people will rally round results eventually. It has the battle against the LTTE as a feather in the cap. 

Two birds with one stone 

While on the subject of organic fertiliser, the writer wishes to draw the attention of the authorities to the vast acreage of waterways, rivers and canals, covered and infested with water-based plants, like “Japan Jabara’ (water hyacinth) and other odd plants., causing, inter alia, a huge health hazard. This clogging has almost diminished, or made extinct, the fish concentrations, and adversely affected a popular inland fisheries network and breeding of new varieties. This can be a source of nutrition to a vast number of people in villages, and contribute towards employment, too. The water plants thus removed could be tested for their various properties, which could contribute in no small measure to the preparation of organic fertiliser, using it as a cost-effective input to the preparation of organic fertiliser. If I remember right, some research is already available in this regard. It is reported that some outfits have already been lined up to prepare organic fertilizer. These companies, or outfits, can do the clearing and preparation at their own cost, which could be far cheaper than importing organic fertiliser, or importing certain ingredients to manufacture the final product. Some of it could possibly be diverted to the Energy sector. Side by side, farmers can be mobilised to prepare their own needs, or part of them.

How about it, Mr President and Mr Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services?

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Opinion

More on ‘Hi Machan’

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I wish to add my two cents to the above-mentioned article, well versed by MA Kaleel of Kalmunai in The Island of 10/5/21. I really don’t know whether he was in a university, either here or abroad, since some of the descriptions are mainly confined to the University vocabulary.

I wish to deal with some events from my University (Peradeniya) days where the word Machan had some relationship. The first episode was when a fellow student’s late father came to visit him at the Wijewardena Hall. The bathrooms, in the hall, at that time, were similar to a barber’s shop, where the door was used to hang the towel, until the bathing was finished. One day, a student was bathing in one of the cubicles, having hung the towel on the door. Someone shouted ‘Machan, your father has come to see you’. In his haste to meet him, he has forgotten the towel which was anyway not there, probably hidden by some of his Machans. This was a regular feature in the boys’ halls of residence. When he entered the room, in his birthday suit, his father was seated chatting with his roommate (who I think was a co-conspirator) . His father could only say Putha and he never repeated that act.

Dealing with the use of the word is confined only to males. I beg to disagree, since I have heard such conversations with my own ears, particularly if one lives close to a Hall of residence. (As to what a male student was doing in a female hall of residence is another story!)

When one studies in a University, with several disciplines, the word machan is very handy. When I returned to Sri Lanka, having completed my postgraduate studies, I had to obtain special permission to clear our baggage (including that of my wife). The clerk indicated that I would have to pay a hefty demurrage. Then I saw a gentleman, peeping through a glass door, and, lo and behold, he was the Commissioner of Customs, another machan Peradeniya. Everything was cleared in a few minutes. There are several such incidents where our sojourn at Peradeniya helped us in various ways. All these gentlemen were machans in the campus and I hear that the tradition is still maintained, but at a lower scale.

 

Dr. UPALI ILLANGASEKERA

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