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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

Nelum Kuluna poses danger to aircraft

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The top of Nelum Kuluna (Lotus Tower) stands 350 above sea level in the heart of Colombo City, as the air navigators of old would say, sticking out like a ’sore thumb’. It has to be lit up in accordance with the Aircraft Obstacle Lighting recommendations contained in Annex 14 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Convention originally signed by Ceylon in 1944.

A free-standing tower of that height is required by international law to be lit up not only at night with red lights, but also with high visibility white strobe lights during the day.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be on always during the day. The authorities concerned must realise that the strobe lighting during the day is not for beauty but for air safety, especially these days, when the air quality and visibility are low during the day.

Have those in charge of the tower been briefed properly on the legal requirement and the use of proper lighting? In case of an accident, this certainly will have implications on insurance claims.

I wonder whether the ‘Regulator’, Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka would like to comment.

If not rectified, it will be just a matter of time an aircraft will be impaled by the Nelum Kuluna.

I M Nervy (Aviator)

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Opinion

Simple questions to Sirisena and Gotabaya

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If Sirisena had not been informed of the plans to explode bombs on 21st of April 2019, as he has claimed, shouldn’t he have taken immediate action to call for explanation from Nilantha Jayawardena, then head of State Intelligent Service (SIS), who had been notified several times about the impending attack by the Indian intelligence.

Sirisena and Jayawardena should be prosecuted for allowing a mass murder to take place. Further Sirisena should be made to explain his famous uttering, “I will reveal everything, if somebody tries to implicate me”.

Why did Gotabaya, who announced his candidature for presidency almost immediately after the Easter Sunday attack and promised to punish those who were involved in it, pay no attention to Nilantha Jayawardena’s failure in taking necessary action with regard to information he received, instead he was given a promotion?

President Ranil Wickremesinghe at a meeting with USAID Administrator Samantha Power on September 11, 2022 had said that Scotland Yard had been requested to review the reports and reach a final conclusion on claims that there was a hidden hand behind the bombings.

We do not need Scotland Yard, just get an honest set of Sri Lankan police officers to question Nilantha, Sirisena and Gotabaya to find the “hidden hand behind the bombings”

B Perera

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Opinion

Open letter to Sirisena

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Y you were in Singapore when the Easter Sunday attacks took place. You claimed that you had not been informed of the intelligence received by your intelligence officers. However, the Supreme Court has ordered you to pay Rs 100M as compensation to the victims of the terror attacks. The reasons for the decision are stated in the judgement.

Acting on a claim that there was a conspiracy to assassinate you and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya you caused the interdiction and arrest of DIG Nalaka Silva, who was held in custody without bail for a long time.

In his testimony to the Presidential Commission  of Inquiry, Silva said that he had been interdicted while plans were in place to arrest Zaharan.

Due to the arrest of DIG Silva, Zaharan escaped arrest. Silva was never charged. Zaharan continued with his plans and the rest is history.

After the SC order you have been claiming that you have no money to pay the Rs 100M as compensation. You are asking for public help to pay compensation to Easter carnage victims. You even accepted some money collected by a person called Sudaththa Tilakasiri, who begged from people.

You have said publicly that you submitted your asset declarations. I suggest that you sell all your assets declared in the declarations before asking for funds from the public.

Hemal Perera

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