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Are we making rational decisions in the rice sector?

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By M. P. Dhanapala

Agrochemicals, including chemical fertilisers, are to be replaced by non-toxic organic manure and other environmentally-friendly products, based on the expert advice that the modern agricultural products are toxic due to indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. An example frequently cited was the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) of unknown origin in the North Central Province. Also, some critics insist that those who promote agrochemicals are rewarded by multinational companies involved in the agrochemical industry.

As a result, agrochemicals, in agriculture, have become a topic, debated in public media by policymakers, their advisors, specialist doctors, university professors, professionals of organic agriculture, scientists, politicians and leaders of farmer organisations. The above-mentioned allegations were refuted as inaccurate, inconclusive and unscientific (Pethiyagoda, R., YouTube seminar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGe6ld2q1vs).

According to some scientists, the causal agent of CKDu was concluded as high concentration of Fluoride ion (Fl-) in drinking water. As a rice scientist, some issues bother me in this whole dispute; especially in the area of chemical fertiliser, the most indispensable, one and only input, that increases the productivity of crops.

Rice farming is the least remunerative of all occupations in Sri Lanka; the farmers in the past were involved in rice farming because of the social dignity, the pride of not consuming imported rice (Beven, 1914, Tropical Agriculturist, 1914 Dec.). Also, farming is considered an independent profession; the fact that one has to pay respect when dealing with the farming community.

Organic manure issue

Some critics insist that we have lost the organic manure technology practised 3000 years ago; probably a documentation failure. It would be great if we could recover the old technology from somewhere. However, in the recent past, as documented in the scientific journal ‘Tropical Agriculturist’, incorporation of bulk organic matter was recommended as early as 1914 for rice fields to circumvent disintegration and deterioration of soil structure, due to puddling during land preparation (Harrison, 1914). The nutritional status of the organic material concerned was not quantified or discussed. This recommendation was made during the British era, around the inception of the Department of Agriculture, and it is valid even today.

In the 1940s, farmers did cultivate traditional varieties with green manure, farmyard manure, compost, soybean cake and fishmeal, as organic manure but no specific recommendations were recorded. The targeted rice yield then was 15 bushels per acre (0.75 tons per hectare) but realised only a national average of less than 13 bushels per acre (< 0.65 t/ha). The government then had to import two-thirds of the rice requirement of the country to feed the population (Tropical Agriculturist, 1945 July – Sept.). The rice ration book continued till the modern varieties were developed and established. The present day advisors and policymakers may be unaware of or have ignored the rice ration book, each citizen had, with 52 weekly stamps, to obtain the imported (millcharred/white raw) rice ration from the nearby cooperative shop.

Incorporation of paddy straw into fields was emphasised, just before the turn of the Century, to sustain soil fertility and organic content of the soil, especially when the cropping intensity increased with the release of high potential short-duration rice varieties. This recommendation was complemented with site-specific soil test-based fertiliser recommendations, using the regional recommendations as guidelines, to prevent indiscriminate use of fertiliser. Also, the researchers were vigilant to keep the high organic soils with poor and impeded drainage (wet zone) devoid of organic manure while taking precautions to prevent straw or crop residue from becoming a primary inoculum of diseases.

Organic manure no doubt improves the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Organic manure has colloids, composed of protein-rich material with negatively charged amino acids, and help to build up the soil structure and Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) thus improving the nutrient retention power of the soil. Organic manures are not known as rich sources of plant nutrients. The nutrient contents and efficiency of different sources of organic manure are shown in Table 1.

The nutrient content of organic manure from the above-mentioned sources in Sri Lanka cannot be significantly different from values in Table 1, unless some other additives had been incorporated in the process of manufacture.

Now, let us consider the nutrient recommendation for the most popular group of rice varieties (3.5-month) grown under irrigation in the dry zone. The present recommendation per hectare is 105 kg Nitrogen (N), 25 kg Phosphorus (P2O5) and 35 kg of Potash (K2O) (Page 15, Fertilizer Recommendation for Rice, Department of Agriculture, 2013). As an example, we will examine the requirement of the most controversial nutrient component, nitrogen (N), in this recommendation. To meet this N requirement, the farmer should have around 13 tons of moisture-free compost (0.8 percent N) for one hectare of land, assuming that the harvested straw of the previous season is not incorporated into the soil. If the compost available has 20 percent moisture, this figure would be a little more than 16 tons. The farmer then will have to pay for and carry in the field a little more than three tons of water on his back for every hectare of rice land cultivated. Additionally, there are peak requirements of N at different growth stages of the crop to promote yield components of the plant. The compost, once applied, will release N consistently, irrespective of the peak requirements of the crop growth stages and may continue this process even beyond the lifespan of the crop as long as the mineralisation process continues. This example may be too much of an exaggeration, but the advisors, or policymakers, should know how inappropriate it is, to substitute a technology, more relevant for home gardening, for extensive paddy cultivation; this probably will be the reason behind the denial of compost culture by commercially-oriented rice cultivators. Besides, it is unethical to force on farmers, a new technology, unfamiliar to them altogether. Organic farming specialists can demonstrate, in large scale field trials, their intended package of practices, specifically in different agro-ecological regions, to ascertain its appropriateness; feasibility, economic viability, sustainability and other advantages, to convince and gain farmer acceptance. The total package of the proposed organic rice farming may include other options; green manure crops, vermicompost, biofilms, effective microbes, biogas residual products, N fixing microbes and organic extracts of unknown origin and ingredients, but none of these technologies were field-tested and demonstrated with modern rice varieties.

One good example of Inappropriate Technologies is the ‘System of Rice Intensification (SRI)’ introduced in Sri Lanka around the turn of the Century. It was some form of environment-friendly, water-saving organic farming project with labour-intensive field operations, especially the transplanting procedure aimed at the exploitation of potential plant growth and the tillering capacity in rice to maximise yield. After a few years’ lapse, no farmers involved in the project could be traced to review its progress. If a technology is appropriate, you may notice lateral spread of the technology from farmer to farmer without any extension effort.

Inorganic Nitrogen as plant nutrient

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the application of Nitrogen (N) to improve rice yields was attempted using the American experience of Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) in upland crops (Soybean). Nagaoka (1905) and, Daikuhara and Imaseki (1907) reported the superiority of Ammonium Sulphate ((NH4)2SO4) to NaNO3 as the source of N for rice. Subsequently, the basic investigations on the application of N for rice were made in Japan, India and Hawaii, confirming the superiority of the Ammonium form of N (NH4+) in rice, the process of nitrification and ammonification under different soil moisture regimes and the Nitrite (NO2-) toxicity when the concentration exceeds five to six parts per million (5-6 ppm) upon submergence of aerobic or nitrate-rich soil. One should realise that N in submerged soil, irrespective of its source (organic or inorganic), exists in the form of Ammonium ion (NH4+), a fact established universally.

Joachim (1927) stressed the importance of liberal manuring to improve yields at the onset of genetic improvement of crops, particularly when the pure-line selection was initiated with traditional rice varieties. However, excessive manuring succumbs the rice crop to diseases (Blast and Brown spot); the crop tends to grow excessively vegetative and lodges prematurely affecting yield. Though some improvement of N response was developed by introducing disease tolerant ‘H’ varieties from the late 1950s, the basic defects of the traditional plant type, leafiness and lodging, prevailed. The introduction of new plant types (modern varieties) improved significantly the harvest index of the plant and the grain yield response to added N. A new source of N, Urea (46 percent N), was introduced in the early 1970s to contain soil acidity developed by the regular use of Ammonium Sulphate (21% N) and Urea was utilised extensively thereafter as the major source of N.

The 16 t/ha compost requirement (105 kg N) of the example discussed in the previous section can clearly be fulfilled with 230 kilograms of Urea. Furthermore, the crop requirement at different growth stages can be met by the split application of Urea, as the N content of Urea will be available to the plant shortly after its field application.

Urea, (CO(NH2)2), is an organic compound denied in organic farming with a molecular structure composed of Carbon, Oxygen and two Amine groups with no toxic elements. The amine groups are apparently converted to ammonium ion (NH4+) by soil microbes under anaerobic conditions and get adsorbed to the Cation Exchange Complex. Any source of N, whether organic or inorganic, undergoes the same process of ammonification in submerged soils to form ammonium ion. If the soil is rich in CEC, the ammonium ion is kept tightly bound to the Soil Cation Exchange Complex and leaching and contamination of groundwater will be contained or minimised. As it is, the most appropriate solution to the current crisis is the recommendation of an organic-inorganic combination of fertilisers as recommended by the Department of Agriculture. This will enhance the efficiency of both factors, organic and inorganic, synergistically and prolong the availability of N for crop growth without contamination of groundwater. Also, the quantity of N can be reduced substantially without affecting the performance of the crop as the N component is thereby efficiently utilised.

Also, some scientists are investigating atmospheric N fixing microbes, specifically in the root zone soil (rhizosphere) and within the plant (endophytic). If this is a realistic goal and if the naturally occurring microbes can fix N beyond their biological limits, we are fortunate as the atmosphere around us is full of Nitrogen (80 percent). To observe N fixing soil microbial activity, some rice plots were maintained for more than 30 years at the RRDI, Batalagoda, without added fertiliser. Intuitively, by judging from the rice yields, I infer that the microbes associated in the soil of these plots are not capable of fixing more than 40 kg N per hectare, probably the biological limit of microbes and that too will be diminished when the crop requirement is met with added Nitrogen. Similarly, the inoculated rice plants, with endophytic bacteria to fulfil the N requirement of rice, would be a long shot. There were other concepts considered, promising in atmospheric N fixation in rice, but were abandoned prematurely as the technologies were found to be inappropriate; for example, Azolla-Anabaena complex and root nodulation in Sesbania species.

Any waste should not be converted to compost or organic manure as some sources are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic products. Animal waste may carry residues of antibiotics used as growth promoters. The danger of developing antibiotic tolerant or resistant human pathogenic bacteria by free exposure to antibiotic residues or by exchange of genetic material (conjugation) among bacterial mutants with human pathogens is not ruled out.

The current status of rice production in the country was achieved through the mutual development of related technologies for more than a century. It is not a matter to be ruled out by the so-called expert advisors with one stroke of a pen; as a result of the transition to nontoxic organic rice cultivation, the loss incurred in national rice production will be colossal. This is not the time to learn organic rice cultivation with the textbook experience of experts with no field experimental evidence. The incidence of COVID-19 and other natural calamities (floods, droughts) would adversely affect global rice production and surplus production in rice exporting countries cannot be predicted. In this scenario, national food security for Sri Lanka could be further threatened disastrously through this adventure in organic farming that has been launched almost overnight, without any foresight whatsoever.

In the past, we had an excellent Agricultural Extension and Education System composed of regular Technical Working Group Meetings, Research-Extension Dialogues, Inservice Training Programmes and Field Visits, and a well-qualified, dedicated set of extension staff promoted Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in rice production. This system should be revitalised to sustain the food security of the country.

(The writer is a former Director, Rice Research and Development Institute)



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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