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Black, white, or shades of grey on fertiliser?

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The issue of ‘Organic or Inorganic’ is lingering on, the latest complication arising from the arrival in the harbour of a load of “Prilled Urea” – not the most inexpensive form of nitrogenous fertiliser. Rumour has it that it was an authorised import, which had left the shores of Indonesia, well before the issue of the Gazette banning entry. If this implies that “organic” is permissible, and worse still, that some of it has already arrived, this would be attempted “agro-suicide” (econo-suicide as well). I have drawn attention to the need to thwart such a colossal error – the consequences of which will be beyond our imagination. The circumstances surrounding such a colossal breach of Quarantine Laws must be probed, and those even remotely responsible, must invite the most severe punishment possible under the Law and any legal gaps firmly sealed.

Most issues in life (and natural processes, decidedly), are not “Black or White”, but varying shades of Grey. This is apparent even in our vocabulary. Frequent appearances of words like “moderate, balanced, mean, average, appropriate, holistic, blend, mix, optimum, fair, alternative, compromise” and many such words, are indicative of the availability and attendant power of choice. One of the best instances of economic unleashing of power is perhaps the computer, whose magical versatility is achieved through a binary code (just 0 & 1). Our entire genetic design is through the potential of a “four-base Code”, namely Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine. These code for a “Language” expressing millions of genetic traits. The entire wealth of expression of English Literature and stored information, uses an Alphabet of just 26 letters! The thousands of structural proteins and enzymes that comprise our body chemistry, are spelt out by some 23 or so amino-acids. A few units can still provide a wealth of options.

Working out the ideal fertiliser mix, depending on crop and circumstance is relatively simpler. Therefore, a mixture of organic and inorganic components has to be the ideal, because the “Strengths” of the two forms supplement each other very well. What the “organic” lacks in nutrients, it makes up for in its capacity to “ameliorate” soil in desirable physical characteristics. What the “inorganic” lacks in textural improvement, it makes up for in “nutrient density”. Exclusive use of one or the other, is impractical, unnecessary, economically unsound and could be environmentally damaging. They are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

Since the advent of farming, (said to have happened about 10,000 years ago, when humans ceased to be mere ‘hunter-gatherers, and domesticated their crops), participants were probably well aware of nutrient needs of their crops. Early farming practices must have relied entirely on Wood Ash (rich in potassium), Animal Bones (for Calcium and Phosphorus), Animal Dung and Human Excrement and Urine (for Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Progress in industrial production of Superphosphate and Ammonium derivatives, (at the beginning of the last century) provided a great fillip. Further improvements ushered in by mining of Muriate of Potash and Sulphur as welcome changes, which heralded great improvements of productivity.

Population growth and increased food demands, impelled the developments (such as the Green Revolution), which relied on heavy input practices, including inorganic fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Abuse of such conveniences have led to their own slew of problems.

Our paddy farmers, up until the mid-nineteen- thirties, relied heavily on organics – not least because it was logistically and economically more sensible. All around paddy farming developed a culture that was essentially conservationist and pastoral. With a strong undercurrent of Buddhist tradition. Hence the ‘production-line practices of deep- litter, battery farming methods perhaps had low appeal to the traditional village paddy-farmer. Paddy straw (excess over thatching needs), weeds scraped off the ‘niyaras’, crop residues from the bunds, loppings including those from roadside shrubs, mainly from Wild Sunflower, Suriya Kantha, (Tithonia diversifolia), Weta hira (Glyricidia maculata), Andana hiriya-( Crotalaria sp.), Weta Endaru (Jatropha sp), Eramudu (Erythrina sp) and casual weeds, maintained as roadside shrubs etc. Their loppings were generally laid in the muddy field and worked in with the first ploughings. The droppings of the ploughing and threshing Buffaloes, were an appreciated bonus.

East Asian farmers (Chinese and Japanese) used raw human excrement extensively on rice and Farm Garden crops. The material was delicately referred to as “night soil”. This made very good sense, in that the sole legitimate removals from the field, should ideally be limited to only the crop component desired – all else (including indigestible parts), should return to the field. Processing of sewer waste has since progressed very far, even in Municipal settings. The product is now an odorless, inoffensive material of an agreeable crumbly texture. This is clearly a technology of very high merit, and worthy of wider application.

There is a great need to adapt from the traditional tendency for fertiliser trials, to focus solely on the ‘return to investment’, when evolving a “best fertiliser practice”. This is virtually to the exclusion of the equally revealing concern with the pathway and efficiency of utilisation. Of the applied quantity, how much is actually used by the crop, how much is immovably fixed in soil minerals, how much is lost in erosion, how much is leached beyond root accessibility etc? As an indicator of the usefulness of such an approach, I could mention that in preliminary analyses of silt drawn from surface drains in a tea plantation, the silt had virtually the same nitrogen content as of pure urea (circa 46%)! Incidentally, a “rule of thumb” computation of replacement of nitrogen by a tea crop (Replacement Ratio), employed by planters was 8 or 10 kilos “N” for every 100 kg of made tea harvested. This should mean that the tea should analyse at 8 to 10% N. It is nearer 2%!. What does that and the silt analysis say? Tea fields are notoriously low in organic matter, the soil acidity is close to being inhospitably low. Earthworms do not inhabit many tea soils.

If the sudden change from inorganic to organic fertilisers is intended to signal a desirable shift towards systems that are less violent to the environment and less wasteful, it is commendable. Yet undue haste might be self-defeating. A desire to act ‘with’, rather than ‘against’ nature, should be admirable. Such an objective should not generate reasoned objection. But a set of practices, methods and attitudes developed over centuries, are not likely to be amenable to useful change in one or two paddy-growing seasons. Change towards an optimal, stable set of practices, even under the most enthusiastic promotion, will take time. As a well planned programme continues, there will be steady progress towards stability. Thus it is to be expected, that as the system (particularly the soil organisms, biosphere), stabilizes progressively, and adapts to the changed conditions, one can hope that the results would be so self-evident, that compulsion certainly, or even coercion perhaps, may not be necessary.

The livelihoods of millions of our citizens are at stake. Petty biases, prejudices, expediencies and ‘intelligence or information deficits’, simply cannot be unleashed. There are several ways in which an element of sensitivity towards Nature, and evolving more sensitive /merciful/ compassionate methods with less recourse to rough and extractive demands will emerge. Such will have ready appeal for our essentially conservative farming community. They will, by nature, be more responsive to traditions that conserve, rather than waste, guide rather than force, harvest rather than grab.

To me, progress of movements like “Gammedda” are of immense significance. They have much to teach – the value and power of self-reliance, the strength of community co-operation and the validity of prioritisation at local level. Above all, a realisation that true poverty is largely an inability to use the resources you have (including knowledge, tradition and skills). If Sri Lanka can position itself in the vanguard of a move towards a “Compassionate Agriculture”, harmonsing and integrating Nature’s gifts and mankind’s ingenuity, we will have bestowed a priceless gift. Even Nature would be happier to respond to gentle handling than to brutish exploitation.

In the present instance, priorities might include the following:

(i) The establishment of collectively-owned “Green Manure Lots’ ‘ of low input requiring shrubs, like Tithonia, Crotalaria, Glyricidia and Jatropha.

(ii) “The Dry Pit Latrine”, for Dry Zone colonists. Biogas generators, Compost heaps, Domestic Waste Composters.

(iii) Coconut waste water as a source of potassium (rich source with hundreds of ppm of elemental potassium).

(iv) Water Weeds, Salvinia, Eichchornia, Pistia, Azolla and Aroids. Silt from tank desilting. Composted Municipal Waste. (Mattakkuliya?).

(v) Blue Green Algae and N-fixing bacteria (Nitrosomonas, Nitrobacter). Nodule forming Rhizobia.

(vi) Crop Rotation as an organised practice.

(vii) Use of Biotechnology (including emphasis on such as the use of Bacillus thuringiensis against caterpillar pests).

Attractive (Self-recommending) options are infinitely more enticing and palatable than compulsions. There should be enthusiastic cooperation rather than sullen compliance.

 

Dr. UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA



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Opinion

Support move to generate electricity from garbage

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There had been several letters in the press where the Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma, has enthusiastically declared to achieve 70% of power from Renewable Sources by the year 2030, without knowing the capability and the resources available with the CEB, and the time taken to provide transmission lines to connect the national grid, if international tender procedure is adopted or even otherwise.

I recall a letter sent to the press earlier, wherein I have stated, the garbage problem in Colombo is talked of as an urgent matter, but no action taken for over four decades, and the situation is getting worse day-by-day. The Colombo Municipal Council had once initiated action to set up an incinerator and there had been proposals from interested parties willing to undertake it, but for some unknown reason, these have been shelved by CMC or any other authority concerned.

A report submitted by an internationally famous foreign firm of consultants, Lahmeyer International of Germany, which produced a Master Plan for the Ministry for Power and Energy, touched on the possibility of setting up of an incinerator plant to serve a dual purpose – to eradicate the garbage problem and generate electricity.

What action the Ministry for Power or the CEB has taken is not known. It may be that the CEB has taken action to implement other recommendations and but did not pursue this matter with the CMC. The plant could also produce compost manure and reduce the foreign exchange spent on importing fertilisers. In this well compiled, meaningful and workable report, it is stated: “The incinerator plants use garbage to produce electricity. They are similar to conventional coal fired steam plants, but require elaborate refuse feeder, grate, firing and air quality control system. Also, the required land area is greater.

“Some two million people live in the Greater Colombo area, and the amount of garbage collected annually could be about 600 tons. About 65% is made up of organic substances. The garbage is at present dumped on marshy lands in the vicinity of Colombo for the purpose of land reclamation, that practice caused environmental problems [i.e., smells and ground and surface water pollution.]

“The average heat content of the garbage is not exactly known, but based on the few tests done, it may be in the region of 8 Joule per ton, compared with 40 to 45 Joule per ton of oil. Hence, the fuel saving potentially achievable with an incinerator plant could be 100,000 tons of oil per year [under 1988 conditions] . This would be sufficient for generation of some 400Mw of power, and at the same time would contribute to the solution of Greater Colombo’s waste disposal problem. “

The aforesaid estimates were prepared in 1988 almost 33 years back, and the present amounts will be very much more, perhaps thrice, due to increase of population. The report also states that without exact analysis of the moisture content and composition of the collected garbage, it is difficult to make an exact estimate but the investment may be around USD160 to 240 million at 1988 estimates.

If at today’s estimation at thrice the increase, then the production every day may be around 1200 Mw, which is far more than the 300×3 = 900 Mw. produced by the Norochcholai coal-fired project.

It is therefore suggested that either the Minister for Energy or the Minister for Agriculture, as Fertiliser Corporation comes under him, take up this matter with the Urban Development Authority or the Colombo Municipal Council to expedite it.

It should also be said that undertaking this project will also satisfy those who object to filling marshy land.

The government should give top priority to this project of producing electricity and fertilizer from garbage.

G.A.D. SIRIMAL [SLAS]
Retd. Former Asst. Secretary
Ministry for Power & Energy

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Opinion

A ‘painless shot’ from Army

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When I was told that the Army was administering Sinopharm Covid vaccinations at Viharamaha Devi Park with special provisions for individuals with disabilities, I decided to take my wife, herself a Rehabilitation Medicine Physician, but now afflicted with Alzheimers disease, for her Covid shot, not knowing quite what to expect.

At the driveway into the park an Officer in smart uniform stopped me and inquired politely if there was anyone with a disability. When I answered in the affirmative, indicating my wife, I was asked to drive in and given instructions where to park my vehicle. In the parking area, another army officer kindly directed me to park under the shade of a “Nuga” tree for my wife’s comfort and asked me to proceed to the Registration desk and obtain my vaccination card.

Walking the short distance to the registration desk I observed those awaiting the vaccination seated comfortably in shaded and green surroundings. There was even a vending machine which was, I presume to provide refreshments for those waiting.

The several registration desks were manned by smart young male and female army personnel. The gentleman who attended to me took down my details and when my contact number was given information that the owner of this phone number had already had the vaccination appeared on the computer correctly, as I had been already vaccinated. Now, I expected a typical “public servant’ response that the “rule” is that a contact number could be registered only once. However, the officer used his brain, and after listening to my wife’s situation proceeded to complete the form. Then came the consent form that had to be signed. When I explained that my wife was unable to do so again I expected him to say, “Then get a letter from a doctor saying she cannot sign.” But this officer who did not behave like a robot used his judgement and allowed me to sign the form.

The paper work having been duly completed, I was asked to bring my wife to get her shot. When I explained that it would be very difficult, but not impossible, I was directed to the doctor at the site. I walked up to the young yet professional looking doctor attired in scrubs. When I explained my position, he promptly directed a staff member to go along with me to the vehicle and administer the injection while my wife was still seated there.

I then inquired if the young man who was helping my wife could also get his vaccination, and “no problem” was the answer. And before I could say “Sinopharm” the whole procedure was done and dusted!

What first class service!

To be at the receiving end of empathy and kindness was indeed a satisfying experience.

My thanks and appreciation to the organisers of the vaccination programme at Viharmahdevi Park on Wednesday (21 July)

Those who are critical of the army playing a lead role in Covid pandemic control, please take note.

Dr. N.Jayasinghe

Physician.

Colombo 7

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Opinion

On ‘misinformation’ against Minister of Health

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Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) is a regular contributor to this newspaper. His articles are almost always interesting and sometimes they provide valuable perspectives.

I find his criticism/castigation of the Minister of Health (MOH) in an ‘epidemic of misinformation’ (Island 19.07.2021) unfair and baseless. UW singles the MOH out as ‘the leader of the pack, undoubtedly is the Minister of Health who conveys wrong health messages’. This is erroneous and unwarranted

The main issues that UW quotes in support of his argument is that ‘she recently went to a shrine to thank a goddess for protecting her’ and ‘that she dropped pots in rivers to prevent the spread of the pandemic’.

From the onset of this pandemic a multitude of rituals have been conducted and they are still in force; all night Pirith, Bodhi Pooja, continuous chanting of the Ratana Suthraya, etc. The MOH releasing pots to the rivers that would wash down the ‘pandemic’ to the sea was one such ritual. A salient point to be appreciated is that while there is the possibility that the MOH herself believed in the effects of releasing these pots; this ritual was done primarily for the country/public rather than herself- hence the coverage on TV and news.

In contrast to this, her fulfilling a vow that she and/or her family made on her behalf when she was at death’s door, is based on a personal belief, and unlike the previous public action was done as an extremely private affair. If not for the fact that she is the MOH and her actions got reported in the press, none of us would have been even aware of this act. One would be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who has not fulfilled a vow; be it for himself or herself / siblings/ parents /children with regard to examinations, illnesses, promotions, etc…

None of these actions has any bearing on how the MOH has advised the public based on the counsel that she has received from her health officials and as such she is certainly not guilty of conveying any ‘wrong health messages’.

The MOH contracted Covid -19 because she was at the forefront of this epidemic and was constantly in touch with frontline workers. Not because she abandoned good health practices in favour of a cultural ritual! She had to be admitted to the IDH, was in the intensive care unit and according to medical sources was quite sick. We now see her on TV, the effects of the Covid-19 are apparent, a person who has had a near brush with death, fully cognizant of the danger of her current position. Certainly this would not have been something she signed up for when she took on the job as the MOH! This being the case, for UW, a doctor of medicine, to refer to ‘There are other idiotic politicians around the world who paid with their lives for the folly of not accepting the reality of a viral pandemic’ is not worthy of a healer.

Having recovered from her illness the MOH at a press conference publicly thanked her medical team for the effort they put into saving her life. I am sure that she would have thanked them personally as well. UW concludes his diatribe against her saying ‘Her life was saved not by goddesses, but by the excellent doctors, nurses and other health professionals Sri Lanka is blessed with. A person who is unable to even grasp that reality surely does not deserve to be the Minister of Health’. Is UW seriously suggesting to this readership that the MOH is unaware of the difference between science and culture? Is it his contention that anyone who engages in a religious /cultural ritual has no grasp of reality?

As a side note I am amused by the use of the term ‘Sri Lanka is blessed with ’. Based on UW’s logic ‘who are highly trained in Sri Lanka’ ought to have been a more appropriate term as blessings have nothing to do with a scientific reality!

 

Dr. Sumedha S. Amarasekara

 

 

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