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‘Fertilizer Saga’ in Sri Lanka: A Considered Opinion

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by Professor W. A. J. M. De Costa

Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science Department of Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture University of Peradeniya

Why use fertiliser on crops?

Fertilisers are used for two purposes.

One purpose is to provide essential plant nutrients that are required for crops to produce an economically-important product (i. e. food for humans, feed for animals, a variety of industrial products, etc.). Just as people require food, crops require nutrients for producing what is expected from them.

When a crop is harvested and its yield taken away, a large amount of nutrients is taken out of the system (i. e. the soil). Therefore, continuous cropping of a land leads to the depletion of nutrients in the soil. Application of fertilisers to such a soil replenishes its nutrient pool and makes continuous cropping possible. This is the second purpose of using fertilisers.

A natural ecosystem like a forest does not require an external input such as fertiliser because nutrients are not taken out of the system. Nutrients in dead leaves, branches, trunks and roots are recycled back to the soil. It is a ‘closed’ nutrient cycle, as opposed to the ‘open’ system in an agricultural crop.

 

Inorganic vs organic fertilzers

Inorganic fertilisers (normally called chemical fertilisers) contain nutrients in a concentrated form (i.e. fraction of the nutrient in a unit weight of the fertiliser is high). They are produced via industrial processes or by refining mined minerals containing the nutrient. Three major plant nutrients, viz. nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are supplied as inorganic fertilisers, either individually (‘straight fertilisers’) or in a mixture (‘compound fertilisers’).

Organic fertilisers (organic manures) are raw materials of plant, animal or human origin. When applied to the soil, they decompose and release their nutrients. In comparison to inorganic fertilisers, the fraction of nutrients in a unit weight of organic manure is much lower. Therefore, to give a crop/soil the same amount of a nutrient, a much greater quantity of organic manure than inorganic fertiliser has to be applied. All organic fertilizers are ‘compound fertilisers’ in the sense that they contain a mixture of nutrients though in a diluted form.

When applied to the soil, the inorganic fertilizers release their nutrients quickly. In recent times, nano-scale materials have been used to slow down the release of nutrients from inorganic fertilisers (i.e. called ‘nano-coated slow-release fertilisers’). When applied to the soil, organic fertilisers release their nutrients slowly, because the organic raw material has to decompose to release its nutrients. Natural decomposition is done by naturally-occurring soil microorganisms. Formulations of microorganisms are used to accelerate decomposition and nutrient release from organic fertilisers.

 

Why ‘modern’ agriculture uses large quantities of inorganic fertiliser?

Global population currently stands at ca. 7.7 billion and is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion in 20501. Land area suitable for growing crops is shrinking continuously because of a variety of reasons. Some of the productive lands are lost for urbanisation (i.e. population pressure) while some are converted to alternative non-agricultural uses (e.g. industrial purposes). On the other hand, a portion of lands available for crop production is gradually, but continuously, lost because they become unproductive and economically non-viable due to climate change (e.g. temperatures becoming too warm, rainfall becoming insufficient, etc.) and soil degradation (e.g. loss of fertile top soil due to erosion, loss of soil fertility due to continuous cropping and removal of nutrients without adequate replenishment, development soil problems such as salinity, acidity and accumulation of toxic material).

Increasing population and decreasing arable land area means that we are continuously challenged to increase crop yields per unit land area (usually called ‘crop productivity’) to fulfil the increasing demand for food, feed and the variety of products from agricultural crops. To produce a greater amount of yield from the same unit of land, a crop requires a greater quantity of essential nutrients—there is no such thing as a free lunch in nature— in particular nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). A crop has to obtain this increased nutrient requirement either from the soil (which may contain some amount of nutrients naturally) or via fertiliser applied to the soil. Except the soils in virgin lands, soils in the large majority of agricultural lands do not contain naturally the amounts of essential nutrients in quantities required by crops to achieve the productivity levels to meet the continuously increasing demand. Hence, the need to add large quantities of nutrients to the soil. This has to be done every season as most nutrients added during the previous season are removed as crop yield. Because inorganic fertilizer contains nutrients in a concentrated form, the required quantities of the three major nutrients can be supplied with a manageable quantity of inorganic fertiliser. Supplying of the same requirement with organic fertiliser would require substantially larger quantities, which are either not possible to find due to insufficient raw material or difficult to manage. Hence, the widespread use of inorganic fertiliser in commercial agriculture. Organic agriculture where crops are grown exclusively with organic fertilisers represents a small fraction of global agriculture (a very optimistic estimation would put it at < 5%).

 

Why the drive towards reduction of inorganic fertiliser use in agriculture?

While providing the required amounts of the three major plant nutrients to sustain crop yields to ensure food security and maintain soil nutrients at levels required for continuous cropping, application of inorganic fertilisers has caused adverse environmental and human health impacts.

Because nutrients are released readily from inorganic fertilisers, a considerable fraction of those added to the soil gets leached into groundwater and water bodies (i.e. rivers, lakes, reservoirs etc..). The consumption of water from such polluted sources has been linked to a variety of human health issues.

Inorganic fertilizers have been shown to contain toxic substances (e.g. heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, etc.) as impurities remaining in them after their mining and industrial manufacturing process. The accumulation of these toxic substances in the soil and water sources has been linked to certain human health issues. However, it should be noted that organic fertilizers, especially those of plant and animal origin, are not entirely free from toxic substances.

Alteration of the soil environment by adding concentrated nutrients alters the naturally-occurring community of soil microorganisms who perform many important functions in the soil to ensure its fertility.

In economic terms, inorganic fertilisers, most of which are produced in industrialised developed countries by multi-national companies, are prohibitively expensive to farmers in the developing countries.

Because of the above reasons, there has been a drive towards reduction of the use of inorganic fertilisers and a part-replacement of them by organic fertilisers. Such movements have begun in developed countries (as well as in some developing countries) since the1980s and gathered momentum during the last two decades. During certain periods, some countries and regions of countries have been forced to produce their crops largely on organic fertiliser because of circumstances (mainly political) (e.g. Cuba, Northern Province of Sri Lanka during the ethnic conflict).

 

Current situation in Sri Lanka

The present situation in Sri Lanka has arisen following a gazette notification by the government to ban the import of inorganic fertilizer and synthetic agrochemicals (i.e. insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.) with immediate effect. The pollution of the water bodies and perceived links to human health issues, such as the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology (CKDU) are cited as the reasons for the ban. While there have been a longstanding discussion at many levels of the Sri Lankan society on the role of inorganic fertilizers (and agrochemicals) in causing the above issues and calls for ‘toxin-free food’, the total and immediate ban came ‘out of the blue’ without any consultation (to my knowledge) with any of the relevant stakeholders (e.g. the Department of Agriculture, academia, the plantation sector research institutes, farmer organizations, growers of a wide range of crops or their organizations, private sector organizations in the supply and marketing chain etc.). Apparently, the President/government was acting on the advice of a few university academics (who are either advisors or political appointees as heads of public-sector institutions) and longstanding activists (e.g. Ven. Athuraliya Rathana, Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya et al).

Currently, all relevant public sector institutions have been directed to seek how alternatives to inorganic fertilizer (i.e. organic fertilizer) could be produced and supplied to farmers and growers in adequate quantities required during the Yala season which is already started and beyond. It has been stated in the media that any shortfall for the current season (and probably beyond until adequate quantities can be produced locally) will be provided through imported organic fertiliser. A similar strategy has been proposed for synthetic agrochemicals for which the principal alternative is pesticides of biological origin (i.e. Biopesticides).

 

Possible impacts of an absence of inorganic fertiliser in Sri Lanka

 

It is highly likely that in the absence of inorganic fertilisers, the productivity (i. e. economic harvest per unit land area) of some of the major crops in Sri Lanka (e. g. rice and tea), which are crucial to national food security and economy, will decline significantly leading to a decline in the total production (i.e. productivity × cultivated area). At present, Sri Lanka does not have sufficient sources of readily-available organic fertiliser nor does it not have the infrastructure in place to produce organic fertilizers in adequate quantities to fulfil even the minimum nutrient requirement of these two major crops considering the scale on which they are grown.

The prognosis would be the same for a majority of the other annual crops (e.g. cereals, pulses, vegetables, industrial crops, etc.) and floriculture plants (i.e. cut flower and foliage), which are grown on a smaller scale. Some crops such as rubber and coconut may not show an immediate decline in their harvest but will begin to show declines in the medium-term, depending on the existing fertility status of the soils on which they have been established and the overall management status of the plantation and its trees.

 

Why is Sri Lankan agriculture so reliant on inorganic fertiliser?

The scientific reasons

Soils in Sri Lanka are, by nature, relatively poor in the amounts of essential nutrients (i. e. the three major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium plus magnesium, sulphur and calcium, which are also needed in relatively large quantities) that they make naturally available for crops growing on them. The natural supply of nutrients from a soil comes when the parent material of the soil (i.e. rocks and minerals) undergoes a very slow, gradual decomposition process called ‘weathering’. The plant nutrients are part of the minerals contained in the parent material and are released to the soil when the minerals weather due to the action of rain and other climatic factors such as temperature. Because of the high rainfall and temperature regime associated with the tropical climate in Sri Lanka, its soils have been highly-weathered over a long period of time (over several millennia) so that the existing soil minerals (the source of natural supply of nutrients) are considerably (if not severely) depleted of nutrients. Because of the high rainfall regime (especially in the wet zone and the Central Highlands and to a lesser extent in the dry and intermediate zones), a substantial portion of the nutrients that are released from minerals via the weathering process are leached and lost to the soil, further depleting its natural fertility.

Furthermore, most of the lands on which crops are currently cultivated in all climatic zones of Sri Lanka have been under cultivation for a long period of time. As explained earlier, long-term cultivation of a soil leads to depletion of its nutrient reserves.

Soils in the Central Highlands and those on sloping terrain in other parts of Sri Lanka are further degraded due to soil erosion caused by high-intensity rainfall. Erosion takes away the top layer of the soil and a substantial amount of nutrients naturally available along with it.

Because of the reasons outlined above, neither the grain yield levels of rice that are required to fulfil the annual national demand nor the green leaf yield levels of tea that would bring the expected level of foreign exchange could be sustained on Sri Lankan soils without providing the required quantities of the three major nutrients via inorganic fertilisers.

It is likely that in the absence of the recommended inorganic fertiliser (especially nitrogen fertilizer) inputs, yield reductions would become detectable in the current Yala season in rice and within a matter of a few months in tea. This is because of the specific physiology of these two crops. Nitrogen is critically-essential for early growth of rice and the leaf growth of tea. Therefore, a shortage of nitrogen to these crops would be felt almost immediately as a retardation of early growth of rice (which would be reflected as a substantial reduction in grain yield) and the weekly green leaf harvest in tea.

Similar to what happens in rice and tea, the retardation of growth and yield is likely to happen with a shortage of nitrogen fertilizer in all short-duration annual crops and commercial plants. Leguminous pulse crops (e. g. soybean, mung bean, cowpea, black gram, common bean, etc.) could be an exception because of their ability to utilise atmospheric nitrogen.

Impacts of a shortage of nitrogen fertiliser are likely to be delayed for a few years (as stated earlier) in coconut and rubber because of their specific physiology where the nut yield or latex (rubber) yield is not as dependent on an immediate nitrogen supply as the grain and leaf yields of rice and tea respectively. However, a shortage of nitrogen will cause a reduction in the internal processes of these plants, which will be reflected in a few years’ time, as a reduction in the processes leading to the production of nuts and latex in coconut and rubber respectively. Recently-planted and younger coconut and rubber plantations will show a retardation of tree growth which will delay the commencement of nut and latex production.

A basic scientific fact which should have been noted by the advisors to politicians, if not the politicians, is that a shortage of nitrogen affects the fundamental plant process, photosynthesis, which is responsible for growth and yield formation of crops2. Shortage of nitrogen, along with shortages of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium, decreases the rate of photosynthesis, which is translated in to a reduction of growth and yield of any crop, which may happen over different time scales in different crops. It is unlikely that in the absence of inorganic fertilisers, organic fertiliser applications would be able to prevent the resulting decrease in growth and yield of a large majority of commercial crops in Sri Lanka.

 

A few spice crops such as cloves, cardamoms and nutmegs, but not cinnamon and pepper, may escape yield reductions due to a shortage of inorganic fertilizer because they are largely present in homegardens in the Central Province which are generally not fertilized.

Out of the three major fertilizers, containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, a shortage would be most immediately felt for nitrogen fertilizer. The impact would be delayed for phosphorus fertilizer and it would be intermediate for potassium fertilizer. The scientific reasons are that nitrogen is the nutrient that is most critically-needed for a large majority of plant processes and is the most mobile nutrient in the soil, which makes it the most susceptible for leaching losses; phosphorus is the least mobile nutrient and therefore, can remain in the soil for

2 Evans, J. R., & Clarke, V. C. (2019). The nitrogen cost of photosynthesis. Journal of Experimental Botany, 70(1), 7-15. An expert review that was published in a highly-recognized scientific journal in plant sciences. Although most of its content is aimed at specialists in Plant Physiology, there are a few paragraphs (highlighted) from which an educated ‘layman’ reader could gather useful insights in to why nitrogen fertilizer is of such crucial importance for crops. a reasonable period of time and can be released to plants slowly; potassium is a nutrient which is intermediate in terms of its mobility in the soil and criticality of its need for plant processes.

 

What has been the response of the stakeholders?

 

This is only a snapshot from my perspective based on discussions with professional colleagues and contacts. An overwhelming majority of academics, research officers, extension officers, commercial growers and farmers do not agree with this immediate and total ban of inorganic fertilizers. A minority of stakeholders in the agriculture sector and an overwhelming majority of environmental activists (who unfortunately have no clear idea of how large-scale agriculture to feed a nation differs from growing a few pots of plants at home) have welcomed the ban. A powerful argument of this minority of stakeholders in the agriculture sector is that organic agricultural products (e.g. organic tea) fetches a higher price in the global market and will offset any loss of foreign exchange due to reduced total production. This argument ignores the decline in yield and total production of locally-consumed food (including the staple food, rice), the wide-ranging implications of which cannot be compensated by a higher price (which is unlikely to happen in the highly-volatile local market for agricultural produce).

Where do we go from here?

While disagreeing with a total and immediate ban on inorganic fertilizer, a majority of academics, research officers and extension officers, but not commercial growers and farmers, acknowledge that there is scope for an appreciable reduction in the quantities of inorganic fertilizer (relative to the levels that have been in use before the ban) without incurring a yield reduction. Farmers have been applying the inorganic fertilizers at rates which are above those recommended by the Department of Agriculture, because inorganic fertilizers had been made available to them at a highly-subsidized price.

Research on a range of different crops over several seasons across a range of locations carried out by my research group has shown that 25% of the recommended amount of nitrogen fertilizer can be reduced without incurring a yield reduction.

Therefore, a phased-out reduction of inorganic fertilizer along with a gradual increase of the contribution of organic fertilizer to supply the nutrient requirement of crops is a viable pathway that a majority of stakeholders agrees on. Increasing the contribution of organic fertilizer requires: (a) up-scaling of organic fertilizers that have been developed in Sri Lanka using microorganisms isolated from local soils; (b) developing infrastructure to produce such organic fertilizers at commercial scale; (c) changing farmer/grower perceptions and attitudes on the total dependence on inorganic fertilizers and start using organic fertilizer as a part-replacement via a concerted extension effort. (The agricultural extension service in Sri Lanka, which was acknowledged as one of the best in Asia in the 1980s, have been severely downgraded during the last three decades); (d) initiating a concerted programme to increase the organic matter content of Sri Lankan soils, which would enable them to retain a higher fraction of the nutrients applied to them via both inorganic and organic fertilizers and thereby minimize leaching losses.

Even if all the above are successfully implemented (which will take time especially in the current context), an agriculture sector, which is totally based on organic fertilizer—the first such country in the world according to the President—is unlikely to produce enough food (e. g. rice) to ensure food security in Sri Lanka or generate other agriculture-based products that fetch foreign exchange and support local manufacturing industries (e. g. rubber). Therefore, it is inevitable that a balance needs to be struck between the reduction of inorganic fertilizer (from the levels that were practiced before the ban) and a viable level of organic fertilizer as a part-replacement to provide the full nutrient requirement that a higher crop yield demands.

As a medium-term solution, research on a more balanced form of agriculture (i.e. an optimum combination of inorganic and organic fertilizer) within the climatic and soil conditions that are prevalent in Sri Lanka (while taking in to account their possible changes as part of global climate change) needs to be encouraged via increased funding. Currently, Sri Lanka invests only 0.11% of its GDP in Research and Development (in all disciplines including agriculture), which is one of the lowest even in Asia. Therefore, there is little room for optimism in this regard.

 

Importation of organic fertilizers

Importation of organic fertilizers is being promoted as a short-term measure to supply the nutrient requirement to agricultural crops during the period when Sri Lanka is expected develop its local capacity to produce organic fertilizers in quantities sufficient to meet the full nutrient demand of the crops. It is said that the quality of imported organic fertilizer will be assured via strict quality control procedures which conform to, for example, the EU Standards. Only time will tell whether this will actually materialize and provide a solution. A few points of major concern are as following:

Quantity

Experienced Soil Scientists and fertilizer experts are of the opinion that concentration of nutrients in organic fertilizers is such that large quantities need to be imported (subsequently transported to fields and applied) to fulfil the nutrient demand to produce the crop yields at the required levels to ensure food security and sustain foreign exchange earnings.

Environmental concerns

Almost all organic fertilizers, being material of plant, animal or human origin, retain a diverse population of microorganisms. Unlike inorganic fertilizers, which are inert material, organic fertilizers are live material. Microorganisms, whether in soils, plants or any other location or entity, are often highly environment-specific. Introduction of such alien microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils could cause all types of unforeseen interactions with local microorganisms. Some of these interactions could have environmental repercussions, which are irreversible as once released to the soil, these alien microorganisms cannot be ‘recalled’. Therefore, it is always advisable and safer to develop organic fertilizers locally rather than importing.

Sterilization of imported organic fertilizer to kill all alien microorganisms via a process of fumigation after importation is suggested as a solution to this problem. However, the large quantities of organic fertilizers that are required to be imported and the toxicity levels

of the chemicals that are used in fumigation could lead to environmental issues that the organic fertilizers are aiming to prevent. Recently, the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture went on record saying that only sterilized organic fertilizer conforming to quality standards acceptable to a government-appointed expert committee would be imported. Given Sri Lanka’s poor record of regulation, implementation and enforcement of quality standards on a range of items, both imported and locally-produced and both agricultural and non-agricultural, it remains to be seen whether these promises will be fulfilled.

Rational medium- to long-term possibilities for reducing the use of inorganic fertilizer while increasing yields of major food crops at a rate required to keep pace with increasing population and consequently increasing demand

A few medium- to long-term options, based on sound scientific principles, are available and are briefly discussed below:

Genetic modification of crops

In addressing the challenges of increasing crop yields while decreasing their use of nutrients (i.e. increasing the yield per unit nutrient used), scientists have been trying to modify the components and steps involved in the photosynthesis process via genetic engineering. One of their aims has been to produce a plant which achieves a higher photosynthetic rate with the same level of nitrogen used. After about two decades of research effort, a recent research publication in the prestigious science journal Nature reports of such a breakthrough in rice3. Reading through it carefully, I gather that this new genetically-modified rice plant (we call them ‘transgenic’ plants) has the potential to achieve a higher photosynthetic rate and grain yield with the same level of nitrogen as the ‘normal’ plants (which are not genetically-modified). However, this is possible under ‘well-fertilized conditions’ meaning that at the currently-used high nitrogen fertilizer rates4. This particular publication does not indicate whether such higher levels of photosynthesis and yields are possible at lower than ‘well-fertilized conditions’ which are likely to prevail in fields fertilized exclusively with organic fertilizer. Nevertheless, as Professor Stephen Long, a recognized world authority on photosynthesis states, the production of this transgenic rice plant could be a ‘game-changer’ to increase grain yield of rice without a proportionate increase in nitrogen input.

However, it should be noted that a considerable time could elapse from the point of producing a ‘transgenic’ plant to developing a new crop variety that could be released to the farmers for commercial cultivation. Yet, this appears to be a solid step in the right direction.

3 Long, S. P. (2020). Photosynthesis engineered to increase rice yield. Nature Food, 1(2), 105-105. A brief comment by Professor Stephen Long on the recent breakthrough in producing a genetically-modified rice plant which is able to achieve a higher photosynthetic rate and grain yield with the same amount of nitrogen.

4 Yoon, D. K., Ishiyama, K., Suganami, M., Tazoe, Y., Watanabe, M., Imaruoka, S., … & Makino, A. (2020). Transgenic rice overproducing Rubisco exhibits increased yields with improved nitrogen-use efficiency in an experimental paddy field. Nature Food, 1(2), 134-139. The research publication which describes the above breakthrough in photosynthesis and nitrogen use. Increasing the organic matter content in soils

Soil organic matter (SOM) is a component of the soil in addition to the soil particles. While the soil particles arise from weathering of rocks and minerals of the soil parent material, SOM arises from the decomposition of organic material added to the soil. SOM helps to retain nutrients and water in the top layers of the soil where most plant roots are also present. In addition, SOM helps to improve the aeration and structure in the soil, which are vital physical properties in the soil to facilitate plant growth.

Except the soils in the terraced plateaus of the Central Highlands, soils of almost all arable crop lands in Sri Lanka have inadequate SOM. This means that the ability of these soils to retain the nutrients that are added to them, especially in the form of readily-released inorganic fertilizer, is limited. Therefore, a concerted effort to increase the SOM status in Sri Lankan soils will enable reduction of leaching losses of nutrients and associated environmental consequences such as pollution of water sources. Increased SOM will also enable reduction of the amounts of inorganic fertilizer applied without causing a shortage of nutrients to the crops as a greater fraction of the applied fertilizer remains in the soil to be absorbed by the plants.

Therefore, while the total and immediate ban of inorganic fertilizer and replacing them with organic fertilizer will not provide the required nutrients in sufficient quantities, the large-scale application of organic fertilizer, if it happens as envisaged, will serve to increase the SOM of Sri Lankan soils in the medium- to long-term. This will make the Sri Lankan Agriculture sector less-reliant on inorganic fertilizers. However, this will have to be a gradual, phased-out transition rather than a sudden, unplanned total ban on inorganic fertilizers. Such a transition should be towards achieving an optimum balance of inorganic and organic fertilizers, which will ensure food security while protecting the environment. This is an endeavour that has been undertaken in many parts of the world, which include both the developed and developing countries, and is termed ‘Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture’5.

5 Baulcombe, D., Crute, I., Davies, B., Dunwell, J., Gale, M., Jones, J., … & Toulmin, C. (2009). Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The Royal Society. A very useful, concise, but comprehensive description of the salient features of sustainable intensification of agriculture written by a group

of experts from the Royal Society, UK. Can be accessed at https://royalsociety.org/topics-

policy/publications/2009/reaping-benefits/.



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Features

Bamboo vs.Willow

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by Katrina Kramer

Cricket bats made from bamboo might help batters hit farther and faster, researchers have discovered. While willow has been the bat wood of choice for nearly 200 years, bamboo could deliver more energy to the ball during impact, though at the price of being much heavier. But bamboo’s fast growth could help make the sport more affordable to its rapidly growing fanbase.

 Source: © Tom Almeroth-Williams

Almost all high-end cricket bat willow comes from just two suppliers in England. The trees take around 15 years to mature, and bat makers often discard up to 30% of the wood due to imperfections.

Darshil Shah, former member of Thailand’s under-19 national cricket team, and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge, UK, decided to investigate bamboo as an alternative. Bamboo is cheap and grows in many countries that have seen increasing cricket participation – China, Japan and South America for example. The plant matures within six years and can produce several harvests without needing to be replanted.

Darshil Shah holding a bamboo cricket bat …. Source: © Tom Almeroth-Williams

Working with cricket bat manufacturer Garrard & Flack, the team created a bat from bamboo strips held together with an adhesive. The bat turned out to be fairly heavy, since bamboo is denser than willow, lending itself to straight rather than cross strokes, Shah recounts. ‘But because it is stiffer, we can reduce the thickness of the blade, which will reduce the weight,’ he explains. His team was surprised to find that the bamboo bat also had a larger sweet spot, the area that transfers maximum energy onto the ball on impact.

‘The other important property is the sound of a bat,’ says Shah. Bamboo’s resonant frequencies are almost identical to willow’s, so players and spectators are unlikely to notice the difference.

The mechanical differences between the materials come down to cellular rather than molecular differences, says wood materials scientist Ingo Burgert from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich. Both bamboo and willow contain cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin as their main structural components. But in trees, water and sugar transport take place in different tissue types. As a type of grass, there’s only one structure performing both functions in bamboo, Burgert explains.

The current prototype is about 40% heavier than a traditional bat, because bamboo is denser

One way to get an idea of a bamboo’s potential is from children playing baseball with bamboo bats, says Philip Evans from the Wood Surface Science Lab at the University of British Columbia in Canada. ‘They mention that the bat is heavy, but they also say that the ball pings off well.’ However, unlike willow, bamboo doesn’t recover well from deformation and becomes dented more easily.

However, as a game steeped in tradition, cricket regulators have so far resisted changes to bat material and design. Since 1979, when Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee used an aluminium bat in a match against the English team, rules have only allowed for wooden blades in professional games. And no amount of science will convince cricketers if the bat doesn’t feel and handle right, Evans points out. ‘But if the work at the Cambridge group can put bats in the hands of young kids who have fun playing cricket then that’s great,’ he adds.

‘Certain uses, like cricket bats and musical instruments get associated with particular species to the point that people stop considering if any other species would work,’ says Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK. ‘But two bits of wood from one species can be as different – in terms of properties like density and stiffness – as two pieces of different species. It becomes increasingly important to look for alternatives, species and sources, to meet wood demand without costing too much financially or ecologically.’

Understanding bamboo’s properties, in particular its sound absorption behaviour, might also help Shah and his colleagues with their principal research: understanding how bamboo and engineered timber could be used in the construction sector.

(Chemistry World)

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Features

The Increasing Incidents of Container Ship Fires and Environmental Destruction

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by Dr Manique Cooray

Fires at sea continue to pose a significant risk to container shipping and often give rise to long-winded and complex claims between all affected parties. Space does not permit even a cursory examination of the large body of relevant international legal provisions available. Moreover, the rise of containerisation has exacerbated the problem of fire on board ships as we have seen with the MV Hansa Brandenburg, the Jolly Rubino, the Maersk Londrina and recently in February 2017, in the MV APL Austria case where a Liberian flagged container ship caught fire off the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

In the backdrop of the ongoing environmental catastrophe in one of Sri Lanka’s worst ever marine disasters, it is imperative to address two issues that seem to be of central importance pertaining to the cargo ship carrying tonnes of chemicals which now lie in the seabed off the west coast of the Island. The Singapore registered MV X-Press Pearl, Super Eco 2700-class container ship was built by Zhoushan Changhong International Shipyard Co. Ltd at Zhoushan, China, for Singapore based X-Press Feeders and its sister ship X-Press Mekong. The 37,000 dead weight tonne (DWT) container vessel could carry 2,743 twenty-foot equivalent units. The ship was delivered on February 10, 2021. It had a 25-member crew including Filipinos, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals. It was carrying 1,486 containers, among them 81 carrying dangerous goods, which included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, along with other chemicals, cosmetics and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets. Reports indicate the vessel was deployed in the Straits of Malacca to Middle East (SMX) service of X-Press Feeders, from Port Klang (Malaysia) via Singapore and Jebel Ali (UAE) to Hamad Port (Qatar). The return journey to Malaysia was to be via Hazira (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka). It was reported that the ship’s crew had noticed the leakage of nitric acid from one of the containers when the vessel set sail to the Port of Colombo.

It is common knowledge that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no vessel can enter a country’s “territorial water” extending up to 12 miles from the nearest land without approval from the coastal state. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Basel Convention, it is not the aim here to address basic questions on how, why and who authorized a vessel with a container leaking nitric acid to enter the territorial waters of the country carrying hazardous material. This entry into Sri Lankan waters could have been under “Port of Refuge”, a situation wherein a ship deviates to a port due to an emergency which renders the ship unsafe to continue on her voyage.

The ill-fated ship erupted in a fire while anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo. The Sri Lankan navy believes the fire was caused by a chemical reaction from the leaking cargo loaded from the port of Hazira in India. As flaming containers laden with chemicals fell from the ship’s deck, seawater may have entered the hull that submerged the MV X-Press Pearl’s quarterdeck a day after firefighters extinguished the fire. With such a dramatic turn of events of an overseas registered ship, carrying crewmen of various nationalities and cargo belonging presumably to various parties, and with a vessel located within the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, presents itself a plethora of issues in conflict of laws determining principles of choice of law with recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

While the local authorities are moving to sue the owners of the vessel to claim damages from the insurer, the suitability of existing Penal Provisions and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act No 35 of 2008 of Sri Lanka raises the question of its adequacy as the principle legislation of the forum state to hear a case of such magnitude of which the main issue is to claim compensation. Insurers of cargo vessels generally require the owners and operators to adhere to internationally recognized guidance concerned with maximizing the overall safety of the vessel, the crew and the cargo. One part of the guidance is the International Maritime Organizations Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code), an internationally accepted guideline for the transportation or shipment of dangerous goods or materials by a vessel on water.

Even a cargo that might be quite innocuous in small quantities can display dangerous properties when transported in large quantities, especially if those large quantities of material are exposed to environmental conditions such as moisture or heat, during or prior to loading, or during a voyage. Under the Hague-Visby Rules, the liability regime for the carriage of most cargo, neither the carrier nor the shipowner is responsible for loss or damage arising or resulting from fire unless caused by the actual fault or privity of the shipowner or carrier. To successfully recover for damage to cargo from the shipowner or to defend a claim for general average, the cargo owner must show a lack of due diligence of the shipowner to make the ship seaworthy and safe to receive, carry and discharge the cargo. From a procedural perspective, “(i) the cargo owner must prove their loss; (ii) the carrier or shipowner must prove the cause of loss (i.e., that the fire caused the loss); (iii) the carrier or shipowner must prove due diligence to make the ship seaworthy prior to and at the commencement of the voyage; and (iv) the cargo owner must prove fault of the carrier or shipowner or knowledge of fault or another for whom the carrier or shipowner is responsible.”

The shipowner is not liable for an act or omission by the crew. If the negligence of the crew caused the fire, this is a complete defence for the shipowner unless the cargo owner can show that there was some lack of due diligence by the shipowner, which made the ship unseaworthy. In the case of fires at sea, this would include the shipowner failing to exercise due diligence insofar as the crew fighting the fire is concerned, a lack of adequate firefighting systems, lack of training, or lack of procedural guidance from owner or carriers to the crew. Cargo owners are also likely to be successful in claiming against a shipowner where it is shown that the shipowner or carrier failed to correctly stow dangerous or hazardous cargo (provided that such cargo was correctly declared) in accordance with IMDG guidelines. In the event a shipowner can rely on a “fire defence”, the cargo owner (or their insurers) may be left with a recovery action against the shipper of the miss declared cargo. However, this often involves expensive litigation in a foreign jurisdiction where the “guilty” shipper may be a brass plate company without any assets to satisfy millions of dollars worth of damages to the ship and her cargo and let alone the environmental aftermath. This means that the insurer may be liable, and the affected party could claim compensation from the shipowner.

From the brief facts at hand, it appears to be a total loss for the shipowner even if the vessel stays afloat with what appears to be, if not all, of the cargo, damaged. Although there is much uncertainty over the size of the loss, it is safe to assume that insurers will face cargo and liability claims and the value of the hull and machinery. The value of these claims have not yet been made known. It is highly possible for the fire and explosion losses to be covered under cargo insurance policies among various companies which are party to it. The London Steam Ship Owners Mutual Insurance Association Ltd and its subsidiary, the London P&I Insurance Company (Europe) Ltd, in a press statement on May 26, 2021, stated that as the “liability insurer, it would cover crew injuries and any environmental impact.” A study of previous cases of similar nature indicates that a vessel sinking in deep water perhaps is a better outcome for the insurer than saving it and bringing it back to port with the heavy cleanup costs incurred. Perhaps in this current scenario, the P&I insurer could end up covering the cargo and salvage costs.

The environmental impact of the fire could have a significant bearing on the size of the P&I claim leading to potentially hundreds of millions, as previous cases have shown us. It is well to keep in mind that while the owners of the ship are maybe accountable for bringing the ship to the territorial waters, the local authorities themselves may have a share in their contribution by their bad choice of actions. It is highly questionable whether adequate compensation could be secured given the larger environmental impact (an impact which may be seen beyond the limitation period for such claims to be brought) under the existing lacuna in the local law. Hence, the importance of the forum state to take on such a mammoth legal action against the parties possibly raises the issues of whether recourse should be made to an international maritime arbitration tribunal permitting contractual arrangements.

The second issue to be addressed is whether a special legal regime in the nature of strict liability is needed to cover the irreparable damage caused to the Sri Lankan Sea, marine lives, including the coral reefs and the fisheries industry. There is now an additional danger that fuel tanks of the stricken vessel containing thousands of tons of thick bunker oil could break up under the pressure of the seawater and discharge its deadly cargo into the ocean. The Wildlife Conservation Department of Sri Lanka states that apart from the fish species, the harm done to seagrasses and nesting habitats, sea mammals, and reptiles will also be substantial and that their “initial observations reveal the spill-over effect will last for more than 100 years.” The illustration of the Exxon Valdez’s incident in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 indicates that the oil spill is a severe threat to the maritime environment. A review of this incident may be a good reference to seek a fair understanding of the circumstances and for proper estimation and preparation in encountering massive oil spills.

The harm caused by many environmental incidents are not only contained within the borders of the states, but pollution originating from one state may cause harm to another state. And pollution which damages the Oceans does not belong to one state alone. This type of harm raises a number of acute legal conundrums. Establishing causal connections between effects such as damage to marine life or extinction of species and a particular source of pollution, which could be targeted by a system of liability and compensation rules, may be extremely difficult. In the absence of intergovernmental compensation regimes or where individual states seek compensation for cross border pollution, claims must be made in domestic courts. In such situations, the importance of conflict of laws rules about jurisdiction, choice of law, and recognition of judgments matters. One could plausibly conclude that X-Press Pearl too may find its unfortunate place in legal history for the colossal task it has presented of assessing harm to the environment caused in a line of container ship losses in the maritime insurance industry.

 

(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University. Malaysia and was the Dean of the Faculty of Law from 2014-2016 and 2018-2021.)

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Cold War to COVAX: New US President rallies allies, but no brave new world in sight

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by Rajan Philips

Six months in office, President Biden took his first foreign trip last week, attending the first in-person G7 summit after the pandemic over the weekend, at Carbis Bay in Cornwall, England, and meeting with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva. In between, he attended a summit gathering of NATO member country leaders on Monday and met with the European Council on Tuesday. The G7, NATO and the EU meetings became occasions for diplomatic China bashing. And China responded in kind and more, through its Embassies in London and in Europe rather than by the mandarins in Beijing. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy might be irksome to old school sensibilities, but China seems to be in no hurry to change its modes of diplomacy to please anybody.

Everything is different now from the geopolitics of Cold War. Russia is no longer the West’s main adversary, and capitalism and socialism are not the same weighty words as they once were. Vladimir Putin is, at best, or worst, mostly a significant spoiler. It is China that looms large from the East, pre-occupying western powers, but the terms of engagement now are more competitive and less conflictual. The world is currently without any serious skirmishes, internal or otherwise. There is a lull even in the Middle East, and there are hopes that it might continue with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump out of power, at least for now. But where violence has receded, the pandemic has taken over. And Cold War politics has given way to vaccine politics.

 

When history fails to turn

Yet, after much haggling and despite promises to do a lot more, G7 leaders were not able to come up with anything more than one billion vaccine doses when 11 billion of them are needed to immunize the world’s population. Gordon Brown, former British Finance Minister and later Prime Minister, has called the G7 summit another missed opportunity in the history of summits, “another turning point where history failed to turn.” He blamed G7 leaders for their failure to honour the pre-summit promise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to vaccinate the entire world.

Besides Johnson, more than 100 former world leaders had called on G7 leaders to pledge $44bn of the $66bn needed to vaccinate the world, or eight billion doses and not one billion. A joint Norway-South Africa plan had worked out that eight billion doses donation would involve 27% contribution from the US and 22% contribution from the EU. The current US promise of 500 million doses amounts to 50%, which is a significant share but of the pathetically scaled down one billion promise of the Group of Seven countries. In early May , President Biden announced America’s support for waiving western vaccine patents to facilitate worldwide production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines. His radical turn surprised many, but found no support in G7 and the summit once again “failed to turn.”

Aid and welfare agencies are palpably disappointed with the poor show of vaccine generosity by the wealthiest of the world’s nations, and these civil societies are not likely to be enthused by President Biden’s clarion call for democracies of the world to unite against its autocrats. Nor are other G7 countries entirely enthusiastic about agreeing with the US policy towards China. A number of them do not want to alienate China which they see has a necessary role to play in the global economic recovery after the pandemic. To non-American observers, Biden’s position on China is not very different from that of Trump; what is different is the absence of Trump’s narcissism and racism. And America’s allies, while relieved at the exit of Trump and the entry of Biden, are also unsure that there will not be another political recession in the US similar to what they have had to unexpectedly encounter over the last five years.

Even though China was the main subject at the summit, the final statement reflected a balance between the pushes and pulls between America and its allies. Perhaps the sharpest note in the 70-point G7 statement could be the reopening of the ‘origin’ controversy involving the coronavirus. The summit’s call to make a “science-based” determination of the origins of COVID-19 may have better served its totally legitimate and objective purpose if the call too could have found a science-based origin rather than adversarial politics. Unfortunately, there is no international mechanism to facilitate such a consensus.

As Secretary General António Guterres rued last September marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “the pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation — a test we have essentially failed.” The G7 summit, while it was positively different with Biden displacing Trump as America’s President, came nowhere near to rectifying the failure of international cooperation that the Secretary General was alluding to. There are many things about China that are not at all unexceptionable, but isolating a giant of a country and economic powerhouse is not the way to foster international co-operation, or to determine the truth about the origins of COVID-19.

Two days after G7, NATO got in on the act of targeting China, for first time in its deliberations, and calling China’s actions as a threat to “rules-based international order.” China responded calling NATO to stop “slandering” and to “devote more of its energy to promoting dialogue”. That NATO’s take on China may have been more a manifestation of bureaucratic overreach and not political consensus became evident from the notes of caution that came from the British and French leaders, among others. Prime Minister Boris Johnson asserted that nobody “around the table wants to descend into a new Cold War with China.” France’s Emmanuel Macron had earlier admonished that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” while Germany’s Angela Merkel had apparently emphasized that western alliances are “not about being against something, but for something”.

 

Positive Initiatives

Besides COVID-19, the summit focused on human rights, again targeting China over human rights violations in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. A somewhat positively competitive response to China was the announcement of a new global infrastructure plan. In an obvious counter to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the G7 group at America’s prompting has come up with an initiative of its own, called “Build Back Better World (B3W).”

The new plan is expected to raise about $40 trillion by 2035, and will focus on improving “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality” conditions in developing countries. By comparison, China’s Belt and Road initiative launched in 2013 is bankrolled solely by China to the tune of $160 billion and is expected to focus more on hard infrastructure projects. The rest of the world can only applaud the two initiatives while hoping that the two promoters will allow other countries to proportionately benefit from both, and not from one or the other.

An even more far reaching summit outcome is the agreement on global corporate taxation. Already in the run-up to the summit, G7 Finance Ministers had reached a deal on (1) source-taxing corporations (i.e., to tax businesses in the countries where they conduct business and earn income); and (2) a global minimum tax proposal of 15% on businesses. The 15% rate is lower than the business tax rate in every G7 country, so this is not a tax increase in those countries. But what it will do is to expose to taxation multinationals and digital companies that now keep running for tax holidays and tax havens. Netherlands, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Ireland are among the more established tax havens, where “phantom investments” flow but no physical manifestations (as in factories, sales, or jobs) are seen. According to the IMF, “phantom investments” account for 40% of the world’s much coveted FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments). Is Sri Lanka’s Port City meant to be a magnet for its miniscule share of phantom investments?

The G7 agreement over global taxation is really the culmination of a much broader effort involving more than 100 countries working over a number of years. And the estimated revenues from global taxation are quite significant – ranging between $250 billion to $600 billion annually. While the G7 agreements is a big step forward, there are obstacles ahead as nothing can be done without the support of everyone. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen mooted the idea for global taxation long before the G7 summit, but it will have to pass muster in the US congress. There is broad support in the EU, but Ireland could be an outlier. The next forum for the global taxation effort will be the gathering of G20 Finance Ministers in Venice in July. Large countries from every continent including China and India will be at the table. Its outcome will offer clues about the pace of global taxation reform.

 

From Nixon to Biden

The Guardian in one of its editorials last week recalled something that no one in the US or China would seem to have bothered to note so far. It is that next month would be the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China to prepare the path for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. The visit lasted a week, “the week that changed the world,” as President Nixon famously declared. No one, not even President Biden, is going suggest that the new President’s first week of foreign forays in England and in Europe is going to change the world. But there is no denying the extent to which the world has changed between Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and Biden’s visit to Europe in 2021. It is not that Nixon’s visit changed the world, but only that he seized the opportunity in a world that was already beginning to change.

Henry Kissinger reportedly assured Chinese leaders that “It is the conviction of President Nixon that a strong and developing People’s Republic of China poses no threat to any essential US interest.” Fifty years later, President Biden is calling on democracies to come together against the world’s authoritarian powers, primarily China. In a sense, Biden’s meeting with Russia’s Putin in Geneva last Wednesday caricatures Nixon’s historic visit to China. The summit was a useful necessity even if it was mostly meant for the domestic audiences of the two leaders. Putin wanted to show Russians that under him their country is still a force to reckon with, even though it no longer has the armour of a Soviet Union. For Biden, it yet another demonstration that Trump is gone and America is back. Yet, it was useful that the two leaders have opened a dialogue, which is essential if any headway is to be made, especially in the Middle East.

But it will be paradise lost if America and the West were to fail to open a new dialogue with China without isolating it or ganging up on it. Western leaders made the same mistake after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when they isolated Russia and invited all the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO and gang up on Russia. But there is no comparison between Russia without the Soviet Union and 21st century China that is set to surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy in a matter of decades. Yet, there are also growing backlashes against China even as its economic power grows, not only in the West but also in China’s own backyard and wider Asia. The EU, Lithuania and Hungary have recently blocked or put on hold economic partnership prospects with China. On the other side, Australia, South Korea, India, and South Africa are open to aligning themselves with G7 countries. They were all in sidebar attendance at the G7 summit.

If there is paradise to be regained, it can only be through the working of multilateralism. For all its unanticipated problems, the 21st century is remarkable for growing reality of multilateralism in spite of its serious institutional limitations. Beefing up the world’s multilateral institutions should be the first order of business for world leaders in whatever forums they gather. That was not anyone’s agenda at the G7 summit. Nor is it likely to be uppermost in China when it will celebrate, on July 1, the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.

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