By Jehan Perera
The government has announced that it is taking steps to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a law that is more in conformity with international standards. The Foreign Ministry reported it had informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices. The EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee and an Officials Committee to assist it and to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months. The Officials Committee comprises officials from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security, Attorney General’s Department, Legal Draftsman’s Department, Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. The Foreign Ministry also announced that the government will continue its close and cordial dialogue with the EU with regard to commitments, while demonstrating the country’s substantial progress in areas of reconciliation and development.
The government’s willingness to address the issue of the PTA follows the EU Parliament’s unexpected resolution that calls for the withdrawal of the GSP+ tariff concession, though as a last resort, in the event of Sri Lanka not abiding by its commitments to the protection of human rights. The wording of the EU resolution leaves open the possibility of salvaging the GSP Plus, the importance of which has been articulated by the country’s exporters, particularly the apparel and fishing industries. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage who met senior representatives of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) Sri Lanka, the Seafood Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL) and trade unions, had reassured them of the government’s commitment to ensuring that the EU GSP+ would continue to remain beneficial to the country.
The exporters have pointed out that the EU market is just too important to lose as the prices paid by the EU are more than double that of purchasers in other countries. It is not only the fate of Sri Lankan exporters that hangs in the balance. The media reported a government decision to restrict imports of so-called luxury goods that included mobile phones and electronics. While the government has formally denied this, such news indicates a catastrophic collapse in public confidence in the economy. On the other hand, if Sri Lanka becomes truly a country that treats all its communities equally, and abides by the rule of law, foreign investors, including the large and prosperous Diaspora can be invited to invest in the country and bring in the much needed foreign exchange for the country’s development that benefits all communities.
The government will be aware that a mere tweaking of the PTA will be insufficient to secure the GSP+ concession from the EU. This is why the Foreign Ministry statement goes on to mention that the government had released 16 LTTE prisoners and has informed the EU of the release of Rs 79 million to the Office of Reparations in June to settle 1,230 processed claims for reparation and that an additional Rs 80 million was released on 29 June to settle a further 1,451 processed claims, out of a total 3,389 processed claims. The GSP+ is given as an incentive to countries that have committed themselves to implementing 27 international human rights agreements. This goes far beyond the redesign of only the PTA and release of prisoners detained under it, who in any event, should not be there in the first place having been subjected to coerced confessions, not charged or brought before the courts of law or who have had their cases delayed for too many years.
The 27 human rights agreements that the EU expects beneficiary countries to be following include those focusing on human rights, which are the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981), Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). Those relating to labour rights include the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98), Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) (and its 2014 Protocol), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111).
There are also conventions relating to the environment, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973), Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987), Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989),Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000), Stockholm Convention on persistent Organic Pollutants (2001), Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1998). Finally, there is the category of protection of good governance, which include the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971)’ United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988) and the United Nations Convention against Corruption.
Despite this plethora of international agreements relating to human rights, labour rights, environment and good governance, at the root of the EU’s concerns is the lack of progress in addressing the consequences of the country’s protracted ethnic conflict. This led to three decades of war, and now to 12 years of post-war peace in which the root cause of unequal and discriminatory treatment remains unaddressed. The government has an uphill task to convince the international community about the sincerity of its intentions. This is a government that was elected to power in a highly polarising and nationalistic election campaign which depicted the ethnic and religious minorities as potential threats to national security and national sovereignty that needed to be neutralised. It is also the government that was in place following the end of the war in 2009 until 2015, which may have been the best time to settle issues once and for all, but which did not take up the challenge.
The irony is that as a result of its antecedents, which brought it to power, the government is finding it difficult to convince the ethnic and religious minorities, within the country, let alone the EU, that it’s sincere in its commitment to peace, reconciliation and human rights. The unfortunate reality is that the government has a dearth of credible champions within its fold who can articulate a message of peace and reconciliation in a convincing manner. Those champions of the past decades, including Prof G L Peiris, Prof Tissa Vitarana, DEW Gunasekara and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, have receded to the background in terms of their contributions to peace and inter-ethnic justice. But the appreciation of their past commitment suggests that they can play a role if called to man the breaches by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They have the intellectual capacity to realise that simply changing the PTA and releasing prisoners is not sufficient to show change of heart, but there needs to be a demonstrable commitment to ensuring that all sections of the people are treated equally.
An important task therefore devolves upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to articulate the change that is necessary as no one can doubt his bona fides in relation to preserving national unity, national sovereignty and national security. The foundational principle for his government’s approach could be the speech he made at his inaugural swearing in, when he said that he would be the president of all Sri Lankans, including those who did not vote for him. The essence of human rights, and of the 27 international covenants that the EU wishes Sri Lanka to comply with, is the concept of equality and equal treatment before the law, irrespective of race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation, caste or political party. A genuine reconciliation process with devolution, associated with changes to legislation in this regard that ensure equality treatment to all, may be able change the stands taken by most countries than any other singular alteration.
COVID-19: Contradicting caregivers, confused civilians, complementary curatives
by Dr. M.A. Mohamed Saleem
“It is more important to consider other ancient medical traditions prior to the knowledge we have nowadays” – Hippocrates
Since December 2019 COVID-19 has engulfed all countries. More than 100 viruses of this family produce respiratory cold-like symptoms. Any virus can gain greater pathogenicity and cause the manifestation of varying symptoms but, people also recover quickly. Over the last two decades the world has witnessed Coronaviral behavioural changes, designated SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2010/11. Within two years however, SARS and MERS disappeared.
COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV2 (which broke out in 2019), is claimed to have jumped from bats in Wuhan, China. According to virologists such a sudden viral evolutionary jump from animal to human is uncommon as it takes a long-time span to occur naturally. This virus could have been released or accidentally escaped from a lab and evidence seems to suggest that Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan University Centre for Animal Experiment, in collaboration with the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in a “gain-of-function research”.
Why would anyone take a less virulent virus from the wild and make it more virulent and powerful by infusing gain of functions knowing its potential to spread fast and cause adverse effects?
A COVID-19 health crisis has been ‘foretold’ at a conference in the USA years before its actual breakout in December 2019. According to another report, the World Bank had supported WITS (World Integrated Trade Solutions) Test Kits, labelled COVID-19 Test Kits, being exported in 2017. Although this trade entry has now been withdrawn the suspicion of a well-planned and coordinated health crisis lingers on.
Health policy-makers and caregivers have been giving mixed signals all along starting with acknowledging COVID-19 a problem. Initially, some considered the problem short lived and would pass like a seasonal cold, while others, led by the WHO, launched massive international propaganda to alert the public about the potential threat and laid out strategies to be followed to mitigate virus transmission.
It appears that there was a concerted effort to raise people’s fear and vulnerability to the virus. Those deemed infected, along with other members of the household, were quarantined in designated camps and a total lockdown enforced to confine people in their dwellings. As safety measures, wearing face masks to prevent free passage of 0.06 – 0.14 micron sized COVID-19 viral particles, but masks only help recirculate air trapped within), and maintaining one-meter distance between individuals were made mandatory. Even the asymptomatic were claimed to host the deadly virus, mortally frightening and compelling the masses to undergo Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests to ascertain their health status.
It is claimed that the actual virus Sars-Cov-2 has never been isolated and purified and therefore, it is impossible to test for it and discern between different types of pathogens. Yet, the WHO prescribed using the PCR test to ascertain COVID-19 cases. As PCR readings are taken at an elevated reaction thresholds, even dying cell chromosomal RNA fragments become visible, mostly producing false positive results, indicating large numbers of people who did not have the virus. Nonetheless, all tests were included to project higher infection rates which further raised people’s fear of contracting the disease.
Some healthcare workers have also challenged hospital admissions and hospital certification of deaths. After declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, anyone admitted to or dying in hospitals, even with other pre-existing or acquired condition(s), was listed as a COVID-19 victim, allegedly to inflate casualty numbers. Autopsies were not allowed on ‘COVID’ victims but where it was performed, in defiance of the official position, no evidence of COVID-19 was found suggesting that the death had occurred due to some other cause. Moreover, the annual number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been significantly different from previous years. Nonetheless, consolidated mortality figures were used to project the severity of COVID-19 and emphasise the urgency for a quick fix.
Surprisingly, it is reported that the WHO did not allow, in the early stages of the pandemic, the use of any drug available at that time. However, health experts in many countries claim to have successfully used drugs like hydro chloroquine and Ivermectin as preventives and therapeutics to treat COVID-19 patients while the WHO kept insisting on the continuation of precautionary protocols until vaccines arrived. There is now a growing opinion that infection could have been halted had the use of Ivermectin (a drug on the WHO’s list of essential drugs and has been in use for a number of years) been allowed from the beginning: A plea that is now being taken to the Indian courts.
By March 2020 the whole world came to a standstill, gripped by an unprecedented fear of impending doom and helplessness. Anything that offered a ray of hope was welcome: An ideal condition to try out experimental vaccines in the pretext of emergency use, disregarding the danger warnings from very reputable scientists against using untested vaccines and short circuiting the lengthy vaccine development and certification process taken before public use. Emergency use also provided the legal cover for manufacturers against any adverse effects of vaccines.
Confusing is the manner in which the experimental vaccines are being pushed as the only way out of the pandemic without providing people information on research and clinical data integrity, including ingredients used in the vaccines, how and for how long they were tested, how effective they are and the duration of their efficacy and possible side effects, and implications to different age groups when vaccinated. These have now become hotly discussed topics.
The unanswered question is why a vaccine is necessary when the effectiveness of vaccines rolled out ranges between 62 and 95 percent, whereas the reported survival rate of those infected and cured by age groups are: zero to 19 years 99.99 percent, 20 to 49 years 99.98 percent, 50 to 69 years 99.5, over 70 years 94.6 percent, and given that conventional wisdom has always favoured acquiring natural immunity as the best form of defense. Recently a Pfizer scientist observed that immunity gained through exposure to the virus is better as efficacy of a vaccine is generally judged by the severity of illness and mortality among vaccinated. In the case of diphtheria, the death rate was more than 90 percent and even a 50 percent effective vaccine was then considered a major success.
When hundreds of unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts, USA, were tested, 75 percent of the infections were among the vaccinated. Recently, in Israel, 60 percent of the hospitalised were fully vaccinated, leading to a conclusion that the fully vaccinated can equally harbour and transmit the virus as the unvaccinated and that the vaccines only lessen clinical systems and not a cure for the disease as was the case with previous vaccines the world had known.
Since discovery, vaccines have had a chequered safety history. Anticipating challenges, the USA had created a Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS). Over the years, many complaints of damage resulted in vaccines being withdrawn and compensation paid. According to VAERS a total of 726,963 adverse reactions to COVID-19 jabs, including 15,386 deaths, have been reported and similar adverse cases are also constantly being reported in other countries.
Mixed signals from caregivers is highlighted in recommending the use of gene-interfering Pfizer/biotech vaccine for children in spite of some reputable immunologists calling to question its suitability for that age group who are still in their formative stages. Recommending the use of different vaccines (without knowledge of long term effects by combining vaccines) if the same vaccine is not available for the follow up jab, seems difficult to comprehend. The allegation that some vaccines, like Pfizer, contains poisonous graphene oxide has not been refuted.
Why should reputed scientists world over, backed by equally strong scientific evidence of vaccine side effects, calling for a pause and review of the vaccination programme face censorship? This is the greatest puzzle for civilians.
Complementary medicines consider clinical symptoms as response to restore body health. They attempt to maintain a strong immune system as a blanket barrier to fend off ‘foreign’ objects from gaining access to internal organs and intervene before the onset of diseases. According to traditional Chinese medicine emotions, food habits and lifestyle strongly influence the manner of re-establishing internal energy balance that will determine the progress of healing.
In this era of fast food and destruction of natural resources beyond their replenishing capacity to support ‘modernising’ lifestyles, a large percentage of the people are immunocompromised. A vaccine’s safety and effectiveness is determined by the type of immunodeficiency and degree of immunosuppression. As each person is different and immunodeficiency can also vary over time, any decision to recommend a particular vaccine should depend on a case-by-case analysis of the risks and benefits and cannot be centrally dictated.
Unlike many western countries Sri Lanka has established equally effective institutions of complementary healthcare systems: Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy. When faced with large infectious breakouts like dengue, Chikungunya and the current COVID-19, these alternative systems can contribute immensely with curatives. Unfortunately, such health expertise has been sidelined when forming COVID-19 health advisory teams. This need not imply that the country is deriding the importance of complementary cures.
Several countries have reported very healthy people developing blood clots and going into cardiac arrest after receiving some kind of COVID-19 vaccination. They also claim fast waning of vaccine efficacy, few weeks after taking the jab. Western medicine cannot explain the reasons behind these, but only continue to recommend more booster vaccine doses.
The final evaluation of vaccines, rolled out under the emergency phase, is targeted for early 2023. No one knows what the final vaccination regimes are going to be against possibly recurring viral mutations and health hazards. Many countries, including Sri Lanka, cannot follow such an expensive and uncertain vaccination process, mainly dictated by profit-making pharmaceutical groups. Therefore, the search for alternative non-synthetic remedies and natural, healthy food habits to maintain natural immunity are given a renewed emphasis everywhere. It is unfortunate that in Sri Lanka this is not even a talking point and those who could are left sidelined.
How do we market Sri Lanka globally as a unique country – green socio-economic system
By Jayampathy Molligoda, Chairman, SLTB.
One consignment of ‘Potassium Chloride’ fertiliser arrived on September 14, presumably, to be applied for the paddy sector. The potassium chloride is not an organic material. However, the input materials approved for organic farming need not only be organic. Potassium Chloride is a mineral and not organic, but it’s permissible to be used for organic farming under international and SLS standards. Even some chemicals such as copper based chemical mixtures are allowed to be used for organic farming under international standards.
Tea sub sector:
As for the tea sector, what we have been saying is the government policy change as per Cabinet decision on 27th April, will enable us to arrest the tea land degradation and improve soil quality and thus moving towards green agriculture- plantation economy. As stated in the Cabinet paper, the state policy change is ‘migrating into green socio- economic pattern; this can be termed ‘regenerative agriculture’ or the green economic system. One of the milestones in the Tea strategy 2030 road map is improving soil quality and air and water quality through an integrated soil fertility management and balanced nutrient management.
Nevertheless, SLTB officials are closely watching and monitoring the entire tea supply chain – five months have lapsed from the government policy change prohibiting fertiliser imports and up to end September, a detailed scientific analysis on statistics of production, auction sales data and physical inspection of factories/estates have not revealed any major drop in quantity, however there will be issues if no nutrients are provided at the earliest.
Cumulative tea production for the period January to September 2021 shows an increase of 16% respectively against last year.
Addressing tea growers’ concerns:
In fact, the tea production to date is higher than the average of the corresponding period during the last five years. This shows that good weather conditions,especially water and sunlight, are equally important, along with providing required nutrients. Therefore, it is important to address the adverse effects of ‘climate change’ through mitigating and adaptation strategies. The confusion here is that the majority of the people have misunderstood the word ‘organic’ in the government proposal, thinking the stakeholders are required to immediately convert tea production and exports into organic. We need to educate the farmers and there should not be loss of income for efficient growers even during the transitional period. At the same time, malpractices and under-utilisation of land and over use of inputs without following GAPs need to be arrested by the authorities. The name of the game is ‘green agricultural system’ as stated in the said Cabinet paper and the President’s address at the General Assembly, United Nations, recently – green energy, green agriculture-this is how I understood the vision.
The positive feature is the emergence of R&D initiatives mooted by the tea sector hitherto not happened and the admission that there has been an excessive usage of chemical fertiliser and decline in yields. There has been hardly any soil analysis undertaken during the last couple of years and lack of site- specific fertiliser application. Scientists have concluded that beneficial microbes in the soil are disturbed with excessive application of chemicals.
In order to address farmers concerns and genuine grievances, there is nothing wrong in using nano-hybrid chemically bonded, ‘slow release’ fertiliser until we are self-sufficient in the production and supply of ‘organic’ fertiliser. Based on approvals received from the government, the private sector importers have already been allocated ordering sufficient quantities of Ammonium sulphate last week (under Import control licence scheme-07/05/21) to be mixed with minerals such as ERP and potassium for tea estates. The production and supply of organic fertiliser is also increasing.
However, if they don’t provide with sufficient N and K, there will be issues both in quantity and quality. Another issue for exporters is lack of shipping space and shortage in containers more than other Issues- that’s being sorted out.
My understanding is the vision of The Head of the State is; How do we reposition and market ‘Sri Lanka’ globally as a unique country? As for Ceylon Tea marketing strategy- how do we position ‘Ceylon Tea’ in the minds of discerning tea consumers globally as a unique product? The State policy change should be viewed in that perspective. Our ‘Ceylon Tea’ Brand story; the cleanest tea in the world is being reinforced with this state policy change: ‘green socio- economic pattern’. This is on par with the Tea strategy road map 2030 prepared by CTTA, the private sector apex body for tea industry, in consultation with Tea Board, Ministry and other stakeholders. Let us work together to realise true potential to obtain higher net foreign exchange, so that the benefits will trickle down to the farmers in accordance with the Tea Control Act No. 51 of 1957. The way forward strategy should be communicated to everyone.
100% Organic Agriculture: A costly experiment leading to National disaster
by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya
Five months have elapsed since the government’s, in all probability the President’s, decision to ban inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals to immediately transform Sri Lanka’s agriculture into totally ‘organic’ (or ‘green’ as the President referred to in his address at the SL Army’s 72nd Anniversary last week). At present, almost the entire agriculture sector is in crisis and the farming community is facing uncertainty at this crucial period of the year when the major crop-growing season is about to begin. Therefore, it is imperative that the President reconsider his decision to avert a national disaster. A recollection of the events leading to the President’s decision and its aftermath shows the extent of confusion that reigns, the muddled thinking of those in charge and the consequent mismanagement of this issue.
Background to the Decision
According to the President, the decision to ban the use of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals (which include pesticides and herbicides), was taken to safeguard peoples’ health and protect the environment. A close examination of scientific evidence, available in Sri Lanka (or worldwide), has failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between inorganic fertiliser use and any of the major human health issues prevalent in Sri Lanka (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology). A similar conclusion can be made on synthetic agrochemicals as well. While excessive use of fertiliser and agrochemicals could lead to human health and environmental issues, available statistics on fertiliser and agrochemical use in different countries show that their use in Sri Lankan agriculture cannot be categorised as ‘excessive’. Therefore, it is clear that the decision to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ was based on ideology and wishful thinking rather than on solid, scientific evidence.
Was there a clear plan in place prior to taking the decision?
All actions of the government, since the implementation of the fertiliser and agrochemical ban, clearly demonstrates a complete absence of an alternative plan prior to the decision. A major decision, such as this, necessitated a comprehensive analysis of its costs in terms of potential reduction of crop yields, its economic and social implications on farmer livelihoods, national food supply and the entire social fabric. The perceived environmental and human health benefits should have been weighed against the risks of disrupting the food production and supply chain and the ensuing social instability.
Furthermore, there should have been a rational evaluation of the alternative strategies (e.g. local organic fertiliser production) with regard to their practical feasibility, time frames available, effectiveness and cost. However, it is abundantly clear that none of the above has taken place prior to the decision. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major policy decision being taken without a rational, scientifically-valid analysis of either the current status of the issue or possible consequences of the decision.
Stakeholder response in the immediate aftermath of the decision
The stakeholder responses to the decision have fallen in to three broad categories. A minority consisting of hard-core organic agriculture advocates and environmentalists voiced their approval, arguing that: (a) protection of human health and environment should take immediate precedence over any concerns about reduced crop yields and consequent shortages of food supplies; (b) a gradual transition to 100% organic agriculture would be difficult to implement because of farmer preference for inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals when they are available. Hence, it was argued that their total ban was needed to implement organic agriculture. For example, the highly-influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobhditha Thera, who is often a strong critic of the present regime, advised the government not to ‘take a step backwards’ on the fertiliser and agrochemical ban.
The second category of responses came from a majority of the general public, including a fair proportion of agriculturists, who accepted the decision to go ‘100% organic’ as a ‘good’ decision in principle, but one that should have been implemented over time and in phases. This group assumes that it is possible to fulfil the national food requirement by 100% organic agriculture at some future date (by which time the national population also will have increased further).
In contrast, a majority of agricultural scientists and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the science of crop production based on the principles of agronomy, soil science, plant nutrition and plant protection is of the opinion that 100% organic agriculture will not totally fulfil the country’s food requirement, either now or in the future, but can be practiced on a limited scale for niche markets (as is the case worldwide). The majority of farmers, in their conventional wisdom gained from several generations of farming, also comes to the same conclusion that national-scale crop production, in an economically-viable scale, is not possible with 100% organic agriculture. This constitutes the third category of stakeholder response. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which consists of more than 110 academics with expertise in different sub-disciplines and specialities of Agriculture, in a communication to the President and the Government, advised identification, based primarily on soil fertility status, of specific areas in Sri Lanka, for possible gradual introduction of the practices of organic agriculture to pilot-test the feasibility of transition to organic agriculture in the future. This position also underlies the fact that 100% organic agriculture across the whole country and its agriculture sector is not a viable option.
It is hoped that events in the five-month period since the decision, especially during the past month, will have shifted the responses of some stakeholders from category one to category two and from category two to category three.
What has the government done or tried to do since the implementation of the ban?
Local production of organic fertiliser
Everything the government has done or tried to do during the last five months shows its lack of preparation and inability to address the issues and challenges ensuing from the ban. The widely-held assumption among the advocates of the immediate and total ban of inorganic fertiliser was that crop nutrient requirements on a nation-wide scale could be supplied with organic fertiliser, prepared locally. There was a proliferation of programmes, mainly in local authorities and farms maintained by various government institutions including the military, to produce ‘compost’, an organic fertiliser with generally low and variable nutrient concentration, mainly from solid waste, animal manure and crop residue. Because of the rush to produce organic fertiliser on a scale sufficient to meet the national demand within a few months, none of the locally-produced organic fertiliser is tested for its quality in terms of the presence of required nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and soil amendments (e.g. organic matter) or the absence of potential harmful agents. In this regard, the presence of heavy metals, such as Lead, Cadmium and Arsenic at levels above their tolerable thresholds is a distinct possibility because municipal solid waste, which is a common source material for compost production by local authorities, could contain material having the harmful heavy metals mentioned above.
Now, at the beginning of the Maha cropping season, which is the major season in Sri Lanka, it has become abundantly clear that local production capacity of organic fertiliser, irrespective of its quality, is inadequate to meet the national-scale demand for plant nutrients of crops to be grown.
Importation of organic fertiliser
The discussions that took place among officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the advocates of organic agriculture revealed the fact that even those who strongly advocated and advised the President to implement the ban did not have an evidence-based figure on the per hectare organic fertiliser requirement to calculate its national requirement. As a result, the government’s position on importing organic fertiliser was shifting and evasive in the immediate aftermath of the ban, with the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture making contradictory statements, both in and outside Parliament. When the realisation finally dawned on the government officials that local organic fertiliser production will not be sufficient for the coming Maha season, there has been a bungled attempt to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China, which is still continuing. This is despite the samples of this consignment twice-failing the tests for the presence of microorganisms.
The threat of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils via imported organic fertiliser
At the very outset of the ban on inorganic fertiliser, independent experts had warned of this very significant danger of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils, which could lead to a myriad of complex ecological processes with potential to disrupt the existing soil microbial community and set-off adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this well-meant advice of experts fell on deaf ears. The importance of protecting the native microbial population in a soil cannot be over-emphasised as the microbes play a pivotal role in many soil processes which sustain and regenerate its fertility. One of the major critiques of the large-scale use of inorganic fertiliser has been their modification of the natural soil microbial communities.
Importation of liquid organic fertiliser
When the attempt to import solid organic fertiliser from China was stalled (may be temporarily as attempts to import it are still reported to be continuing behind the scenes), there are reports that organic fertiliser in liquid form, a nitrogen extract according to the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, has been cleared for importation from India. A loophole in the existing regulations has enabled importation of liquid fertiliser which only requires to be free from ‘harmful’ microorganisms whereas solid organic fertiliser needs to be free from all microorganisms. The term ‘harmful’ microorganisms has no scientific validity in the broader context of environmental microbiology. This is because a microorganism that is categorised as ‘harmless’ at the time of its introduction to a foreign environment could easily become ‘harmful’ by fast proliferation in the absence of the ecological controls (e.g. natural enemies, environmental controls, etc.) that were present in its original environment to regulate its population within ‘harmless’ limits. Therefore, application of imported liquid organic fertilisers has the same level of threat to the local soil microbial population that the solid organic fertiliser poses.
It should be noted that if liquid nitrogen fertiliser is added to the soil, it is more likely to be leached down with rain or irrigation water and possibly pollute ground water than even the solid inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, thus nullifying a major argument for ‘going 100% organic immediately’. It is possible to apply the important liquid organic fertiliser to the plants as a ‘foliar application’. However, as in the soil, such an application poses a threat to the microbial communities that are present on plant leaves (called the phyllosphere microorganisms) by the foreign ‘harmless’ microorganisms, which are allowed to be applied along with the imported liquid fertiliser. A substantial amount of research done by Sri Lankan as well as foreign scientists has shown that phyllosphere microbes provide protection against a wide-range plant pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses and viroids) by various mechanisms and thereby provides natural protection to agricultural crops from a range of plant diseases. A possible disruption of the phyllosphere microbial community by foliar application of imported liquid organic fertiliser containing foreign microbes which are perceived to be ‘harmless’ could potentially increase the risk of disease outbreaks in major crops which will be impossible to control, especially in the absence of synthetic agrochemicals.
Crucially, in a crop such as tea where leaf quality is of paramount importance, foliar application of imported organic fertiliser containing foreign ‘non-harmful’ microorganisms could alter the leaf biochemistry in such a way to disrupt the key characters of made tea such as its flavour and strength. The negative impact that this will have on the Sri Lankan tea industry, which in these COVID-19-affected times has been one of the few assured sources of valuable foreign exchange, will be incalculable and may well be irreversible as a market lost cannot be easily recovered.
Furthermore, foliar application of liquid organic fertiliser would not bring any benefit to the soil. Application of solid organic fertilisers, most of which are really ‘organic soil amendments’ rather than ‘organic fertilisers’, improves the soil physical properties which are important to sustain and regenerate soil fertility. Accordingly, apart from increasing the threat of crop disease incidence by introducing foreign microoganisms, promotion of foliar application of organic fertiliser will not contribute to the government’s perceived benefits of ‘going 100% organic with immediate effect’.
This bungled attempt to import organic fertiliser, in solid as well as liquid forms, clearly demonstrates the government’s muddled thinking in its rationale, planning and implementation of this grand scheme of becoming the first country to go 100% organic in its agriculture. It is telling that Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, who was a strong advocate of this scheme a few months ago, went on record saying that in view of the clear and present dangers of importing organic fertilisers, it would be better to go back to the inorganic fertilisers.
Intervention of the Chinese Embassy and undermining of DoA officers
The statement put out by the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, a friendly country providing an enormous amount of aid to Sri Lanka, casting doubt on the validity of scientific procedures adopted by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), in detecting the presence of microorganisms (i.e. bacteria belong to the genera Bacillus and Erwinia, which contain several bacterial species which are enormously harmful to agricultural crops, both in the field and after harvesting) in the samples of solid organic fertilizer to be imported from a Chinese manufacturer, raises several points of concern. Even though the Embassy claimed that a minimum period of six days is required for detection of the above microorganisms, Sri Lankan scientists with expertise in plant microbiology and plant pathology, pointed out that the microbiological and pathogenicity tests required to make scientifically-valid conclusions on the presence of the above organisms can be done within three days. It is notable that none of the higher authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture came out to defend the validity of the testing procedure and the professional integrity of research officers of the NPQS who carried it out.
Instead, conspiracy theories (e.g. contamination of samples by injecting microorganisms in to them) and blatant threats of investigation by the CID by the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture himself sought to intimidate DoA research officers and undermine their work. When the second set of samples, which was reportedly brought under Police protection, also failed the microbiological tests at the NPQS, there is now talk of bringing a third set of samples to be tested. It appears that the government is bent on somehow importing this consignment of organic fertilizer from China. One wonders whether the statement put out by the Chinese Embassy envisaging resolution of this issue for the ‘benefit’ of both parties is a ‘veiled threat’ or not.
In the broader context, this represents another instance where the Sri Lankan government and its institutions have failed to support its scientific and research community whose work, performed with enormous difficulty in severely under-resourced infrastructure, provides the framework and solid facts (instead of wishful thinking based on speculation) for effective policy formulation.
(To be continued)
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