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Organic fertilisers and so-called fertiliser mafia

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA

Canada.

Not so long ago, Champika Ranavaka championed a hair-brained project known as “Polipto”, to make petrol from waste polythene. Ranawaka also pushed the “Toxin-Free Nation” programme, and one of his university mates ran a project with the acronym SEMA. It championed the “new vision” from the presidential secretariat itself. The then president Maithripala Sirisena had banned glyphosate as a part of the “Toxin-Free” project popularised by Ven. Ratana, Ranawaka and others.

Today’s 100% organic ­policy is the absurd conclusion of the Toxin-free project. It has the support of many senior politicians, such as Chamal Rajapaksa, and juniors like Channa Jayasumana. Influential monks, Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka, Ven. Bellanvila Dharmaratana and others have backed it with their “chinthanaya” and not with science.

At a more sophisticated level, supporters of organic agriculture come up with seemingly “scientific” proposals that confuse the uninitiated. An innuendo of conspiracy is added to this narrative, with the question, “Why hasn’t the Dept. of Agriculture (DOA) implemented all this”? Are agricultural scientists part of the “fertiliser mafia”?

Farming in Sri Lanka is a private business, and if the farmers and plantations have not adopted the methods pushed hard by SEMA, MONLAR, and the “chinthanaya” ideologues, as well as Buddhist monks owning much temple land, then something besides conspiracy theories are needed.

The seemingly scientific but false proposals confuse even the professionals. So, we hear of various scientists uttering on TV that organic agriculture is indeed the Holy Grail, but the hasty approach used by this government is at fault. This belief is patently false, as 100% organic agriculture, even at its best, CANNOT feed even a half of the current population of Sri Lanka. It will lead to enormous environmental degradation and dire famine.

However, let us examine some of these seemingly scientific but inadequate or unworkable proposals.

1. Plant a legume crop like Mung beans (Vigna radiata L) that takes 45 days to harvest. The Mung bean fixes nitrogen and will provide the needed N for the rice that should be planted after the Mung harvest. Some have even claimed that the Mung will produce 200-300% more N than what is needed by the paddy.

What is blithely claimed above is factually incorrect. Even short-term Mung varieties need 60-70 days, harvested in 90-100 days. Although Mung bean fixes nitrogen, it is NOT ENOUGH even for itself to produce a good crop. Read the research:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0206285

So it is usual to add N:P:K in the ratio 5:12:5 PLUS 4-5 TONNES of farmyard manure (compost) to avoid needing more fertiliser. Pendimethalin and Nitrophen are used as pesticides.

Cost of Mung bean farming is some Rs 95,000 to 100,000 per hectare. The Mung bean can be sold profitably. Instead of harvesting the mung growth, it can be ploughed to provide soil nitrogen. Unfortunately, even with N fixation, the most amount of N that one obtains is 4% of the DRY weight of the mung growth, and woefully inadequate for the rice.

However, as Rahaman et al (2014) have shown, crop rotation together with urea can improve agronomic efficiency. A basic amount of urea, as well as standard P, K are needed. The environmental problems from urea can be largely mitigated using slow-release urea, but NOT nano-urea which poses a serious health danger (see The Island 29-10-2021 https://island.lk/human-health-and-nano-fertilizers-where-is-the-safety-clothing/ )

In growing mung, instead of adding N via the 5:12:5 NPK fertilisser, benefit from biological nitrogen fixation with native rhizobia inhabiting nodule micro-organisms can be attempted, but at the risk of increased microbial CO2 generation. The possibility is still being researched, as may be seen from very recent work on the topic:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7835340/

Hence it is plain nonsense to ask farmers to adopt a technology which is still on the drawing boards.

2. Another proposal that has been bandied about since the 1960s is that cyanobacterial algal N-fixation can be used to provide a large part of the N-fertilizer needed.

Long-term urea application degrades the soil, water, and air quality, producing global warming. So there is a biotechnological interest in using nitrogen-fixing microorganisms to enhance crop growth, without using urea, since current poor practices lead to much waste. The wasteful practice of using water to control weeds in paddy fields, where even 60% of the urea applied may get washed away, should be stopped, as it also leads to soil erosion. Growing rice without any more water than for any pasture grasses will be the norm when global warming reduces water availability.

If water logging is to be used even in the short term, then N-fixing algae can be considered, but this is NOT an optimal solution. Kulasooriya and others have reported preliminary studies. However, even a 2021 research publication merely mentions that there is potential but no standardized farm protocol available. See:

https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/11/10/4628/htm

3. It has been claimed that fast growing N-fixing aquatic ferns like Azolla Pinnata with 20-25% protein content can be used to make N-fertiliser. It is known to double in size every two days if adequate nutrients are provided. So, it is proposed to grow it in lakes and tanks, and harvested to produce organic N fertiliser.

This is a complete myth. Azolla Pinnata grows exponentially but exponential amounts of P, K must be supplied, e.g., as phosphate fertiliser. If it acquires 25% protein, its nitrogen content would be 4% and no better than from Salvinia Molesta, which is already widely present. I have discussed both Salvinia Molesta and Azolla Pinnata in my plant website:

https://dh-web.org/place.names/bot2sinhala.html

More details, including the fact that both A. Pinnata and Salvinia also accumulate heavy-metal toxins during their rapid growth are given there.

4. It has been claimed that when scientifically fertilised paddy fields were grown with zero fertiliser, it was only in the 4th year that the yield dropped to 45%, and that from then on two tonnes per hectare were assured!

One has to only look at the annual reports of the DOA in the 1940s, 1950s to get decades of data to show that such magical claims may require the intervention of God Natha. Even the ancients knew that after every three or four years it was necessary to burn a forest and make a new “chena”, even to get one or one and a half tonnes of rice per hectare. There is no way to cut through the gullibility of those who are faithful to an ideology.

5. The work of Dr. Premakumar of the ITI, and Dr. Roshan Perera of Kotelawala Defence Academy, has been cited for isolating many soil microorganisms that can enhance nutrient delivery to plants. So, has the “fertilizer mafia” prevented its use in farming!

The microorganisms that enhance nutrient delivery by various mechanisms, also enhance the uptake of heavy metal toxins like cadmium, lead, etc., by plants, making any water insoluble (i.e.non-bio-available) forms soluble. Such methods may upset the microbial balance of the soil, and spawn new toxic forms as happens in eutrophic systems. Enhanced microbial action leads to enhanced green-house gas emission of CO2 and reactive Nitrogen forms. Long term research is needed before such methods can be adopted in the farm.

Those who ask this kind of question know that we can use bovine DNA in a nutrient vat and create beef, without cattle and slaughter houses. Why is that DNA technology not being widely adopted? There can be decades between a laboratory result and farm applications. It is this lack of understanding and judgment that propelled the ban on glyphosate, or the100% organic policy, in the belief that there ARE practical alternatives suppressed by big agri-business.

6. Another typical question is why biochar and other carbon remediation methods had not been used as a soil conditioner in the plantations, where soil quality has grossly deteriorated, especially in tea.

Soil deterioration became increasingly acute after the nationalisation of the estates, when many of the standard maintenance practices were short-circuited by new managers. Many of the experienced managers left for South Africa and other countries that began to grow tea. The TRI is currently investigating biochar usage and soil remediation.

Those who ask these questions should note that this is not the only thing neglected since the 1970s. Neglect of most maintenance protocols, be they for tanks and rivers and their desilting, or due collection of garbage, or control of noxious fumes from vehicle traffic and increase in submicron particles etc., can be mentioned.

While submicron particles are probably the biggest environmental danger to health, the unproven danger of there being a few parts per billion of glyphosate in the environment, and the unsubstantiated claim that local glyphosate contains more toxic additives than used in Europe, led two medical doctors to demand the ban of glyphosate on the basis of “the precautionary principle”! Why didn’t they demand a ban on sugar which causes more diabetes and chronic kidney disease than any other toxin?



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Opinion

Send them back to school!

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We are not talking about our children going back to school but about the request made by the Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella to allow parliamentarians to enrol in the Sri Lankan Law College, or any other university, to further their studies. How about the basic qualification to enter university? Talking about the basic qualification we remember there was a talk some time ago about some members who have not got through even their GCE (O)Level, a bare minimum qualification, required even for a peon in a recognised organisation or in government services. We request the Chief Opposition Whip to request, on behalf of these members, to allow them to go back to school, no matter how old they are.

We remember one SAARC member country brought in a regulation saying that all those who come forward to contest a seat in the parliament should possess a university degree and at the submission of nomination the officials detected that nearly 20% of the certificates were fake. Anyway, we are proud that such things are extremely rare in our country.

Finally, I urge Kiriella to include schools, too, for MPs, who need the basic qualifications for university admission.

S. H. MOULANA

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Opinion

Compensate victims of gas explosions

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There is no shortage of hot topics for the media these days, the latest being the unusual occurrence of gas related accidents. Any ordinary person would understand that the present series of accidents are certainly due to the release of newly arrived consignment of gas cylinders whose composition ratio of propane and butane has been altered to maximise profits.

The responsible institutions and authorities as well as some ambidextrous politicians are defending the culprits who deny any change in the gas composition. The special committee appointed by the President to investigate into the matter, seem biased. The other day the public saw (through the TV news footages) that these so-called experts were trying to bully the innocent victims of these accidents, accusing them of the use of worn out hoses and regulators as the main reason for the incidents. Why the hell can’t they figure out the fact that these accidents are all due to the use of the newly bought wrongly filled cylinders. A committee of this nature is useless if its aim is to serve the vested interests. Instead of blaming the victims, one compulsory question they should ask is if the cylinder is newly bought or an old one. It is sad that this Kekille committee of experts is also trying to put the blame on the innocent consumer and defend the businessman.

All that the government should do at this critical hour is to introduce a mechanism to collect the data of the victims of these explosions and pay due compensation to them forthwith at the expense of the concerned gas company. The ministry in charge should also issue an urgent order to the company to recall the return of all these defective gas cylinders distributed to all districts and take immediate action for refilling them with the correct prescription of the chemical composition and issue with a new label giving all required instructions. In the meantime, the Consumer Protection Authority must ensure that accessories like the hoses and regulators, conforming to the SLS standards, are available in the market at least from now on for the safety of the consumers.

M. B. Navarathne

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Opinion

Banks make a killing at depositors’ expense

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The motive of the government decision to lower the interest rates of deposits was predominantly to engross the banks to lend at lower interest rates for entrepreneurs to boost the economy of the country which is in dire straits. However, would this proposal prove productive?

Owing to this absurd stunt senior citizens and pensioners have been left high and dry high and dry, resulting in unprecedented agony and anguish. Many victims have highlighted their grievances on behalf of the distraught senior citizens and pensioners. This much spoken of government’s harsh decision to lower interest rates has made the lives of senior citizen’s and pensioners miserable with the escalating high cost of living, skyrocketing cost of medical expenses, etc. It is pertinent to mention that monthly interest rates on fixed deposits, which they mostly rely upon, have been reduced to alarmingly low 4% and 5 % which has added to the woes already the senior citizens face.

All senior citizens who are not receiving or entitled for a pension, depend solely on monthly fixed deposit interest as the regular source of income for their living. As a result of lowering interest rates of deposits, their plans have all been shattered causing them to be wondering how to make ends meet.At this dire juncture, the intervention of the President is needed to revoke this unreasonable decision of lowering the interest rates of deposits.

The only redress the senior folk benefits is by the Central Bank’s special scheme of 15% interest for senior citizens. However, in this too the senior citizens have been slapped and battered with a Rs 1.5 million ceiling.

In comparison to the reduction of interest rates of deposits, if one takes into account the number of loans granted to entrepreneurs at lower interest rates the answer would be very negligible, particularly as the bank’s do not take risks to lend to entrepreneurs whom they believe to have projects not viable. The banks of course, would show enhanced profits at the end of the year as they have paid the depositors lower interest rates which reflects as plus mark for their balance sheets. This is a blessing in disguise for the management of banks at the receiving end of impoverished pensioners and senior citizens.

In the above contest the intervention of the President Gotabaya Rajapakse is most needed to bring about redress to ‘distressed” senior citizens and pensioners

Sunil Thenabadu

Brisbane, Australia

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