Organic fertilisers and so-called fertiliser mafia
By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA
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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
Jayantha Dhanapala, a star in a Trinity galaxy
It was about one and a half years ago that I contacted Jayantha Dhanapala to find his Kandy address in order to send him two of my books. On that day he informed me of the death of Mr SML Marikkar, his classmate at Trinity College, Kandy and my student to whom I had taught the classical languages. In an appreciation of Mr. Marikkar I had used the well known Latin dictum, “seniores priores” to indicate that in death too the older should take precedence over the younger as in matters of ordinary life.
As I commenced teaching the classical languages I was more than surprised that I had to teach another subject to the students of the University Entrance class . It so happened that the students learning this subject were an exceedingly outstanding group of Arts and Science students. Among them were Jayantha, Marikkar, Sarath Amunugama, Arjuna Aluvihare, Nihal Perera, Breckenridge and Karaliyadde.
The subject was called General English, a motley combination of general knowledge, language, precis writing and current affairs . In my school by the Beira this subject was taught by the Rector, Very Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai, a mathematician turned a teacher of Government to senior students.
Why the Trinity Principal, Mr Norman Walter selected me, a green horn, to teach this subject was a mystery to me. Sometimes I was out of depth. Some of these outstanding students would help me by raising very appropriate questions in class before I got “drowned.” They were Jayantha Dhanapala, SML Marikkar, and Sarath Amunugama. The last two later joined the Civil Service. Sarath even became my boss when I returned to the public service, the SLAS, after premature retirement with full pension rights.
Jayantha won the open Essay prize at Trinity in his final year. The English teacher Rev. Eliott shortlisted the competing essayists selecting two Jayantha’s and JKL Pereira’s as the two best and asked me to be the final arbiter. Though my talents were elsewhere, in the logic of grammar and in figures and less in literature it was clear that Jayantha should be the winner.
JKLP, who came second, like me chose accountancy as a profession. After finishing the English Honours degree with a good second class, Jayantha had a short stint at my old school at Maradana. In the first Administrative Service examination held, after the abolition of the Civil Service, he was placed first. But he chose the diplomatic service.
I heard that he had chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese as one of the foreign languages that young diplomats were required to learn. He later progressed in his career up to the top as an Under Secretary to the Sec. General of the United Nations. I remember reading in the media how President Clinton had paid a tribute to him on his handling of the complex affairs with regard to the nuclear arms proliferation and disarmament.
I had not met Jayantha while he was serving in the UN. It was only when he attended meetings of the Peradeniya Jayatilleke Hall old boys reunions that I came face to face with him after 50 years or so. He would have been surprised to see me at these reunions ,sometimes playing the piano accordion accompanying the ageing old boys of J Hall singing old favourites. Among them were Rev Fr. Derrick Mendis and his cousin Rev Fr. Egerton Perera, both of whom had qualified as Chartered Accountants and had dedicated themselves to a life of poverty as Jesuits. Sadly they are no more.
Jayantha could have reached the top in the UN outfit had the then SL government sponsored his candidacy with greater vigour. Even in the case of his classmate, Sarath Amunugama, had the recommendation of the late Prof. Carlo Fonseka that Aumunugama be the second in command in managing the affairs of the country been realized, the world and our country would have been better places.
May Jayantha Dhanapala’s soul rest in Peace.
Dr Leo Fernando,
TImely action must be taken to preserve Buddhism in Sri Lanka
As reported on the first page of Sunday Island (June 4) it is indeed very praiseworthy for the government authorities to have taken timely action to safeguard the most venerated Bo tree in the world. It is both an object of worship and symbol of national sovereignty on the majority Buddhist island of 22 million people. It is a well established fact that a sapling of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi was brought to Ceylon by none other than Indian Emperor Ashoka’s daughter Sangamitta Maha theri, who established the Bhikkuni sasana here.
However it is sad to note that presently the Bhikkuni sasana is not given the due recognition it deserves in our country, though it is common knowledge that our Buddha sasana comprises of Bhikku, Bhikkuni, upasaka and upasika. It is very difficult to fathom why the government authorities are not issuing Bhikkuni Identity cards, while the Bhikkus even though some break the vinaya rules in public from time to time are allowed to continue with their Bhikku identity cards. Why the double standard? Therefore it is of great importance that Buddhists rise up to the occasion and demand that government issue Bhikkuni Identity cards and give them the due recognition they deserve to have in our society.
If timely action is not taken to rectify the situation to protect the Bhikkuni Sasana, it will face the same fate as the Dhamma Chakraya, which symbolizes the Eight Fold Path preached by The Buddha in his first sermon to the Pasvaga mahanunun, after attaining Buddha hood. The ancient Dhamma Chakraya is correctly depicted in all Emperor Ashoka’s pillars which were erected in Buddhist places of worship in India, under his direction and guidance. Needless to say it is in the shape of a cart wheel with eight spokes connecting to the outer circle depicting the Eight Fold Path. It was also accepted as the Buddhist symbol here after Emperor Ashoka’s son Arahat Mahinda Threra introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
However, presently due to unknown reasons the Dhamma Chakraya has taken the form of the helm, (the wheel connected to the rudder to steer a ship), with projections from the outer circle. Presently 90% of the Buddhist establishments, TV channels and print media use this wheel as the symbol of Buddhism which is an incorrect depiction of the original Dhamma Chakraya. Thus it is equally important to take timely action to rectify this to contribute towards stability and continuity of the Buddha Sasana for posterity.
R. W. W.
Appreciation: Nalini de Lanerolle
Peradeniya with its soaring architecture reminiscent of auspicious traditions melding the grace of the sculptured rock and incredible richness of greenery and extravagant streamers and showers of glowing flowers in the space of 1956 to 1959 merged Nalini de Lanerolle’s (then de Silva’s) stores of reading and imagination to a vision of the past in all its splendor.
She graduated from the University of Peradeniya in 1959 where she majored in Sociology. She married Asoka de Lanerolle in 1960, and became the mother of a girl and two boys. From 1960 to 1972, she was a Librarian in the Ministry of Planning; from 1973 to 1975 she was an Instructor in English at the University of Colombo.
Energetic in temperament, she had many interests. She read extensively from teen-hood: a vast variety of books ranging from the classics to murder mysteries and science fiction to movie magazines and historical novels. In Sinhala, she mentioned having enjoyed W.A. Silva’s Vijayaba Kollaya and Martin Wickramasinghe’s Rohini, at Visakha. She was appointed to the panel which judged the annual Sinhala Drama Festival. She was also a member of the panel appointed to evaluate films and performers regularly. Le Roy Robinson’s “An Interview with Nalini de Lanerolle on Aspects of Culture in Sri Lanka” reveals the scope of her reflections which enriched readers through ‘The Reign of Ten Kings – Sri Lanka – The World 500 B.C. – 1200 A.D.
Alert in judgment, she had had an active mind and capacious imagination which turned mere curiosity to tough questions with firm answers. Why do the Apollo Belvedere and the Gandhara Buddha show distinct traces of similarity? Was there a King Arthur?
Nalini de Lanerolle has not only satisfied her own musings; in her book she has deftly interwoven facts from Lanka’s chronicles and periods of European history to throw light. To quote Manik de Silva “She has done some innovative historical researching and found exciting parallels of kings and epics in the East and West during the same periods.”
According to Sir Arthur C. Clarke ‘The Reign of Ten Kings’ is an “excellent and much neededpiece of research. I hope that her book will bring to the attention of a large audience some of the most remarkable architectural and cultural achievements in history …”.
Nalini in her interview with Le Roy Robins attributes her interest in history to her father, a Government Surveyor who travelled widely in the country and who told stories of Greek Gods to his children pointing out the constellations including Orion striding across the night sky. Her mother too inspired her, reading to her in Sinhala from Milindapanha, which she later discovered was about the questions posed to an Indo-Greek ruler, a contemporary of King Dutugamunu. Parallels always interested her. As she says to Le Roy Robins “I think I was a history addict. It began with the stories of all those kings – King Arthur included.”
Her husband, Asoka de Lanerolle took a keen interest in history as well and to quote her “my husband Asoka has been interested in most of my thinking regarding history, so he has always urged me to write”. I tried out the idea of parallels in history on him and he encouraged me feeling it was “a different way of writing a history of Sri Lanka”.
Asoka having gained his high school education at Royal, graduated from the University of Peradeniya with an Honors degree in Economics and began his career as an Assistant Lecturer in Economics. He then became a Foreign Service diplomat, and later the Marketing Manager at Lever Brothers Ceylon.
In 1972 he was nominated as the Eisenhower Exchange student from Sri Lanka, giving them both the opportunity of living for seven months in the USA and travelling widely soaking in the history of a different continent. When he joined the UN International Trade Center in Geneva, and worked in Somalia, Bangladesh and Nigeria, Nalini travelled extensively enjoying glimpses of history like the sale of frankincense (one of the three gifts to baby Jesus by the kings) in Somalian market places.
She took great pleasure in all her children being avid readers despite the advent of televisions and in the fact that they all strongly supported the publication of her book, helping her by taking photographs, doing line drawings and cross-checking all the years mentioned in the book.
We have lost a historian and an intellectual, one who sought knowledge and thought, for the pleasure it gave – who has left to her country men and visitors to the island and enchanting and enlightening volume.
Dr. Lakshmi de Silva
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