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Poison in our food, agrochemicals and fertilisers – the realities

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The origin of poison in our food, drink and air we breathe is a topic that has assumed relevance and importance, in view of the ban on chemical fertiliser and pesticides due to their possible involvement in the causation of non-communicable diseases. This brief note attempts to critically look at some of the aspects of this complex problem. The problem obviously has to be viewed from the point of view of the need to feed the growing population, the dwindling of arable land, and associated impact on environment and climate.

Life span of human beings on planet Earth has improved from about 50 years in the 1920s, to more than 75 years in these twenties. This was no doubt made possible by the advancement of science and technology, which helped in the understanding of factors that affect life, and development of measures to maximize beneficial factors and minimise adverse effects. Methods to increase farm yields and discovery of vaccines are two such measures developed by science and technology. At the same time, growth of science and technology itself may have produced injurious factors, which may have adverse effects on life. Pesticides would perhaps be one such factor, though they have their benefits. Noxious gases emitted by industry and motor vehicles would be another. Having said that, there is nothing 100% beneficial or harmful.

Now let us look at the food requirements of the increasing world population and its implications. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that by the year 2050 the world population would increase to 9.7 billion, which is a 30% rise. Food has to be produced to feed these extra mouths. Eighty percent of the extra food that must be produced for this purpose will have to come from methods that increase yield, and crops that could be grown a number of times on the same land. Only 20% could come from expansion of farming land, anything beyond this would endanger life due to denuding of forest cover and climate change, which are already upon us.

This would be the biggest challenge that human beings would face in the next three decades. How could farms yield more with less, less land, fertiliser, water, and other agro-chemicals. Obviously, science and technology will have to take up this challenge. Scientists will have to develop crops that yield more with less inputs. Bio-engineers will have to develop crop varieties that yield more, take up less water and land, and methods that enable use of land for increased number of times of planting per year.

Would such methods increase the amounts of “poison” that we take with our food. Already there is a popular demand for banning of agro-chemicals, which the experts say were one of the main reasons for the high yields and less starvation. Improved crop varieties is the other reason for increased harvest. All this science is looked at with suspicion, and some are agitating and calling for age-old methods of farming with organic fertilizer, natural pest control and varieties of crop used in early times. If the whole world adopts these methods, would there be less cancers, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses? Perhaps there would be less chemicals in the food and the environment, but there would also be less food. And perhaps less people if the policy is strictly adhered for a length of time!

It is true that the incidence of non-communicable diseases is rising. But whether this is due to agrochemicals and chemical fertilisers has not been proved. Cancer and heart disease have risen mainly due to the type of food and drink people consume. For instance, colonic cancer is associated with red meat consumption. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons may be released when these meats are roasted or grilled. These chemicals could cause cancer in the colon, breast, prostate and kidney. Lung disease and certain types of cancers may be associated with the pollutants in the air we breathe. Vehicle fumes are found to be etiological causes of asthma, chronic bronchitis, ischemic heart disease and stroke.

Other foods that may cause disease include vegetable oils produced from seeds such as corn, sunflower, soya. etc., which are rich in polyunsaturated Omega-6 oils and lack the beneficial Omega-3 oils. These oils have no nutrients but ’empty calories’. Further they have linoleic acid, which can cause inflammation of the endothelium in arteries which may result in heart disease and stroke. High consumption of trans fats (eg. margarine), which are produced by pumping hydrogen into unsaturated oils to make them solid, could also cause injury to the lining of blood vessels, which could result in heart disease. Increased consumption of sugar is associated with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and also colon cancer.

It has been found that chemicals found in pesticides, if ingested in excess of the safety levels, could cause cancer and affect reproductive health. There are about 1000 pesticides in the market and some of them are harmful. However, none of the pesticides authorized by the WHO when used within safety levels is genotoxic, and therefore may not cause cancer or developmental defects. The WHO has two objectives in dealing with pesticides, one is to ban those that are toxic and remain longest in soil, and two to protect people by monitoring the residue levels in food and water. These activities are carried out by the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residue (JMPR) and their advice and recommendations are based on data obtained from peer reviewed journals.

As for fertilisers, experts say both inorganic and organic varieties have their advantages and disadvantages. Inorganic fertilisers attempt to supply the essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium in amounts required by each variety of crop, and therefore small quantities would give good results. However, any excess of it could contaminate groundwater and could be harmful to soil and aquatic life. Organic fertiliser has these nutrients in small amounts and therefore large quantities of it has to be used, and yet they may not supply the amounts needed by high yielding fast growing varieties. However, organic fertiliser would support soil life, which is essential for conversion of organic matter into forms that could be absorbed by plants. They also retain moisture and would be useful in dry lands. Therefore, a judicious mix of inorganic and organic fertiliser would be advisable, instead of reliance on one type alone.

As mentioned earlier, everything has its advantages and disadvantages, and some of these things are essential for life to go on in its present state, which of course is a mad rush. And pesticides and chemical fertilisers may be essential for this mad rush, which includes consumption and reproduction at a rate unbearable to mother earth.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA



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Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady

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I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.

NIHAL DE ALWIS

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Independence celebrations for whose benefit?

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Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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Aftermath Of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne’s Assassination

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It was on Saturday March 2, 1991 when that fateful LTTE bomb blast shattered the life out of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, Minister of Plantations and Deputy Minister of Defence, in front of the Havelock Road University Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha.

Mr. Wijeratne used to take the same route from home to office every day. The LTTE had monitored his movements and found that it would be easy to target him on his way to office from a strategic point after receiving the information of his departure from home.

The LTTE targeted his vehicle right in front of the University of Colombo Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha. The suicide bomber crashed into the Deputy Minister’s vehicle and killed the Minister instantaneously.

I had dropped our elder son at Royal College for scouting and then went to the public library to return some books and borrow new ones. After having done that, I was returning home when I saw a large cloud of black smoke going up from somewhere on Havelock Road. As I neared Thummulla junction, a university vehicle (I was Registrar of the Colombo University) was going in the opposite direction.

I stopped it and asked the driver what had happened. He said the Shanthi Vihar restaurant at the Thummulla had been set on fire. The police did not allow vehicles into Havelock Road from Thummulla. I parked the car on Reid Avenue between Thummulla and Lauries Road and walked down the Havleock Road to see what exactly had happened.

As I got onto Havelock Road, a policeman accosted me and told me that I cannot be allowed to proceed. Fortunately, at that moment the OIC of the Bamabalapitiya Police station, Mr. Angunawela, came to that spot and recognizing me told the police constable to allow me to proceed.

As I walked down I saw the damage caused. But there were no signs of any vehicle or any dead bodies as the police had got everything removed. There was a large gaping hole on the road where the blast had occurred. But immediately this was filled up and that section of the road carpeted.

I do not know who had ordered it and why it was done in such a hurry. There were pieces of human flesh hanging from the overhead telephone wires. The blast had also affected the house in front where there was a P& S outlet and a lady who had come to buy something had got her eyes blinded by the shrapnel thrown by the blast.

The parapet wall and the Temple flower (araliya) trees that had been grown just behind the wall were all gone. As I went into the hostel, I saw that the front wall of the hostel building badly damaged. When I went in the girls in the hostel were looking terrified and shivering with fright.

Two of the undergraduates who had gone out of the hostel as they had to sit an examination in the university had got very badly injured and they been rushed to the national hospital. Later one girl who was from Kobeigane, a remote village in the Kurunegala area, succumbed to her injuries. The university paid for her funeral. The security guard who had been close to the gate was thrown up and landed back on the ground. Fortunately, he had no injuries other than feeling groggy.

The next job was to evacuate the hostelers from the building. I telephoned the university office and found the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of examinations was in office. I told her what had happened and to come to the hostel in a van. Thereafter both she and I packed all the hostelers in the van and sent them to the Bullers Lane Women’s hostel. This was done in three trips.

On inspecting the damage done to the hostel I thought the building would have to be demolished and a new building constructed to replace it. However, I contacted an Engineer, Mr. Upasena, at the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB,) who came, inspected the damage to the building and stated that he will get it repaired to be stronger than what it was.

He stated that it might cost around Rs, 20,000/- to get the repair done. I contacted NORAD and they agreed to give the funds required for the repair and renovation. Mr. Manickam from NORAD came and inspected the building and agreed to get much more done than what we wanted repaired and renovated. The repair and renovation were done very quickly and the hostelers were able to move in again.

The reopening ceremony was attended by the then Ambassador to Norway, Mr. Manickam and the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice- Chancellor thanked the Ambassador, Mr. Manickam and the CECB for getting the hostel repaired and renovated to be used again. He never mentioned what I had done to get this hostel repaired and habitable again. That is gratitude!

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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