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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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Opinion

Why this Shamelessness?

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By Dr. Mahim Mendis
Response to the Article, “Shamelessness”,
by Prof. Sasanka Perera

 

Prof Sasanka Perera’s article published in The Island on 16 June, 2021, under the title, “Shamelessness”, helps us in “soul searching”, as to who exactly we are, ideologically, emotionally, and even spiritually. The only disadvantage right now is that the people are heavily burdened, as victims of multiple shocks by a regime that has no sense of dignity, public accountability, respectability, and credibility in addition to “shamelessness”, that Prof Sasanka Perera has added.

Prof Perera makes an enlightening statement with reference to Chinese Philosopher Meng Ke, that “Feeling shameful for doing something wrong is necessarily a core foundation for the emotional and ethical development of a person, as well as the society in which he or she lives”.

Yet, what has gone wrong for us as a nation, to be devoid of these traits, when compared to another island nation like Singapore with its post- colonial background? They were in fact an insignificant port city in the 1950’s, when Lee Kuan Yew was elected. Extremely Visionary with a very strong personality, Lee was however, humble enough to gain inspiration from Sri Lanka; a nation with great stature, comparatively during the same period.

ARE WE IN A NATIONAL CRISIS WITHOUT PROPER ETHOS/GRAND CONVICTIONS?

One could argue that it is a shame not to be driven by a formidable ethos in life as without an ethos, a person or an entire nation will be like a “Rudderless Boat”.

As much as Meng Ke, it is important for us to make sense of shamefulness. Let me refer to the Greek Philosopher, Aristole,who explained that an Ethos refers to a man’s character or personality, especially in its balance between passion and caution. Today ethos is used to refer to the practices or values that distinguish one person, organization, or society from others.

Aristotle, according to Krista C McCormack of Washington University, recognized the inherent truth that we believe good men more fully and more readily than others. Furthermore, Aristotle recognized, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker, or the leader, may be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.

A fundamental question in the context of Sri Lanka is whether we are a people with a clear ethos as individuals, as a society and as a country? Do we know what we in fact stand for now and stood for in the past ideologically? Adding to this burden, I often meet university academics, including so called professors from the present generation, who have not heard about Sir Ivor Jennings, the founding father of the University of Ceylon, and how he perceived the University as an institution.

LYING AND WORKING AGAINST OUR CONSCIENCE

Aren’t we a people, who probably know what is right and wrong, but willfully implement what is wrong without any shame? We even tend to lie without principles. History records clearly how Justice Mark Fernando, in 1991, gave a judgment from the Supreme Court in the Impeachment Case of Ranasinghe Premadasa, that Lalith Athulathmudali was guilty of “Lies and Deception”.

Such a verdict could have been avoided by Oxford-educated Athulathmudali, if he had an honourable ethos. So to be without shame is not a recent trait, but an old trait that we carry ever since Prince Vijaya landed in this island, having been deported by his father for being immoral in his own land.

LACK OF CONSCIENCE AS A NATIONAL TRAIT: CASE OF SRI LANKAN LEADERSHIP ON ENGLISH EDUCATION

To give a random example, an elderly person asked me recently, how I perceive the way the late Solomon Dias Bandaranaike named his son, as Solomon West Ridgeway, in the presence of the British Governor West Ridgeway. He said that his own illustrious father, a distinguished product of St. Thomas, College that Bandaranaike himself attended, would not have done such a thing, as this is a shameless opportunism without a conscience.

He said that such a standard of opportunism also inspired the son, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRD), who benefitted from the Western Protestant ethic at St. Thomas’ College, Mount. Lavinia, and the University of Oxford. As a politician, SWRD became the father of the Sinhala Only Act, while knowing so well that this policy would deprive the ordinary people, the model of education that made him a polished personality during that time.

These issues are raised in good faith to provoke the imagination of the readers as to what would constitute “honour” or “dishonour”, as our leaders should have been role models with the type of privileged education they received. Role models in influencing fellow countrymen to act with a conscience. Also role models sharing with the countrymen what benefited them and their children.

WORKING WITH A CONSCIENCE: CASE OF SINGAPOREAN LEADERSHIP ON ENGLISH EDUCATION

Writing to the Time Magazine, in 2005, Simon Elegant and Michael Elliott, described Lee Kuan Yew as, “The Man Who Saw It All”, as the founding father of Modern Singapore, transforming an insignificant port city as a model state for the world.

This they said because Lee’s actions were firmly grounded on an ethos that he should share with the people of Singapore, what he himself benefited from. To think in terms of the big picture where all would live with dignity on a level playing field, enjoying the fruits of public policies for the Common Good of all Singaporeans.

Ironically, Sri Lankan leaders believed in the opposite and sabotaged the progressive reforms of C.W.W Kannangara, even going to the extent of depriving him of the Education Portfolio, in 1952.

Lee who was almost 24 years junior in age to SWRD who was educated at Oxford, had his university education at the University of Cambridge. About English education, he states in “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”, that, “We learn that there were four changes at the helm of the Education Ministry in four months in 1975. We learn that there were Chinese-medium schools in Singapore right up to the mid-1980s. We learn of the pain of “teachers who had to switch from teaching in Chinese to teaching in English, almost overnight”, and likewise that of students who were “caught mid-stream” in the transition from a Chinese medium of instruction to an English one.

As stated by a Singaporean analyst, “We learn why the National Day Rally of 1986, was a milestone and why he “was a proud man that day”: For the first time since Singapore’s independence, 21 years earlier, the Master of Ceremonies for the event did not have to use three languages – Chinese, Malay and Tamil – to lead the audience, as finally, English had become a language understood by all Singaporeans.

The lesson we should learn as Sri Lankans is that we should be sincere in heart and mind; in other words, decent men and women who will be objective enough to perceive issues without bias.

THE OPPOSITION LED BY SAJITH PREMADASA

The Opposition, led by Sajith Premadasa, decimating one of the oldest political parties that formed many Governments since independence, namely, the UNP, should be accepted without bias. SJB performance was a formidable achievement, that not even SWRD Bandaranaike was able to achieve after breaking away from the UNP, led by D.S Senanayake.

The JVP/JJB group, even with their vote base stagnating, continue to do their best, maximizing their own potential as a Left Wing alternative. To be fair by all, during the first year of the Gotabaya Rajapakse regime, with Covid- 19 dictating terms to all, they as an Opposition have been extremely active.

CYNICISM WILL UNDERMINE DEMOCRACY

In the case of the SJB, can any rational person say that he or she has seen the SJB functioning as a branch of the Government, as stated by Dr. Sasanka?

I would argue that to get out of this shameful political culture, we could achieve nothing by being cynical about the Opposition. All what we should do is to ensure that these parties represent an alternative socio-economic, political and cultural order to sustain democracy in Sri Lanka; not to undermine the democratic process and the parties vying for power.

In this context, we all know that Sajith Premadasa clearly represents a Social – Democratic alternative to the present regime, that will ensure economic development with the government and the private sector enabled to perform maximally. Today, with crony capitalism in Sri Lanka, no one can survive if one is not a close affiliate of the influential elements of the Government.

SJB also firmly believes in a foreign policy which is favourable, to relations with all countries irrespective of their ideologies, defined as “Positive Alignment”. This is driven by the national interest and the wellbeing of the majority, unlike what would happen for example, through the proposed Port City.

SJB’s policy on national security has much to do with social, political, economic and cultural security and not acute militarization of institutions that has today undermined the status of armed forces by taking over the functions of the trained officers of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Also to ensure that we would arrive at a viable political solution to the ethno-political crisis, by going beyond the 13th Amendment that the present regime threatens to abolish.

Similarly, the JJB believes in its own alternative. It would be dishonest to say that the SJB and the JJB do next to nothing as an opposition.

WAY FORWARD FOR GREATER DEMOCRACY

The role of the Opposition is to provide a viable alternative to the present regime with sound policies. The Government ironically with all the power it enjoys, continues to make a mockery of themselves, without a sense of direction.

Are we now saying that after one year of governance, the Government should be sacked immediately, and in this context, the Opposition has failed to organize street protests in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic?

If they did that, the same people would blame them for sabotaging the government. In my perception, we can be happy that Sajith Premadasa who polled 42% of the vote, against 58% by Gotabaya Rajapakse is not accused by anyone that he is sabotaging the work of the Government, as was the case of the Rajapaksa led constitutional coup, in 2019.

Let the people at this stage see for themselves and opt for a better alternative legitimately next time.

“Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business, and our politics”.-

Howard Zinn, American Historian, Playwright.

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Opinion

Prospects of cooperation and development of a multilateral engagement strategy for the SAARC

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By Dr Srimal Fernando

The SAARC has adopted a somewhat neutral approach in its multilateral engagement strategy. This has enabled the organisation to forge close ties with several multilateral entities across the world including western powers such as the European Union (EU) and US, African nations, and its Asian neighbours. These Regional. blocs from various parts of the world consider the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to be a vital strategic partner due to geostrategic economic and security reasons. This article examines the prospects of cooperation between the SAARC and other blocs from various parts of the world.

Prospects of SAARC’s Engagements with Regional Blocs and Groupings.

In light of the vast economic potential and strategic importance of the South Asian region, there is a mutuality of interest between the SAARC and major western powers such as the EU and the US. Given the various challenges that have faced regional cooperation under the umbrella of the SAARC, the prospects for long-term engagements in various fields with the EU and the US are diverse. SAARC can cooperate with the EU in various fields such as the development of intra-regional trade, capacity training on the establishment of regional institutions.

The SAARC can also benefit from financial and technical assistance for the western world in other fields of cooperation such as food security, energy, and regional communications amongst others. There is also a great potential for trade in services between the SAARC and the western world such as banking, medical services, education, and technology-based services. The scope and opportunities for collaboration between the SAARC and the western world are endless. Notably, the priority areas of cooperation between the SAARC and the western world will mostly relate to economic cooperation, the promotion of human rights, and other aspects of human development.

The Asian neighbourhood is of increasing importance to the SAARC and South Asian countries, especially the Asian neighbours to the east. Over the years, the economic relationship between the SAARC and its neighbours to the east has expanded from being a mere trading partnership to one that also includes free flow of investments.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN ) has particularly been a priority partner for the SAARC in this regard. This is due to the fact that ASEAN has experienced a higher rate of economic growth compared to other Asian regional organisations and its increasing economic importance is reflected in SAARC’s changing trading patterns with ASEAN.

The importance of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, (ASEAN ) to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) policy of multilateral engagement is attributed to increased trading relations that have been observed between south Asian countries and ASEAN member states in recent years. For example, Sri Lanka has entered into a free trade agreement with Singapore known as the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (SLSFTA). India has also signed a free trade agreement with ASEAN, known as the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA). Such developments between ASEAN and the SAARC initiatives will open vast consumer markets and investment opportunities for South Asia nations.

Similarly, Oceania has become an important theatre for the SAARC for several strategic, economic, and geopolitical reasons. Considering the vast economic and geostrategic potential of the Oceania island nations, the SAARC foresees the potential of this region and given the foreign policy priorities aimed at promoting economic growth

The prospects for cooperation between the SAARC and Africa are based on several irrefutable similarities between both regions. Both Africa and the SAARC have a nearly similar pattern of colonial historical factors that have shaped the regions in what they are today. In the contemporary world, both regions also share some common political, economic, and security challenges that have affected the prospects of cooperation amongst countries in the specific regions. In a world that is increasingly becoming interdependent, the potential for establishing new mechanisms for cooperation and forging closer ties between the SAARC and African regional organizations is immense.

Way Forward: A New Strategic Pathway for the SAARC.

SAARC can build coalitions for solving common problems with other regional blocs across the globe. This calls for the adoption of a common strategy for engaging with African regional groupings for cooperation on a wide array of issues. The current dynamics with regard to the global impacts of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19 ) create an opportune time to re-examine the foreign policy engagements and relations between SAARC and East and West Regional blocs Importantly, the stability of the SAARC nations will determine its future in the pursuit of regional continuity, the promotion of South Asian strategic interests, and strengthening the economic prosperity while collaborating with other regional blocs.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’

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Opinion

Our polluted sea and disappearing marine life

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by Emeritus Professor Upali Samarajeewa

(smrjee@gmail.com)

Many lists, figures and numbers could be seen in the public media on the toxic materials supposed to be in the containers of the wrecked ship. Some materials have been discharged to sea. More may be in containers. Experts seem to assume that all the oil in the ship got burned in the fire. Unfortunately, the numbers, volumes and interpretations keep on changing, creating more questions in the public mind than answers. Basically, there had been many chemicals, bulk of which would have got diluted and carried away by the currents reducing the potential threats. It accounts only for whatever that came out of the containers due to fire or other damages. What is intact, trapped and locked in the containers but soaked or washed away by the waves continuously would not be known or understood. We leave it to the ocean to decide the fate of its fauna and flora.

Simple calculations of the initially released figures of the quantity of micro-plastics, (which are less than 5 mm in size), and the number of bags containing them calculated with simple arithmetic do not tally mathematically. New concerns are arising on increasing numbers of turtle bodies and dead whales appearing in our shores. It may even beat the COVID 19 trend.

Leaving aside the soluble chemicals momentarily, the threat from micro-plastics appears to be on the increase, though what appeared on the beaches were removed efficiently – thanks to the armed forces, the public and others. Research on micro-plastics recognizes that they behave differently from the normal plastic waste that goes into the sea through flowing rivers and other pathways. In general, the micro-plastics are said to be passing through the gut of marine fish, provided the constrictions in the passage of the gut are bigger than the pieces of plastics. However, it is not logical to expect the passage through the gut as an empty tube with no constrictions and valves allowing free flow. Available research suggests only those plastics smaller than 486 micro-meters could be absorbed through the epithelium of the gut in fish. Thus, there is an element of safety in considering human exposure through edible components of fish, if adequate care is taken to remove the fish guts prior to cooking. It is also known that a certain amount of micro-plastic can get trapped in the gills of fish, obstructing flow of sea water and hence the availability of oxygen.

Small fish such as sprats, and crustaceans like prawns and crabs are part of our diet. Sprats may or may not swallow microplastics, but the risk of transferring microplastics to human food remains high through small fish as gut contents remain intact at cooking. The feeding habits of crustaceans allow intake of much more plastics and retain more than 95% of what they ingest in their soft tissues, without digestion.

The unusual numbers of turtle bodies appearing in shore require increased attention, as the bodies may serve as indicators of what is happening in the sea and what is to be expected. It is scientifically shown that the turtles tend to misidentify plastics as food, due to a specific sensory reason. Plastics smells like foods to turtles. This results in turtles chasing behind the micro-plastics to satisfy their hunger, till the guts get packed up with micro-plastics. The ship also had carried crude synthetic rubber. The actual physical form of this rubber is not known. Rubber is heavily toxic to turtles. All the dead turtle bodies have been sent for analysis by the Government Analysts or for postmortem by the Veterinarians adhering strictly to legal requirements. Those reports may appear in files. Why not somebody with authority, split open the guts of the turtles and examine the contents of rubber, new micro-plastic beads from the ship and old plastics of different shapes to understand the actual cause of deaths. There are enough degree holders with zoology knowledge in various institutions. They possess experience in dissecting rats, cockroaches, and even small sharks. It is time for them to come out and help the more advanced scientists providing basic clues. The responsibility lies in the institutions, authorities and agencies serving public good. It is established that consumption of 14 pieces of plastics accounts for LD50 for turtles (The 50% lethal dose for a turtle to die). Counting beyond 14 is no daunting task for a population with high literacy rate. Rapid results and appropriate approaches could generate information fast to avoid more assumptions and guesses.

The microplastics released from the ship are of tiny size with a high absorptive surface area. The micro-plastics increase their absorptive capacity over months, as tiny pores appear on the surface during decay. These new plastic pieces possess high ability to adsorb organic molecules and concentrate them on the surface. Marine environment is full of toxic organic pollutants discharged from the rivers and through other human activities. The ship itself may have added loads of non-fuel oils as indicated in the information available to the public. These oils and some other spillovers from the decks would have been adsorbed by the micro-plastics. It is shown scientifically that the substances adsorbed by the microplastics get desorbed in guts of marine animals, due to acidity and enzymatic digestive actions, leaving the plastics free for another round of absorption once they are discharged back to the sea. It provides a mechanism for continuous intoxication of marine fauna.

It appears there are adequate stocks of common salt for consumption for one year. As the load of micro-plastics increase in the sea, and as they break down slowly into smaller particles there arise a possibility of increased numbers of plastic particles passing through the current sea water filtering mechanisms. The microplastics may serve as nuclei around which the salt could crystallize. In the long run it may be appropriate to establish more effective filtering of sea and examine sea water at least microscopically as a safety mechanism.

It is also reported that there was lead, copper and aluminium in recognizable quantities in the ship. They may continue to dissolve slowly into the sea water. Old plastics pollutants already in the sea could attract the charged metallic components effectively creating a new pathway for transmitting them into marine bodies, plant, or animal.

The shelf life of a plastic shopping bags in our marine environment with plenty of sunlight, is around 2 years; the equivalent for the micro-plastic beads that appeared in our shores is 800 – 1200 years. This brings in a durable mechanism to circulate potential toxic materials into guts of marine fish for many years.

There is no direct research to recognize threats to human life, due to accumulation of plastics in the body. Experiments carried out with tissue cells from the human body cultivated under laboratory conditions, have not demonstrated any toxicities to cells by micro-plastics. The threat of micro-plastics serving as carriers of harmful ingredients to human body cannot be ruled out.

The public has concerns about the safety of fish consumption. With a reasonable degree of responsibility, it could be said that the food safety threat from consumption of big fish is low provided they have not died before being caught. The consumption of small fish with the guts poses a risk. The risk tends to be higher with marine fauna having outer shells, prawns, crabs etc. – the crustaceans. At this moment, clear scientific information based on post-mortem findings of turtles can throw a lot of light on the threats we may be facing though marine food. If the flesh of turtles shows high levels of heavy metals, there is a need to be cautious. If the flesh is free of unusual chemical constituents, but the guts are packed with micro-plastics the threat to human food chain lies more with plastics and not the chemicals released from the ship. It is up to the scientific authorities to discover the reality.

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