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Policy blunders in agriculture:

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When will our leaders learn?

By Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

Blunders in state agriculture policy making has been rampant, and the need for our leaders to consult experts in policy making cannot be overstated. Let us dwell into some of the blunders. The ‘Yahapalana’ regime banned glyphosate herbicide use, but yielded when alternative herbicides used in tea had residue levels above allowable limits in the made tea, leading to serious tea marketing problems. Consequently, the re-use of glyphosate in tea and rubber only, but not for other crops, was approved! Rubber industry never asked for it because it is not critically needed, as weeds are essentially managed in rubber plantations with cover crops. On the other hand, coconut plantations have the serious problem of managing the highly competitive grasses, and research has established that their control with glyphosate yielded 38% more as against only 18% when grasses were slashed.

 

Toxin-free agriculture project collapse

Then the Yahapalana regime proceeded pell-mell from its commencement in 2015 promoting organic farming and overlooking conventional farming. The Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA) was totally transformed into an institute for promoting the so-called ‘toxin –free’ farming activities. The chief visionary of the programme was, of course, the then President. Neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the Department of Agriculture were consulted, but compelled to carry out various short-sighted, organic farming- related activities. The officials meekly yielded. Ven Ratana thero, M.P, who was virtually the second in command in the ill-fated project, produced his own fertilizer named ‘Pivithuru Pohora’., running a factory in Mahaweli System B!

A team of senior retired agricultural scientists, who visited the site to examine the performance of this ‘wonder fertilizer’, was confidentially told by the farmers that the paddy crop turned yellow following application of Pivituru Pohora, a clear sign of nitrogen deficiency, and they then secretively applied urea! Why ‘secretively’, because they were selling the produce to the daughter of a top politician in Polonnaruwa as ‘organic paddy’, at Rs 10/kg higher than the conventional paddy! The ‘Pivituru Pohora’ was obviously sold to farmers without adequate testing: the Department of Agriculture trials at Aralaganwila did not show response to that fertilizer!

The SEMA toxin free project too was a total failure and was closed down in 2019 as a consequence!

 

New government making

the same blunder

The new government has sadly failed to learn a lesson from the failure of the organic agriculture and associated pursuits of the previous regime! The new President, in his policy statement, announced his commitment to make the country totally organic in the next ten years! And the Governor of the Eastern Province, overwhelmed with organic farming, is compelling the officials to only promote it in the Province!

The whole world has yet only 2% in organic farming of which 66% is in pastures (for the rich to eat organic beef steaks!), only the balance being in other crops. Organic agriculture is expanding by only at 10% of its farm extent annually, implying that it will take at least 35 years for the entire world to be totally in it! Will it ever happen? The whole world moved away from organic farming from about the 1820s because it could not produce the global food demand. Vaclav Smil, distinguished Professor, University of Manitoba, for example, in 1987, estimated that 40% of today’s population is alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia.. However, organic farming may be promoted as much as possible, as organic food fetches a premium price giving good incomes to the farmer and , in any case, adding organic matter to our soils is highly beneficial. Total banning of agrochemicals is, however, never attainable! The detrimental issue is its excessive use. What is critically needed is to educate the farmers in judicious use of agrochemicals. No government in the recent past has addressed this vital issue effectively.

 

The oil palm fiasco

The plantation companies wanted to expand its cultivation to 20,000ha from its current 11,000 ha replacing some unproductive rubber with it. The Yahapalana Cabinet approved it several years ago, following which the plantations set up nurseries with imported high yielding hybrid seeds at a cost of some Rs500 million. The then President, however, went back on the Cabinet decision suspending its cultivation expansion! It would appear that the presidential decision was on the basis of a highly flawed report by the Central Environmental Authority, which has been totally rejected by the majority of scientists conversant in the matter, including the Coconut Research Institute, the organization mandated for oil palm research.

The outcry of villagers living close to oil palm plantations in the south was that oil palm dries up the soil and water bodies in their villages! Scientific evidence does not at all support this contention. The research evidence is that per unit area of land rubber and oil palm evapo-transpiration rates are comparable, and more importantly, whereas the water footprint, that is, the volume of water required to produce one metric ton of raw rubber is 32,410 cubic metres, that needed to make a ton of crude palm oil is only 19,148! In any case, the responsible institutions should have carried out a comprehensive hydrological study, comparing an exclusively oil palm area vis a vis a totally rubber area, to convince the villagers and policy makers. The politicians totally backed the villagers’ protests, obviously because of the then pending general elections. And one government politician in the south even proceeded to fell an oil palm tree in the wilderness, with the media coverage, to impress the villagers, just before the election! Even the Minister of Plantation Industries, a southerner has apparently meekly heeded the villagers’ objections. Being a qualified medical doctor, he should have gone on scientific evidence and correctly briefed the people and the President too.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has banned further oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka several months ago. It is obvious that he has been totally misinformed on the subject. The benefits of oil palm are huge. It is the number one vegetable oil in the world, producing 35% of the global vegetable oil demand from 19 million hectares as against the number two, soybean, which produces only 28% of the oil from 147 million hectares, because of its very low productivity being only about a tenth of oil palm. Coconut yields only one fifth that of oil palm. Over the last 50 years, its production globally has increased 30 fold from less than 2.5 million MT in 1970 to over 70 million. More than a third of the global oil palm plantations are in the hands of small farmers, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where many are shifting from other crops such as rubber to oil palm because of the much higher returns. The Table below shows that the returns from oil palm in the local scenario is far more that of the other three plantation crops.

 

Palm oil and health

Some argue that palm oil has health risks. In fact, its cholesterol elevating saturated fat (palmitic acid) content is only about 45%, whereas that of coconut oil is over 70%. However, both these oils have a number of other health benefits. Palm oil has the advantage of having 39% linoleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, (the same principal fatty acid as in olive oil), that lowers the bad cholesterol but does not affect the good cholesterol.

However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) pronounced a few years back that consumption of palm oil in moderation has no cancer risk. Further, a more recent, comprehensive review in the Journal, Nutrients (2019), 10 reputed scientists concluded that there is no direct or indirect evidence of palm oil consumption being associated with cancer in human beings.

It is unfortunate that the President did not consult the Coconut Research Institute, the organization mandated for R & D on oil palm, before making this vitally important national decision. Further, a team of sixteen senior scientists including eleven academics(professors) well versed in the subject, wrote to the President recently seeking an appointment to brief him on the subject, but, was told by his office that already a policy decision has been made on the matter! Must not faulty policies be rectified?

 

Expand coconut in the dry zone for oil?

Further, the government has now apparently rushed into a decision to plant up 50,000 ha coconut in the dry zone under drip irrigation for increasing oil production. It would appear that coconut is already grown in nearly all areas in the dry zone suitable for it. Is the water available during the droughts for irrigation?. Further, there is strong research evidence that with global warming and temperatures shooting up during droughts, especially in the months of April and August, coconut pollen germination is inhibited in the dry zone, causing poor fruit set. Have these factors been taken into consideration. Ideally the crop for the balance dry zone appears to be cashew, which can bring in more income if grown scientifically than coconut. We do not have highly productive cashew dwarf hybrids of the type in the picture.

They should be secured from other countries perhaps through a germplasm exchange programme. However, it is reported that the University of Wayamba has recently produced hybrids with a yield potential of 13-15kg/tree/yr after the 4th year and at least they should be actively promoted among growers.

 

Alternative land for oil palm

If the government is reluctant to grow oil palm in the wet zone rubber lands, an alternative is to use the uncultivated paddy fields which amount about 60,000 ha of which nearly 50,000 are in the wet zone. The appropriate ill-drained soils should be drained for the purpose and oil palm grown on raised beds as seen in the picture, being done for coconut in Thailand. The excess water can be retained in ponds at the bottom of the catena for fish culture. Such cultivation could provide our entire vegetable oil demand, saving some Rs 40 billion spent on import of palm oil. Alternative crops for these lands are of course coconut, vegetables and horticultural crops. The Agrarian Development Act of 2000 may need to be amended for the purpose.

 

Learning from India

We have lessons to learn from India both on oil palm and policy making! India is targeting cultivation of 2 million hectares of oil palm by 2030, replacing much of its nine seasonal oil crops from irrigated lands because of their poor yields (usually less than 1ton/ha/season). Already over 400,000 ha have been planted to it . India has a huge vegetable oil import bill much of it being for palm oil!

The decision to expand oil palm cultivation was made by the Planning Commission of India after extensive deliberations by the experts in the Commission. The Commission was first set up during the Nehru regime in the 1950s, and the present Prime Minister has changed its name to the National Technology Commission (Niti Aayog in Hindi). Its functions amongst others are creation of innovation and knowledge, and advising the government on major developmental policy issues. Sri Lanka should necessarily follow suit and have such a commission so that leaders act on the advice of experts, and not on misinformation of ‘Dicks, Toms and Harrys’!

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Opinion

Hector Francis Campbell Fernando

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A tribute to a father on his 110th birth anniversary

When my youngest brother, Gihan (GAF), as a boy of six years, was interviewed by Canon R. S. De Saram, the Warden, S. Thomas’ College Mount. Lavinia, prior to his admission to the College, and when he was asked what his father’s profession was, he had replied, ‘ He is a glass maker’. The Warden like many other members of the community had got his ’glasses’ from his one-time student, HFC, and knew what the boy was talking about. My father found this most amusing and related this to many friends and relatives. He knew that to many people he was indeed, simply a ‘glass maker’!

He was the first Ceylonese to qualify as an optician in the United Kingdom. He returned to Sri Lanka just before the second World War broke out. Until then this was a profession which was dominated by British nationals. Many young men who wished to be trained in the field of optometry, were apprenticed under him and went on to become big names in their chosen field. He never considered himself a businessman and refused to set up his own optical business. He considered himself a professional and was very proud of his profession. Kindness and skill, care and attention marked his service to his clients.

He established the Ceylon Optometrists Association, and became its founder president. The main purpose of this Association was to further the professionalism and standards of those in this field of work. The Association, I understand continues its good work even today.

My father and his four brothers attended S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. His love for Physics and optics in particular, he attributed to his beloved teacher Dr. R.L.Haymen, who went on to become the founder headmaster of S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa.

Born on 26th November 1910, he returned to his Maker on the 17th June 1962. It was too soon. I was just 15 and I had two brothers who were younger, and this was a time in our life when we would have really liked a father to be around. Both my sisters had left school, and one had just got into university, and all five of us found ourselves making huge adjustments to meet a situation that we had not imagined in our wildest dreams. But it was our mother who was devastated by the loss of a devoted husband. A teacher who never took any leave, she could not get back to work for over four weeks, such was the effect of this loss.

He was a wonderful father, who set high standards for us. Not once had he ever raised his hand against any of his children. Even when it came to simple things like how you dress, he insisted on standards, I had once slackened my tie knot and unbuttoned the collar button, (I was only 14), he saw me and he told us the story of how he had done this at school (those were days when senior boys wore tie to school), and his teacher, who also taught me English, Mr. V.P. Cooke, had made him stand in front of the class and told the other students, “Look at this chap, he is neither a loafer nor a gentleman’. The lesson was learnt.

Next to his profession his other love was the YMCA. He was a loyal member of the Colombo Association, and many were the occasions when we as a family trooped into the YMCA building for functions involving the family. He took a special interest in the Y’s Men’s Club of the Colombo YMCA. This was the service arm of the ‘Y’. At the time of his death he was serving his fourth term as President. He was held in very high esteem by all those with whom he associated, and I can do no better than to quote from an appreciation written by the then General Secretary of the Colombo YMCA, Mr. Lennie Wijesinghe, soon after his death.

“Hector is dead and with his death we of the Association have lost a loyal Active Member and a sincere friend. Our Y’s Men’s Club has suffered even a greater loss for he was its President. It was under his leadership that the Club achieved its present status in Y’ sdom. He carried himself with dignity wherever he went. It was not a cold dignity but one which was surrounded by the inimitable charm of a friendly personality. Indeed, this was one remarkable characteristic of the man. Nobody meeting him for the first time could think of him as a stranger. It would be correct to say that in such circumstances one was more inclined to look upon him as a dear friend. Such was the impelling force of the love that throbbed in him. Hector never gave himself airs. Simplicity was the very essence of his nature. And yet it was not of the ordinary variety, rather was it one springing from the depths of a kindly disposition. Nor was his spirit of service limited. It reached out to others wherever the need arose.”

May his soul rest in peace!

 

Eksith Fernando

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Opinion

Budget 2021: Need for ‘National Reading’

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, presented the nation’s 75th Budget, for the Year 2021, to Parliament, last week. Now we can witness different interpretations of the budget from economists, the business community, academics and representatives of civil society. Some argue, with their expertise in economics, and some can be seen with their understanding of society. Moreover, it can be seen that certain elements read this budget with their political ideology. Anyway, this is the time that Sri Lanka needs “National Reading” of the Budget.

This Budget is unique for a few reasons. First we need to “read” this by focusing on the current pandemic situation. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts Sri Lanka’s economy to shrink 4.6% this Year. This can be seen as the same as other countries. In May 2020, the Asian Development Bank announced that COVID‐19 could cost the global economy between $5.8 and $8.8 trillion.

And also, we should not forget the “Easter Sunday attack” which severely affected the economy of the country last year. Refer below for ‘’Reuters reports” on 18 September 2019.

“Sri Lanka’s economy grew at its slowest pace, in more than five years from April to June, government data showed on Wednesday, as the Easter Sunday bomb attacks that killed over 250 people hit the island nation’s fastest-growing tourism sector. Accommodation, food and beverage service activities, which have been rapidly growing due to high tourist influx, fell 9.9% in the June quarter, compared to the same period a year ago.”

So, it is clear that the Sri Lankan economy is experiencing a “double blow” unlike other countries. There is a need for people to understand this situation. This is the time when people need to have a “National Reading” for the budget. Interestingly Dr. W.A Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of SriLanka, has vividly elaborated this context in his article titled “Budget 2021: Gota’s Third War, but forgive me, it is our war, too”. Accordingly, Wijewardena argued that ‘’Sri Lanka is at war today and it is Gota’s Third War. But it is not his war alone; it is our war too. We all should fight it with vigour, rigor, perseverance, and determination. The whole nation should help Gota by working harder, two or three times harder than before, to take the country out of the present economic malaise. That is the only source of progress. Without that, the Budget 2021 will only be another document with no practical relevance.” Hence there is a need for everyone to understand the real situation of the country.

People in this country need to understand this crisis. We did not expect either the Easter Sunday attack or Covid-19, which have done much damage to people and to the country as a whole. Now the time has come to get together as one nation and work towards the betterment of the country. Hence there is a need for everyone to “read” this Budget 2021, with the interest of the nation.

 

Professor NALIN ABEYSEKERA

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Opinion

Alternatives in the Transition from Capitalism

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Sumanasiri Liyanage (“Transcending Capital-Labour Relation:A Note on Social Entrepreneurship”, 10 November) makes an interesting point about “social enterprises”, co-operatives, worker-co-operatives and the like.

He argues that structurally, many of these enterprises are bureaucratic, and that “many social enterprises, having failed to make sociality their ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ characteristics, show a tendency for degeneration, putting aside their social characteristics and creating a strong permanent bureaucratic apparatus. The main concern of this bureaucratic apparatus is not profit, as in private enterprises, but ‘income’ as a revenue.”

There is a great deal of truth in what he says. In a capitalist system, social enterprises, by their very need to exist in that milieu, must look to profit. Indeed, as one participant in a recent online conference of worker-co-ops in the USA commented to me, they seem to be more concerned in their engagement with the capitalist system, rather than with expanding a socially-owned economy.

“Yes, I see the emphasis on ‘income’,” my informant tells me, “especially here as initial funding for co-ops,etc., comes from non-profit foundations that emphasise ‘entrepreneurship,’ also ‘social enterprise’ is just seen as for profits with some social mission, either corporate ‘responsibility’ or community contributions, or a social service abandoned by the State.”

However, exceptions to this rule do exist. My informant, who consults for worker-co-ops in the US, thinks that these are more concerned with social issues than with mere profit, although they do realise the need for surplus income, in order to survive and expand. Exemplifying this attitude, the newly-formed Rhode Island Political Co-operative, which won democratic primaries, as well as seven seats in the state’s General Assembly, and two city council seats, campaigned on socio-economic issues, such as a $15 minimum wage, the Green New Deal, single-payer healthcare, criminal justice reform, affordable housing, quality public education, immigrant rights, and getting money out of politics.

Liyanage should look at the problem as a Marxist. Historically, social change has taken place through the resolution of internal contradictions, but has been accompanied by the establishment of institutions which pre-figure the next social stage. In Hegelian terms, the transformation of quantity into quality.

In Europe, the transition from slavery to serfdom did not take place in a vacuum. For example, serf-based production emerged within the slave-holding Roman Empire, the collapse of which caused the transition to feudalism. Similarly, bourgeois institutions, such as banks and manufacturing concerns emerged in feudal society: joint-stock companies appeared (stillborn in the first millennium in China) in the 13th century in Europe. These proliferated within pre-capitalist societies, laying a transformative foundation until a cusp was reached, and the bourgeoisie seized power, carrying out a metamorphosis of economy, society and polity.

One could, realistically, expect a similar mechanism to occur prior to a transition to socialism. Indeed, the USSR, during the “New Economic Policy” period, encouraged the establishment of worker-co-ops and farmer-co-ops. Lenin believed that co-operatives, particularly producer-co-ops, held the key to building a socialist society. He wrote in 1923 (“On co-operatives”, Pravda, 26-27 May 1923) that the only task left was “to organise the population in co-operative societies.”

Apart from farmer collectives, Lenin also encouraged “Big Bill” Haywood, the US trade unionist, to set up the Kuzbass Autonomous Industrial Colony, which brought together American and European workers with Soviet ones in a giant worker-co-op: dissolved, unfortunately, in 1926. Hence, co-operatives, and particularly producer co-operatives, are part of the practical Marxist tradition.

The “father of socialism in Sri Lanka”, Philip Gunawardena, encouraged the creation of multi-purpose co-operative societies (MPCSs), both for the promotion of collective activity, and as potential units of rural democracy. During the 1970-75 United Front Government, several farmer co-operatives emerged in Sri Lanka, as well as a handful of worke-co-operatives (notably a steel-making co-op in Moratuwa). So the tradition exists on the Sri Lankan Left as well.

Of course, producer-co-ops by themselves cannot, as utopian socialists such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier imagined, guarantee the transition to socialism (any more than the emergence of capitalist enterprises in pre-capitalist societies ensured the success of the bourgeois revolution). As both Marx and Lenin pointed out, the necessary condition for this transition lies in the class struggle.

However, these institutions may prove to be essential allies in the class struggle – their very existence contradicts the bourgeois idea of private property, as against collective property. “Under private capitalism,” Lenin pointed out, “co-operative enterprises differ from capitalist enterprises as collective enterprises differ from private enterprises.”

 

Marx (in his ‘Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association”) had this to say about workers’ co-operatives:

“The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolised as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.”

On a practical level, the burgeoning Latin American “Solidarity Economy” movement has attempted to build alternatives to capitalist institutions, challenging capitalist property relations, as part and parcel of a class-based revolutionary process. Hence, rather than merely condemning actually existing worker co-ops as bureaucratically degenerated, commercialised enterprises, it may be more constructive to regard them as part of the solution to a transition from capitalism, and consider how these institutions may be reformed, structurally and ideologically, from within.

SAVITHRI GURUGE

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