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Red Alert: Need to quarantine imported organic fertilisers

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By CHANDRE DHARMAWARDANA

Canada

When the government suddenly banned the import of fertilisers and pesticides in April 2021 and went ‘100 percent organic’, many scientists warned of dire danger ahead.

The hubris of becoming the world’s first to be free of alleged agricultural toxins made the government stand firm. Its rag-tag of ideologically motivated advisors pointed to roadside mounds of leaves, or Salvinia on rivers, and claimed that enough organic fertiliser can be produced, locally, to meet all needs. It was claimed falsely that Lanka’s ancients had even made it the ‘granary of the East’.

A decades-old ‘good food for health’ movement, among elite circles and fashionable eco-activists, gained a foothold among Sri Lankan nationalists as well. They falsely claimed that even the Chronic Kidney disease of Rajarata is caused by agrochemicals and that Lankans die of cancer due to the use of agrochemicals. According to one politicised doctor, the ancients ate toxin-free food and lived to 140 years, while modern Lankans have eaten poisoned food since 1970 (see https://dh-web.org/green/cdw-Padeniya18May2021.pdf, or Pethiyagoda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnmRk3BRtQc).

According to news reports, Sri Lanka is to import organic fertilisers costing Rs 3.8 billion, to cultivate 1.1 million hectares. This is alarming news. Organic fertilisers should not cross borders, as microbes, viruses and other components in them, benign in the local biosphere, may become harmful in a different biosphere.

More alarmingly, the organic fertilizer is from China! China is the country using the MOST amount of the harshest types of agrochemicals and industrial toxins. Its ‘organic fertiliser’ is made of urban waste, raw ‘night soil’, seaweeds or whatever, and processed for local use according to standards satisfactory for those ecosystems; but certainly ‘not’ for Sri Lankan ecosystems. Sri Lanka uses very low amounts per hectare of agrochemicals, even in the tea estates, as compared to most countries (see: The Island, 2021/05/6 ‘Political rhetoric, or sounding death knell for Sri Lanka’s agriculture?’ https://island.lk/political-rhetoric-or-sounding-death-knell-for-sri-lankas-agriculture/).

So, importing Chinese ‘organic fertilizer’ is like exporting bags of ‘processed’ Meethotamulla garbage to some country foolish enough to pay 3.8 billion rupees for it! While such humus is useful to the soil, the universally valid chemistry of proteins shows that such ‘organic fertiliser’ cannot contain significant amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus needed for plant growth. Claims of organic fertiliser, with unusually high nitrogen, content are pure propaganda.

Precautionary principle

Viruses, bacteria and other organisms in any imported product mutate and infect the host country rapidly. This danger is well understood and reflected in Sri Lanka’s import control standards.

Dr. Chris Panabokke, Director General of Agriculture some decades ago, strongly opposed suggestions to even ‘test’ the use of imported nitrogen-fixing bacteria, to enhance Sri Lanka’s relatively poor soils. A ‘good’ bacterium of a foreign ecosystem may become dangerous in a new ecosystem. Even an accidental release is a catastrophe. So the so-called ‘precautionary principle’ becomes relevant.

If a traveller had even visited a farm in a foreign country, or brought a mere twig of a plant, strict rules are applied at immigration, even though invasive pathogens and pests hitching a ride on imports is inevitable. Such invasions, including the invasion of the COVID-19 virus, are processes that countries have learnt to control as much as possible.

Importation of fertilisers and other agrochemicals, be they inorganic or organic, requires that the product be sterile, which means free of living organisms, and free of soils. Impurities like heavy metals and chemical residues should only occur at levels below the maximum allowed limits (MALs).

No country willingly imports potentially dangerous materials that can irreversibly implode a country’s food system and the health of its citizens. The organic fertiliser needed to cultivate 1.1 million hectares may be anywhere from 50-500 million metric tonnes, depending on the planted crops and soil conditions. No exporter of organic fertiliser, anywhere in the world, is set up to sterilise such large quantities of organic fertiliser or remove any residual soils from such fertilizer. So it is safe to distrust any large export.

Facing danger when much is at stake

No country can properly sample a huge amount, 30 to 500 million metric tonnes of a non-uniform material like organic fertiliser. Elementary statistical theory shows that for such non-uniform materials a fraction 1/e of the total, where “e=2.718” (the base of the Napierian logarithm) must be sampled. Even all the analytical chemistry labs of the whole world working for the President of Sri Lanka, cannot do the job!

However, a non-uniform material contaminated with pathogens has billions of pathogens. So even a few samples may show SOME pathogens, though not all types of pathogens, and that is the red alert.

News reports say that two advanced samples were found to be contaminated with Erwinia and Bacillus bacteria dangerous to crops, and also other pathogens harmful to humans. This is extremely alarming news. The food security of the country, the health of its residents, and prospects for generations are at stake. When so much is at stake, the precautionary principle must be applied.

Steps to take in facing the ‘Red Alert’

These so-called organic fertilizers are likely to arrive in Sri Lanka anytime soon. Drastic steps are needed to avert an irreversible tragedy. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back on the wall, and his splinters should not spew havoc all over the island. Hence, here are the steps to take:

1.

Leading agricultural and health scientists should file a fundamental rights petition, based on the intrinsic impossibility of fulfilling the plant and biohazard quarantine rules at the scale of the planned imports.

2.

Require that the imported material on arrival be quarantined in an off-shore facility (an army-controlled island, for example) and sterilised to free it of pathogens.

3.

Once sterilised, the heavy metals content must be reduced below the Maximum Allowed Limits, as discussed below.

4.

The only technically viable option for the mass sterilisation of millions of tonnes of a metrical is via gamma-ray irradiation. An off-shore facility must be built where the foreign organic material is slowly and repeatedly rolled over a battery of gamma-ray sources (see, for example, N. Halis, Med Device Technol. 1992 Aug-Sep; 3(6):37-45.)

5. The sterilized organic fertiliser must then be freed of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury that are extremely harmful to human and animal health.

Considering Cadmium (Cd) as an example, and the European average of 50 mg of Cd per kilogram of inorganic fertiliser as the MAL, the safe amount in organic fertiliser (applied in tonnes and not kilos) should be hundreds of times less. In fact, almost all the heavy metals have to be removed. Chemically removing all the heavy metals from millions of tonnes of fertiliser is impossible, and creates the bigger problem of disposing of the impurity. The only option is to render the heavy metals inert and ineffective using a cheap, non-poisonous but powerful chemical chelating agent that is also available in commercial quantities.

The only substance that fits the bill is glyphosate. It is known to promote the growth of earthworms and increase useful microorganisms when applied to contaminated soils (see: Environmental Toxicology, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.2683). The imported sterilised organic fertiliser must be mixed with the appropriate amount of glyphosate, in mixing vessels similar to cement mixers at each farming site.

6.

Alternatively, the import should be returned to China and Lanka suffers its loss, but avoids steps 1 to 5.

7.

The recent ambiguous gazette notification on limiting the import of agrochemicals should be challenged by importing a few kilos of urea and TPS as legal tests.

Once the first batch of organic fertilizer is handled according to the steps indicated above, no more organic fertiliser should be imported to avert irreversible tragedy.

Only locally made organic fertiliser must be used to provide ‘organic food’ for those who want it. Local composting must be technically controlled, to sequester dangerous greenhouse gases like methane and CO2 that should not be released into the atmosphere (see: R. Lal, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/abs/10.1098/rstb.2007.2185). The major part of the market can be supplied via conventional agriculture, which is much safer from an environmental and human-health point of view than organic agriculture.

(The author was a professor of chemistry and a Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Jayewardenepura University in the 1970s, then known as the Vidyodaya University. Currently, he is affiliated with the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal)



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Opinion

Prof. Anthony Joseph Weeramunda

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An Appreciation

An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.

Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth  person who did not worry about hierarchical values.

Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.

Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many  scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference  and the publication.

As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field  research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.

The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.

Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.

I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a  good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.

Siri Hettige,

Emeritus Professor of Sociology,

University of Colombo

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Opinion

What to do with political ‘dishonourables’?

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Everybody, it seems, is appalled by the attraction of politics as a haven for the Intellectually challenged. It is revealed that some 60 % or something, in Parliament (Our Head Office for Democracy), do not boast of six passes at the “O-Level”. The actual numbers are unimportant, because even one (in 225) is excess. (Please ask the peons who scuttle around the chamber, keeping the water bottles of MPs recharged. Their percentage will surely be higher). For their contributions to State performance, even tapeworms would probably be more generous in the returns to their hosts.

But give it to the Honourables and their ingenuity, they use a very fine method. This is to bestow, as many as possible, Doctorates – thereby raising the average – assuming that credits are transferable! Suits me, as my conscience does not permit the use of “honourable”, I feel more comfortable with Dr. – at least I would be right 50% of the time, and still rising!

It has often been stated that members of the Singapore Legislature are among the highest paid in the World, but as the Chinese itinerant cloth seller of yore would say to the bargaining housewife, “Yes, m’am, but good things no cheap, cheap things no good”. It has to be noted that in the Singapore comparison, the much-envied numbers are “absolutely all-inclusive”. No housing allowances, cars, petrol, attendance fees, subsidised meals, light bills, telephones, medicals or any other. I believe that the legendary Lee Kwan Yew, generously conceded that ‘any of his cabinet’ was at perfect liberty to dwell in the swankiest neighbourhood, or own the poshest vehicle – but at his cost.” The recently retired German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked, “Why are you always clad in the same overcoat? Do you not own another?” Retorted she, “I am a public servant and not a fashion model!” What modesty, what class!

It would be unrealistic to expect the electoral process to operate on the basis of an objective assessment of the merits of contending candidates. Equally, it cannot be denied that the performance and contributions of the successful are demonstrably unequal.

However uncomfortable it may be, some means of recognising and giving effect to the indisputable principle that “Performance must match emoluments” or “Service must match reward”. There is no simple method of achieving this manifestly fair goal. May one suggestion be useful as a working proposition? Every member should draw as emolument, their last drawn salary or fee, (supported by the latest Income Tax declaration), multiplied by a pre-agreed factor of five, 10 or even 20 (or whatever), as all-inclusive remuneration. Beyond that, no other payments or perks, hidden or otherwise whatsoever. It would be a great index of sincerity, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered (or voted upon, by a secret ballot if desired). This might help us to separate the grain from the chaff, and go some way in raising the public esteem of Parliament, from its unhealthily low present position.

One other compelling benefit will be that the indefensible crime of hawked vehicle permits would cease. We cannot afford to have criminals in our Hallowed (or Hollowed?) Parliament, can we? If this suggestion secures approval, a great improvement in quality of debate, behaviour, decorum and usefulness will soon manifest.

The vehicle permit issue deserves a further mention, because one justification is laughable and serious at the same time. One person close to the political centre and thus reliable, argued that contesting an election was very costly, and beyond the reach of the capable and the untainted. Only drug kingpins, smugglers, cheats, procurers and similar criminal types could afford such an outlay. All agree that an improved composition of Parliament membership is urgently needed. Therefore, the honest ones selected, deserve some means of recovering their costs. So, what could be wrong in their selling a privilege – vehicle permit, petrol coupons, fake medical claims, etc.? And if I may add, “Take-away packs” of the heavily subsidised restaurant grub?

But some problems arise with such a cozy attempt to justify this clearly improper practice. The major problem is, why did not this principle of “The end justifies the means” apply in the case of that poor woman who attempted to pinch two packets of milk powder to feed her starving kids, or that girl arraigned for picking a few fallen coconuts to help pay for her class books?

One may well be tempted to ask “Why should not those who make the Law (Legislators) be also permitted to break them?”. Or, in the case of politicised appointees, “Why should not the person who appoints, be denied the right to “disappoint”? Neat but not logical nor moral enough. Two wrongs do not make a right. Or, do they?

Dr UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA

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Opinion

In defence of teachers’ struggle

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by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

I am a consultant physician, now retired after 35-years of government service. Both my parents were trained teachers and I made the most of what my teachers at Richmond College, Galle, and later those affiliated to the Colombo Medical School taught me. I am ever so indebted to them for all that I achieved in life. Hence, I fully understand the value of the service provided by my parents and teachers. I have been teaching medical students for 25-years and enjoyed teaching and training them to be good and honest doctors to serve the motherland. I value very much this aspect of my service, without any extra emoluments, even more than looking after the patients in the ward. Preparing the children and the youth to take over the future is the vital function performed by a teacher in whatever field.

I was a very active member of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) in its heyday. It was a respected apolitical trade union concerned only with ensuring the basic rights of the doctors and maintaining a good service for our people. Unlike today, leaders of the Association, at that time did not harbour any political ambitions and were not deeply involved in issues beyond our field of knowledge, or service. I remember ignorant politicians were arguing then that as doctors were the recipients of free education, provided by the tax payer, they should be prepared to serve the people without taking trade union action for achieving their rights and better conditions of service. Our argument then was simple. Doctors and others who had a higher education are the ones who made the best use of what was offered free while the majority had wasted that opportunity. If we were to provide an honest service to the people the doctors should have peace of mind without any interference, political or otherwise. They also deserve an adequate remuneration not having to depend on private practice taking up a significant part of their day. We insisted that if what the doctors performed was considered a vital function, then the authorities should act to solve the problems that arose within the health service without delay as matters of urgency. During trade union action taken as a last resort after much deliberation, we did not hesitate to stop teaching medical students for a few days while providing an essential service in the hospitals. However, thinking back, I agree anyone seeking treatment should not have been denied relief. We were acutely conscious of the fact that less educated, unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen were making colossal amounts of money fleecing the public purse.

I mentioned the facts above as they are very relevant to the crisis in education services today. Teachers who are supposed to mould the life of the future generation of Sri Lankans are being shabbily treated. They are being humiliated by politicians. Some threaten to impale them; others are known to have made lady teachers kneel down as punishment. Many make very disparaging remarks about the teachers in various public forums and even in Parliament. Most of these petty-minded politicians appear to be worried that their very survival is being threatened. The situation is made worse by the poorly educated politicians shedding crocodile tears about the education of children and preaching how the teachers should function. Intimidating the teachers that way can only aggravate the situation.

The system of education in the country is in crisis. The COVID pandemic has kept all the schools closed down for over a year. A small percentage of the school children who could afford it receive so called on-line education. This has not been properly organised or regulated by the education authorities and is done mainly as a voluntary effort of the teachers at their own expense. The cost of essential equipment like computers and the cost of getting data are borne by the teachers themselves and by the parents. No effort has been made by the education ministry to provide affordable basic computers and other material for this purpose. Even after nearly a year with the total collapse of education, the Ministry of Education does not seem to have thought of planning to have a system in place to face any future problems of this nature. Throughout the years there has been a wide discrepancy in the facilities at schools in different parts of the country. Many underdeveloped areas suffer from lack of basic facilities in their schools. The ignorant politicians seem to believe that education will be complete when some uniform material is given free every year. Unregulated tuition industry is thriving thanks to this negligence.

I have seen how the education system functions in a few developed countries. The teachers are treated with much respect there. They are a happy lot, receiving salaries comparable to many other professions. Being content on how well the society respects them, naturally they take a personal interest to see that their pupils get the best out of the school. They have no fears of being ill-treated by the authorities or being threatened with transfers to difficult areas and the like. Peace of mind is essential if one is to provide a proper service, whether it is a school teacher or a doctor. I do not propose that the teachers and others in my country should receive a salary and other facilities comparable to those in developed countries. We have a long way to go to achieve that. The way authorities are bungling in every sphere of activity it is unlikely that we will get anywhere near those standards in the foreseeable future.

Teachers are poorly paid. A significant proportion of teachers get a monthly salary less than a police constable, a soldier or those in the clerical service. They have no special provisions even to get their own children admitted to a school of value, unlike many others who get concessions within their own fields of service. With the rapidly rising cost of living they are on a war path to get a salary rise that was promised 25-years ago, but never granted. The present rulers, returned to power with the promise of correcting all shortcomings of the past, cannot find refuge in blaming the past governments for this unfortunate situation. When money is being doled out in billions of rupees to petty politicians mainly to win the next round of elections as well as rampant corruption well known in the public domain, the government cannot claim that there are no funds to meet the basic demands of the teachers. I feel when their justifiable demands are falling on deaf ears the trade union action of the teachers is fully justified. While accepting that this would affect the children adversely, the prolongation of the dispute should be blamed fully on the authorities who refuse to give a patient hearing and believe in suppressing the teachers using bullying tactics with arrogance.

The argument that a substantial salary increase for the teachers will upset the entire salary structure in the state sector is not tenable. Many professionals including doctors, certain categories of engineers and some others have had their emoluments increased from time to time without any such considerations. The police and armed forces too have been given pay hikes on several occasions. Anomalies caused by such ad hoc actions by those responsible could not be an excuse to keep the teachers underpaid forever. Just appealing to the teachers to forget their own problems and keep on teaching the children as an honourable service is hardly the solution.

It is unfortunate that some other trade unions aligned with the government keep insulting the teachers’ unions and their leaders. Such actions probably promoted by those in power will only make matters worse. Grievances of teachers cannot be handled the same way as the unions of harbour workers and the like are dealt with. It is high time other unions openly supported this trade union action of the teachers. The parents of affected children too should be sympathetic to the plight of the teachers without looking for short term solutions. They should collectively apply pressure upon the politicians and others concerned to consider the demands of the teachers favourably. Attempts by various elements to instigate them to protest against teachers should be resisted.

All concerned should be interested in the welfare of the teachers to whom we have entrusted the future of our own children or grandchildren by receiving a proper education. It appears that social justice will not be achieved without a total overhaul of the present system of governance headed by corrupt politicians and their henchmen. I wonder what options are available to the people when democracy has failed a once prosperous nation.

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