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Supporting Lankan agricultural scientists in facing microbial-fertiliser vendors



By Chandre Dharmawardana

It was mystifying to read Professor Kulasooriya’s article “Don’t deride Sri Lankan scientists”, (Island, 29/11/2021) because it is not clear who has derided Sri Lankan scientists. By “Sri Lankan” scientists, did he exclude expatriate Sri Lankan citizens, dual citizens and others as being fair game for derision?

For many decades Dr. Nalin de Silva has derided Sri Lankan scientists as well as science itself. The media perhaps allowed such misinformation with the oddity of a “Science Dean” attacking science. I remember articles where Prof. Carlo Fonseka as well as Prof. Amaratunge were the unfair targets. Keerthi Tennakoon, Bodhi Dhanapala and I wrote to provide some balance.

Dr. Channa Jayasumana published a Sinhalese book titled “Vakugadu Satana” where many scientists who pioneered research on chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology were tar-brushed intolerably. A band of fringe “scientists” alleged that the scientists of the Department of Agriculture (DOA) “destroyed the use of traditional seeds”. Those involved in pesticides and agrochemicals were labeled as agents of international companies knowingly promoting poisons and “pocketing commissions”.

If Professor Kulasooriya read any of my newspaper articles going back to decades, he will find that I had consistently defended the scientists working on topics on food, agriculture and environment, when it was fashionable for “environmental militants” to attack not just local scientists, but the likes of Norman Borlaug.

I stated many a time that the rice breeders of Sri Lanka should be named national heroes. But the heroes of these zealots are the likes of Vandana Shiva, “Dr”. Mercola or Stephanie Senaff. So, I am glad that Professor Kulasooriya has also at last come forward to defend local scientists.

However, what is not clear to me is who has “derided” what set of scientists? Prof. Kulasooriya mentions a debate where a Chris Dharmakirti had responded to one of my articles. Nothing like that ever happened. Instead, I responded to a group email by Dharmakirti where I felt that he was unfairly rebuking local scientists, asking why they do not embrace various technologies that use soil microbes for enhancing soil fertility?

I quote one of Dharmakirti’s several rebukes directed at the DOA scientists:

A scientific paper published in peer reviewed journal as far back as 1987 (Nitrogen Fixation in some Rice Soils in Sri Lanka, published in the MIRCEN Journal of Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology), suggest the promotion of algae growth in the paddy field during the first 21 days of planting to obtain as much free nitrogen as possible. In fact, the paper states the following: ” In situ measurements of nitrogenase activities in some rice soils, representing three different agroclimatic zones of Sri Lanka, demonstrated that there is a great potential for nitrogen fixation in these paddy soils, provided that they are continuously flooded and that nitrogenous fertilis er levels are relatively low. Under such conditions cyanobacterial (blue-green algal) fixation predominates. In certain areas of the wet zone, with highly organic soils, cyanobacterial fixation could probably meet a great part of the N-fertiliser input recommended. Heterotrophic rhizosphere fixation may also be significant, especially in the dry zone.” Thus it begs the question once again why our Department of Agriculture does not make a concerted effort to utilise all available scientific knowledge and proven methods to reduce to application of artificial inputs by pursuing a natural input maximization strategy and then FILL THAT MISSING PERCENTAGE and not waste public money on EXCESSIVE application of UREA …

I responded that using microbial fertilisers is NOT YET a proven method. Even the paper quoted by Dharmakirti talks of “great potential”. A 2016 review by Prof. Kulasooriya and Dr. Magana-arachchi (KMA) explicitly support my view.

So, I was DEFENDING the local DOA scientists (who cannot respond except through their ministry spokesman). Has Dharmakirti recently returned from the West and derided the local DOA scientists, and perhaps Dr. Kulasooriya is complaining about it? If so, Prof. Kulasooriya’s write up is completely misleading.

This gives an opportunity to ask WHY microbial enhancement of soil fertility does NOT have wider adoption.

In an Island news item (Saman Indrajith , 20-Feb-2017) Dr. Gamini Seneviratne, Prof. Kulasooriya and others are acclaimed for developing a microbial bio-filmed bio-fertilizer (BFBF) that allegedly gives the same yield as with 100% chemical fertilisers, by merely using 50% of chemical fertiliser mixed with BFBF made by a company linked with local scientists.

The 50% reduction in chemical fertiliser was explicitly claimed for tea, rice, maize, radish, cabbage, bitter gourd, aubergine, okra, chili, wax pepper, tomato and pole beans. However, these claims given in the Commonwealth Agricultural Bulletin Journal (CABJ, 2016) or in the newspapers are WITHOUT foundation, as the reported harvest data seem INCORRECT and unrealistic.

The tests done by DOA scientists (independently of the work of Professor Kulasooriya’s colleagues) show NO IMPROVEMENT in harvests on adding BFBF. So, the farmer pays extra for BFBF and has to use the same amount of chemical fertiliser, (and not 50% of it as claimed) to get the same yield, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 data are for maize. The BFBF results for all corps (for trials done around 2014) can be compared with independent data given in the 2014 DOA Report titled “Cost of Cultivation of Agricultural Crops”. We give typical examples to show that the marketing claims for the BFBF fertiliser are UNSUBSTANTIATED. This remains true even today, in 2021.

The yields claimed by BFBF for rice (Ampare, Yala season) with 100% fertiliser is 3580 kg/ha while DOA gives 6059 kg/ha without BFBF, i.e., a DECREASE of the harvest to almost half! Cabbage is given as 980 kg/ha while DOA says it should be around 27,945 kg/ha. The same mismatch is found for all the crops.

However, recovering full harvests with 50% fertilisers on using BFBF is the astonishing 2016 claim, repeated in fertiliser handouts of the Yahapalanya Presidential Secretariat in 2019, and in current websites of BFBF marketeers and scientists, even in 2021. The prestige of the Institute of Fundamental Studies, as well as social links of senior academics prevent the public or concerned scientists from open critical appraisal of BFBF. Was a comment on BFBF submitted to the Sri Lanka National Science Foundation Journal by Dr. Waidyanatha suppressed?

We should also look into the claim by Professor Kulasooriya et al., that they have proven techniques of using microbial inoculants (rhizobia microbes) for enhancing soil fertility. Let us quote Professor Kulasooriya.

In adopting this technology for Sri Lanka, we have gone through several years of study. ….

These have been authenticated and screened under greenhouse conditions … field tested in small plots in collaboration … at HORDI and other research stations. … the most promising strains were used in large-scale field trials, … conducted with … farmers under our strict supervision and those of the field officers of the Plenty Foods company.

Where have the results of these greenhouse tests etc., been published? The rhizobia technology has been given to farmers since 2010. Hence the research and development must have appeared during the 2000-2010 period. Searching through (e.g., Google scholar for S. A. Kulasooriya) we find no results showing harvest comparisons for soils with and without inoculants, or establishing increased bio-available nitrogen in inoculated soils. Although the technology had been marketed by 2010, only pot experiments on green gram appear even in 2011 (Ariyaratne et al) , but not much beyond previous work (e.g., Nieuwenhove et al 2000, Wijesundara et al 2000, Bandara et al 2006). An abstract dated 2019 (Sumudumali et al) says that:

“However, further studies are needed to confirm the effects of Rhizobial inoculants for groundnut with the strain isolated from the control to evaluate their performances with the other strains in different field conditions”.

That the rhizobia microbial technology has been sold to innumerable farmers since 2010 does NOT prove that the product meets what is claimed. While the BFBF people have published some data (which actually disprove their claims), the rhizobia inoculation people haven’t done even that?

The scientific or marketing claims of the BFBF or microbial-inoculant purveyors remain unproven from the data available in the public domain. The international experience confirms the fickle nature of these techniques, as seen in a recent Nature Report ( Perhaps we should thank Chris Dharmakirti for his unwitting role of whistle blower.

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Ampitiya That I Knew



Ampitiya is a village just two miles from Kandy. The road to Talatuoya, Marassana, Galaha and turning left from Talatuoya to Tennekumbura and Hanguranketha and beyond goes through Ampitiya.My family moved there in 1949 when our paternal grandfather bequeathed the ancestral home to our father to be effective after our grandfather’s demise. Until then the eldest sister of our father’s family with her family and the two bachelor brothers lived in the house. After living in various places our father was transferred to on duty, we had come to our final abode there.

The house was situated about 100 yards before the second mile post. There were paddy fields both in front of the house and behind it with a mountain further away. These were salubrious surroundings to live in. There was no hustle and bustle as in a town and the only noise would have been the occasional tooting of horns and the call of vendors selling various household needs.

The Ampitiya village extended from near the entrance to the Seminary and the school situated a short climb away along Rajapihilla Mawatha (now Deveni Rajasinghe Mawatha) on the road from Kandy ending at the gate to the Seminary, and running up to the Diurum Bodiya temple.

Ampitiya was well known thanks to the Seminary of our Lady of Lanka located there. Newly ordained Catholic priests took theology classes here. The Seminary with its majestic building commanded a fine view of the Dumbara valley. The student priests lived in the hostel called Montefano St. Sylvester’s Monastery situated just above the sloping rice fields coming down to the Kandy-Talatuoya Road. There was a volleyball court within the Montefano premises and we used to see the young priests enjoying themselves playing a game in the evenings as the court was quite visible from our house.

We, as schoolboys of the neighbourhood, used to get together during many weekends and play cricket on the roadway to the Montefano which was just past the second milepost as there was no vehicular traffic then on that road.

Ampitiya had a school started by the Catholic Church and known as Berrewaerts College which later became the Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya. At the time our family became residents of Ampitiya this was the only school. Later the Catholic Church established a girls’ school named Carmel Hill Convent. This school enabled most girls who had to go all the way to Kandy or Talatuoya by bus to walk to school.

People who follow sports, especially athletics, would have heard the names of Linus Dias, Sellappuliyage Lucien Benedict Rosa (best known in Sri Lanka as SLB Rosa) and Ranatunga Karunananda, all Ampitiya products who participated in the Olympics as long distance runners competing in the 10,000 metres event. Linus Dias captained the Sri Lankan contingent in the Rome Olympics in 1960.Though they were not able to emulate Duncan White they took part.

Karunananda became a hero in Sri Lanka as well as in Japan when at the Tokyo Olympics of October 1964 he completed the 10,000 metre course running the last four laps all alone. The crowd cheered him all the way to the finish appreciating his courage in not abandoning the already completed race. Later he said he was living up to the Olympic motto which said the main thing is to take part and not to win.

Rosa captained the Sri Lankan team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He switched to long distance running while still a student thanks to the Principal of Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya, Mr. Tissa Weerasinghe (a hall mate of mine one year senior to me at Peradeniya) who had noted his stamina and asked him to switch to long distance events. I must mention that Tissa was responsible for bringing this school to a high standard from where it was when he took over.

Coincidentally, during our Ampitiya days, all the houses from Uduwela junction for about half a mile towards Talatuoya were occupied by our relatives! They included the Warakaulles, Koswattes, Pussegodas, Sangakkaras, Godamunnes, Thalgodapitiyas and Wijekoons. Now most of these houses are occupied by others.

Ampitiya area had two Buddhist temples. One was the Dalukgolla Rajamaha Viharaya on the Ratemulla Road and the other, Ampitiya Diurum Bodiya, near the third mile post. From the latter temple a famous Buddhist monk, Ven. Ampitye Rahula Thero later joined the Vajirarama temple in Colombo and was highly recognized by Buddhists just like Ven. Narada and Ven.Piyadassi Theros.

The Uduwela temple had a water spout emerging out of a granite rock where the temple priests and neighbours used to bathe and wash their clothes. This spout never ran dry.

At present the landscape of Ampitiya has changed hugely. Most of the sloping paddy fields have been filled and dwelling houses have come up. The majestic view, except for faraway mountains, is no longer present. A five-star hotel has been built just beyond the second mile post and the area has lost its previous tranquility. A person of my vintage who once lived there visiting Ampitiya now wouldn’t be able to recognize the place given the changes.



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Expert advice on tax regime



The Government’s new tax regime has led to protests not only by high income earning professionals but also by Trade Unions.In my view the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is 6% – 36%, but with the tax exemption threshold. Due to hyper-inflation and the high cost of electricity, water, essential food items etc, the Exemption Threshold of 1.2 million per year is far too low.

If the Exemption Threshold is increased to at least 1.8 million per year, the Trade Unions are likely to accept this. It will also lessen the burden of taxation on high income professionals. And it should not impact on the IMF agreement.

The time has now come for a compromise between the Government and the protesters.

(The writer is a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue)

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This refers to the superlatively interesting and provocative piece on the above subject by Dr Upul Wijewardene{UW) appearing in The Island of 21/3/23 wherein, as he states, he had been a victim himself at the hands of a well-known Professor of Medicine turned health administrator. He makes it a point to castigate the leaders of the Buddhist clergy for their deviation from the sublime doctrine of this religion.

My first thought on this subject is that it is a cultural problem of exploitation by the privileged of the less fortunate fellow beings. The cultural aspect has its origin in the religion of the majority in India, Hinduism. There is no such discrimination in Islam.

The first recorded case was that of a Sinhala member of the Dutch army fighting against the Portuguese (or the army of the Kandiyan kingdom) being prevented by the members of the higher ranks from wearing sandals due to his low status in the caste hierarchy. The Dutch commander permitted the Sinhala solder to wear sandals as recorded by Paul Pieris in “Ceylon the Portuguese era”

There is also the instance of a monk getting up to meet the King when it was not the customary way of greeting the King by monks.

In an article by Dr Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian published in a local journal, it is said that members of the majority caste (approximately 40% of the Sinhala population) were not permitting lower ranking public officials serving the British government wear vestments studded with brass buttons. The second tier of the hierarchy who had become rich through means other than agriculture like sale of alcohol in the early British times took their revenge by lighting crackers in front of houses of their caste rivals when a British Duke was marching along in a procession in Colombo.

It is not uncommon for members of minority castes numerically low in numbers to help their own kind due to the discriminatory practices of the higher tiers of the hierarchy.

Dr Leo Fernando
Talahena, Negombo

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