The Agricultural Issue: Ban Or Balance – Organic Or Mineral?

By Upatissa

A recent announcement by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, at some public meeting, it is reported, announced that all imports of agrochemicals/ fertilizers(?) will be banned and implemented with “immediate effect, despite any protests from whatever quarter, come what may”. Whether this would be applied to all “agrochemicals” or to “chemical fertilizers“, only or was to include pesticides and weed – killers as well, was not clear to me. But from the logic and spirit (tenor) of the speech, one has to be excused for deducing that it was the latter. In either case, it seems important enough to generate much public discussion, which is an encouraging trend. Concerns about motives have been raised, on why such a drastic change has suddenly surfaced. Let us be charitable and assume that the Prime Minister/President has been properly advised by competent and well-informed scientists. Again, one must assume that this is so, and justifies his apparent rigidity and inflexibility. This is without doubt, a technical matter and clarity is important. Even among competent scientists in this field, there is no unanimity. This has suddenly surfaced and become worthy of being pursued in such reckless haste. Tragically, the public has been so duped, so much in the past that only the naive remain innocently trustful.

For true success to be achieved, candor and transparency should enter the public domain. This is the best way to secure public co-operation in so vital a matter. One has to be happy with this development. If the real reason is that we are broke – then say so. Winston Churchill, as PM in World War II times, advised the media that the public be told everything, no matter whether it is good or bad. Honesty should demand this. It is said that this had much to do with the Allies victory. Hardships, can be borne, if all suffer equally.

The proponents who welcome the ban on Agrochemicals as a good and long overdue change, the opponents who foresee disaster in such a radical change which is bound to land us in another mess.

It also appears to some devoted ultra – traditionalists, that these frequent misfortunes that have visited us recently, result from a divine fury of the Gods (‘Deva kopaya’). They urge that the Nation’s horoscope should be submitted to a competent Astrologer, (no, no not to the Sumanadasa who failed once at the highest level, nor the kapurala/mason whose “Peni “ was publicly swallowed by The Senior Minister of the Triad of Health Ministers, and the Speaker of the House (one hopes, not from the same contaminated Spoon), which landed our brave and intrepid Minister in hospital care with Corona virus – despite the pots of holy water dropped in a river as additional insurance. Nor indeed the hovering presence of the famed masseur – cum general practitioner, Dr Winkel. White, looking on from the bridge.

On this radical and critical matter, two contending groups have formed, the first being driven mostly by myths and emotion, while the latter relies on proven Science and reports in reputed journals. I am guided by recent articles, including those by Drs. C.S. Weeraratna, (27 April), Oliver. Illeperuma,( 01 May ), Chandre Dharmawardana (06 May) and the well-experienced and reputed Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha ( 03 May) and also (Dr. N.A de S Amaratunga (06 June), who are all frequent writers and thus probably familiar to many readers of the “Opinion” columns. Their articles have covered many aspects such as availability of raw materials, relative costs, soil fertility, soil moisture, erosion, nutrients, soil biota, earthworms, erroneous claims regarding causes of CKDU, effects on soil physical properties and dismissing some fallacies and backed by information from reputed sources.

Every government, that has been our curse since Independence (1948), have sung the same song. There have been (and are), rare individuals among the wielders of power who have been honorable, devoted, decent, and honest. But they too among today’s legislators, must share the blame for remaining silent bystanders while the duplicity and pillage goes swirling along merrily.” Those who lie with dogs will wake up with fleas,” it has been said. I have digressed a little, because of a fear that the present fertilizer issue which is a purely a technical one, might be hijacked into petty politics and decided by peripheral (“what is there in it for me”) considerations. As a planter who strained tirelessly for his party, which eventually won, was asked “Now that your party has won, you must be utterly happy,” he looked down dejectedly, “No machang, same lump of s.,,,, t, different flies”. We have been lulled, (but not deceived) by ‘boru talk” of how convinced every government is, of the inestimable value of Science for development, and how proud we could be of the excellent quality of our scientists and how devotedly they have served our motherland. Having said these inspiring words, what do they do, but vote billions to import luxury cars for the use of MP’s, – poor little things, awaiting their little toys and trinkets.

If any one doubts this critique, he has only to recall just two indices (i) with what this “priceless gem” has been coupled with, when forming Cabinets. I remember two: – “Ministry of Industries and Scientific Affairs”, and (hold your breath), “Ministry of Housing and Scientific Affairs”. So be honest and admit that it was just to secure a majority in some equally useless entity. There might sometimes even be a “Ministry of Sports and Scientific Affairs,” or even a coupling with Batiks, Pottery and Brassware. As for the top administrative management hierarchy, a greatly respected colleague lamented “The first fellow did not read anything, the next read but did not understand and the third fellow read but misunderstood”. A more outspoken one commented of a “political implant ““Oh that bloke? He cannot tell his ………..hole from his elbow. ” But to return to the subject, (ii) compare the dole grudgingly provided by the State towards the Annual Budget of two of our prestigious and top scientific bodies- NASSL and SLAAS as running costs with for instance, the daily cost of a Parliamentary sitting, or the monthly rental said to have been paid to a buddy for an unoccupied, building to house a very important Ministry that already has it’s premises. These will show the level of respect for the value of Science in the minds of our Legislature.

In contrast, I had the privilege of attending the opening ceremony of a massive new Headquarters building for the South Korean Academy of Science. It was a huge, multi-storied construction in the Centre of Seoul, built at a cost of twenty five million US dollars. Funds were available for hosting of many guests (which included eight Nobel Laureates). The Academy was free to rent the huge surplus space beyond their needs, to supplement the Annual Grant of around five Million (US).

The present controversy of “organic” versus “mineral” is not new, being heightened by two events about 120 years ago:- (i) The finding that “bone meal” which was the only fertilizer in use at that time, increased efficiency if treated with strong sulfuric acid, from which grew the industrial production of Superphosphate. The second was the Haber- Bosch process for production of Ammonia by combining the virtually inexhaustible atmospheric Nitrogen with Hydrogen to produce Ammonia, which further progressed into Sulphate of ammonia and Urea. The controversy then began. The allegedly pernicious effects of the new entrant fertilizers was feared. At this time the first factory for production of Superphosphate came on line, in which The Lawes family had a substantial interest. This passed on to John Bennet – Lawes (graduate from Oxford) who recruited a soil Chemist, Richard Gilbert in 1843, who together with Lawes, initiated a number of trials, basically to provide results to prove that chemical fertilizer was no inferior to organics ( at that time Farm-yard manure). This was in 1843, and records have been kept unbroken since, and established what the famous Broadbalk (Wheat) became and Hoosfield (Barley) Trials, which have become the oldest field trials in the World where continuous records have been kept for over a century. After the Lawes-Gilbert Trust was formed, the property became the “Rothamsted Experiment Station” and which is probably the oldest and most famous in the World. It seemed that the organic versus inorganic controversy was finally settled.

This is not so, as we can still see. The passage into “Biological Pesticides” in Pest Control impelled by the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson largely based on the ill-effects of DDT spurred wide interest in the “Biological Control” of pests and diseases. This was a logical technology and helped us (spectacularly so), in the case of the Coconut Leaf Miner (Promecotheca cumingii) because the conditions for success were right. Since then, success was only marginally so, for others (Coconut Black Beetle and Red Weevil) and impractical for many more. Where swift action is needed in other pest outbreaks (e.g. the recent attacks of The Late Season Αrmy Worm (or Sanaa caterpillar) devastating the Maize crop and the occasional (incipient) invasions by the deadly African locust, will not allow the use of “Biological control” methods which usually take very long to establish. On such occasions, the swifter chemical pesticide applications are unavoidable.

For effective Biological Control, certain prerequisite conditions must be operative. “Bio-control” is not a “one size fits all” case and rules itself out in many circumstances. For this reason, the “Wasa visa Nethi Krushikarma” is a bit of dangerous nonsense.

The introduction of “Biodynamic Farming” which, in many senses, would be the extreme in organic farming, (as understood in vegetarianism and veganism) and too and is worthy of practical consideration. This fascinating system arose from the work of Dr Rudolf Steiner, whose methodology was scoffed at as mere Mumbo Jumbo, because it was a cocktail of Astronomy, Astrology, Myth and Science. An enthusiast, Dr Podolinsky promoted the methodology in Australia, where by all accounts it has encouraged an impressive number of farmers into adopting it. Our own, the late Mr. Abey Ekanayake, a Senior Retired tea planter was a convinced adherent. He actually visited Australia to meet Dr Podolinsky and to see examples of on-farm application. He was highly convinced.

We must also remember that several instances where “Fly by night” schemes, which were highly ill-advised and damaging flops have been seen by us. The worst was in my opinion, the “Sinhala-only in 24 hours” caper which still haunts us 65 years on. Then came the Hambantota Harbour, one reason for justification being that huge numbers of ships pass within “Hand waving distance” from the Beach and would welcome services for fueling and supplies, perhaps also to bring in tourists visiting Yala. Mattala Airport was to serve as a back-up for Katunayake. It came in handy for temporary storage of paddy in its hangars. A Convention Centre is yet to be used. Suriyawewa Stadium to play International cricket during the Monsoon months, a Petroleum Refinery and a flood of Export Agricultural Projects, which required the handing over of some 15,000 Hectares to China. This is expected to create thousands of new jobs for dispossessed farmers. They need not worry any more about invasions by wild elephants. Any pesky intruders could be shot, there being plenty more in nearby Yala for the titillation of the expected crowds of tourists. The Botanical Gardens I am I informed, are well tended and a good example of what can be a model of an Arid Zone Rain Forest. Much of these wondrous things, are on a 99-year lease, renewable for another 99 years, which sadly means that none of us are likely to be around to see the results – even though the Southern Motorway has been thoughtfully extended. Unborn generations will savour the results and remember (or curse) their ancestors for their vision (or stupidity).

Much has been said of how the successes of Singapore and Hong Kong will be copied here, and serve as a half-way point between Dubai and Singapore and pay back the colossal investment in reclaiming a considerable seabed.

The recent sinking of the burning ship, in uncomfortable proximity to the Colombo Port, one hopes, will not deter the influx of investors on whom the success of the massive investments, so heavily depends.

In recent times, abolishing the use of plastics, cessation of import of Palm Oil, uprooting existing plantations, banning import of Glyphosate, and now of Fertilizers. In all cases, it is not the use but abuse that creates the problem. Consider the banning of plastics. Life without plastics (Polymers in general) is unthinkable. Different types have been created because they are so versatile. Several are designed for particular purposes where the long-lasting and difficult to decay easily – are the very virtues that recommend their use. It is akin to banning the import of cars as a means of preventing road accidents.

There are two matters of importance that have dominated the current discourse. (i) How will the farmers be compensated for the expected (admitted even by the proponents of the change), income losses, because of the proposed change, be met? (ii) How will the raw materials required in order to supply the enormous quantities of organic matter be procured?

The answers were astonishingly shallow and beyond belief. They deserve to be dealt with separately. Famers who suffered yield losses???? will be paid compensation by government. One is baffled at how farmer losses will be calculated. Will it be the farmer’s calculations? If not, how then? When I see the stacks of five thousand rupee notes being handed over to the poor who suffered, because of the pandemic or for various other financial reasons. I fear that if handled in similar manner, there will be terrible chaos. I am reminded of the pithy Sinhala saying “Panina rilawunta inimang bandinawa waagey” which in translation would be “Like tying ladders for jumping monkeys”. How possibly can the officers assigned this task, ensure that equity, accuracy and control in carrying out such a thankless and onerous task, be exercised?

The second issue has met with an even more astonishing solution. ”We will import organic matter, available in plenty on international markets,” I do hope that this particular statement is merely a customary lie. I have seen only one country advertising compost as a commodity. Quarantine Laws in most countries prohibit the import of materials of plant or animal origin, to prevent entry of new pests or diseases. Knowing that Urban Waste is a huge problem, enterprising business may see a prospect here. We have had a brush with an effort to do so for hospital waste in disguise. There were a pretty large number of such containers from the UK, There was, I believe a Court Order that they should be “returned to sender”. Has this been done? Or is it still crowding out storage space somewhere?

The possible entry of pathogens is very real. Some countries even prohibit Interstate movement. Compost or humus quality is nearly impossible to test. Take the case of Coconut. There is a killer disease called “Lethal Yellowing” which can devastate a whole plantation in a few months. It is present in nearly all coconut – growing countries under different names – Cadang- Cadang (Philippines) Lethal Yellowing (Caribbean Islands), Kerala Root Wilt (India), And (hopefully) not “Weligama Root Wilt) which required the uprooting of some 400,000 mature palms in the South as a precaution. The disease was believed to be caused by a virus, but now thought to be by an organism called a mycoplasma, and transmitted by insect vectors and directly and alarmingly by grasses as well. Maybe the idiot who made this statement is innocent of any knowledge on such matters. The disease is incurable and the only weapon is prevention of entry. Please also seek comments from the RRI (on Fomes and Poria) and the TRI on Root Nematodes before acting so recklessly. The grand scheme suggested, may well be the extinction of Coconut, Tea and Rubber in Sri Lanka – a great pity (not quite in 24 hours) but bloody close.

In early times much of rice received only Bone Meal called ‘Sterameal’ and loppings from available trees as manure Also from purpose grown trees like Wild Sunflower “wal suriya kantha”
(Tithonia diversifolia), Dadap (Erythrina sp), Wetahira (Glyricidia maculata) and remains of plantings of bandakka, batu and beans grown on the paddy bunds. An important source of nutrients, recently popularized, is human sewage, as long practiced in South-East Asia (China and Japan) was raw faeces “Night Soil”. This sounds revolting, but modern technologies have processed this to a product – black, odourless, stuff looking like coal clinker.

So, in summary, yes going organic is desirable on several counts. But it has to be a slow and a methodical change to be great. But we are not geared yet, to provide the conditions necessary for such a change to become realistic. The mess with the “no Polythene” (with immediate effect) drive, should serve as a warning of what happens when impractical and hasty (or even reckless) changes are forced on people. Changes without suitable alternatives cannot be implemented. What ought to happen now would be to deal with those miscreants who have fooled us with false dreams to launch non-attainable heavens.

Incidentally, can we salvage the tons of polythene pellets coming ashore to melt them, and re-mold them into products where aesthetics don’t matter, for example flower pots, utility items like rubbish

Bins, household items etc. Such products may even accept small quantities of residual sand which is mixed with the pellets, such as to avoid the need and costs for a totally clean material, and thus eliminate what is likely be the most expensive part of the recovery process. What will happen to our great hopes for the Port City, if such were to happen (heaven forbid) once things begin to happen?

This not being negative or fear mongering but being realistic and prepared.

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Chandana Sesath Jayakody

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