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Sri Lanka: Agriculture and misinformation pandemic

 Folwing article based on an Open Letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

Your recent endeavor to ‘rush’ the country from conventional farming to total organic farming, compelled me to write this letter to give a balanced view of the issues at stake. I should on the outset say that no well – informed agricultural scientists is against organic agriculture knowing the benefits of organic matter in the improvement of the physical, chemical and microbial properties of the soil which are critically important for sustained and productive crop production. However, the large majority of them are concerned about the possible negative consequence of substantially decreased productivity, leading even to hunger and starvation, if the mission is not based on achievable goals.

Industrial Pollution 

If you are driven for organic farming because of the negative aspects of conventional farming such as environmental pollution and human health; from an economic and sustainability perspectives, correcting the negative aspects of the latter and continuing with it should be far more beneficial, because organic farming is not devoid of those negatives.

Please consider the following:

1. The global organic farming scenario

Organic farming is confined to 1.5% the total global farmlands of which 66% is in pasture, and a mere 16 countries have achieved over 10% organic cover. Bhutan, for example, with access to substantial organic material such as leaf litter and farmyard manure, on account of its huge forest cover and animal population, set a target in2008 to reach 100% organic by 2020.The organic movement was supported by the royalty and the government. The country with a total area of 763,000 square kilometers has only 8% arable land. However, it was able to achieve only 10% of the target; and now the target date has been extended to 2035! It is critically important to review the global scenario before rushing into any decision.

2. The Taskforce.

A few days ago the ‘organic taskforce’ you have appointed, some 40 odd people, bulk of them politicians,, met you, but a notable omission from it appears to be the senior scientists from the agricultural research and development institutions and the leading academics from the universities in the field. Of course there were several of the die- hard ‘organic tribe’ therein! Interestingly, one of them was reported, some years ago, claiming to have discovered a ‘swayanjatha’ wee( a ‘self-generated’ rice variety ) that fed the ‘dasa maha yodayas’ (the ten warriors) of king Dutugamunu. It was later identified as a sorghum variety by the rice scientists of the Agriculture Department! And the other was reported in a Sinhala newspaper as having said that the weed killer glyphosate ‘even dissolved reservoir bunds, and what talk of kidneys’! He claimed that glyphosate was an etiolating agent of the Rajarata kidney disease but it has now been totally disproved! So the quality of some scientists you have appointed is questionable! You should, ideally have a balanced team of proven agricultural and other experts in the taskforce in the relevant fields to seek tangible views on the feasibility of achieving your objective; and accordingly an action plan within a realistic time frame should be drawn. The large majority of agricultural scientists are for promotion of organic farming as far as feasible, but is of the firm view that no country can go fully organic in the current context of population expansion and increasing demand for food from the existing farmlands. Several expert calculations reveal that without chemical fertilizers half the global population cannot exist!

3. The‘Wasa visa’pandemic

The masses have been gravely mislead by the connotation ‘wasa visa’ for any agrochemically- grown produce. The misinformation has spread like a pandemic! Apart from others, some of the key ministers are to be blamed for this fiasco and misleading the masses. For example, Hon. Chamal Rajapaksa, then Minister of Agriculture and Mahaweli Development, addressing farmers in Embilipitiya last year, had remarked that Sri Lanka is the country ‘consuming the highest quantities of ‘wasa visa’ in the world by way of agrochemical residues! Not to be undone, Hon. Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister of Environment recently remarked that our water bodies are highly polluted with agrochemicals. Surely, they should have sought advice and information from their officials before making faulty utterances. The evidence in the Tables attached below do not support their views. Then Dr Padeniya, a Pediatrician and strong supporter of organic farming has often claimed that agrochemicals are responsible for many of the non-communicable diseases. Can he provide evidence as to what the agrochemicals are and the associated diseases? He is also an ardent promoter of traditional rice varieties, purportedly because of some nutritional benefits. He was unaware of the fact that they yield less than half of our new improved varieties, and that some of the latter have many of the nutritional and health benefits of the old varieties! Anyway, the prime function of the staple is to provide the energy, and those nutritional and health benefits are easily obtainable from the other foods. Combining his prescription of organic farming with traditional varieties will decrease our national rice production to less than half, needless to say with dire consequences!

Sources: www.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.COM.Fert.2S; https//www.worldometers.info

As per the World Bank data in Table 1, we consume far less fertilizers and pesticides, than most countries in the region. Table 2 shows that after 2002, Sri Lanka has reduced by as much as 98%, the use of the most toxic pesticides of Classes 1, and substantially increased the use of less toxic pesticides.

Source: Dept. of Agriculture

On the whole, the pesticide residue levels reported, are not alarming as evident from Table 3. However, there should be a strong division within the Central Environmental Authority or under the Health Ministry that regularly monitor pesticides in the food and environment, establish tolerance limits, and at the same time, be responsible for enforcing the tolerance limits in the food and environment. Such effective and regular services are sadly lacking in Sri Lanka and should be of highest priority.

This is not to say that everything is ‘hunky dory’ with conventional farming. Misuse of agrochemicals is a serious concern, and this subject will be examined later.

4. CKDu-agrochemical myth

Then there is the other widespread myth of agrochemicals causing the kidney disease of the Rajarata. Regrettably, a 2013 WHO Report on the matter stated that several pesticides were above reference levels in the urine of CKDu patients and some of them are nephrotoxic (toxic to kidneys) implicating pesticides in the causation of CKDu . Surprisingly the Report did not have the pesticide residue data of people in the non-CKDu (Hambantota) area. However, subsequent re-analysis of the data (see Table 4) revealed that their urine had more than double or treble the pesticide residue levels compared to that of CKDu subjects! So agrochemicals are most unlikely to be the cause.

Table 4

Then, the International Consultation on CKDu that was held in 2016 in Sri Lanka, in its Final Report stated that there was no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of CKDu.

The most convincing finding was that people who drank water from the reservoirs, rivers and wells in the plains did not contaminate the disease, whereas those who consumed water from dug wells on high ground did so. It was dramatically established by the finding from two adjoining villages in Girandhurukotte, namely, Ginnoruwa on high ground and the other, Sarabhumi, in the plain, the people of the latter who drank water from the river or adjoining wells did not contaminate the disease, whereas those from the former village who exclusively consumed well water did! It was subsequently established that the hard water and high fluoride contents in those wells were responsible for causation of the disease. Eventually when these people stopped drinking well water but harvested rain water, no new cases of the disease were reported! In addition, research of the Medical Faculty , Peradeniya University with rats fed water from these wells as against distilled water, contaminated the disease! So agrochemicals are not the aetiolating agent of CKDu! 

4. Agrochemicals & their misuse

Hardly any chemical fertilizer is harmful to human health and to other living organisms if its quality conforms to specified safe standards and used in the correct amounts. It is excess use of fertilizer that can be harmful. Chemical fertilizer has been used successfully by all countries for almost two centuries to meet their food demand, and countries moved away from organic farming as it could not produce it. We are not aware of a single country that has banned use of chemical fertilizers or of contemplating such action at this point of time. Furthermore, if we ban chemical fertilizers to protect our people from consuming toxins, we should also ban importation of wheat flour from Canada, milk powder from New Zealand and chilli, onion and masoor dahl from India and Pakistan as these countries use chemical fertilizers liberally.

The real problem with agrochemicals is their misuse. Most farmers work on the premise that more is better! An outstanding local example of this is the rampant excessive use of fertilizers by vegetable growers, especially the potato farmers, who use 5-10 times the recommended quantities of fertilizer. The excess fertilizer via erosion and leaching ends up in the downstream lakes in the Rajarata causing algal booms which interfere with water use, and also secrete toxins which are reported to damage the liver and kidneys. Misuse of pesticides is probably a more serious problem. An FAO study conducted in Indonesia, Sweden and Canada many years ago established that 50-60 percent of the pesticide used can be cut down without loss of crop.

What is critically needed is exhaustive training of farmers and the extension workers in the judicious use of agrochemicals. Sadly, the farmers get their instructions from the agrochemical sellers in the villages and not extension workers. The extension services deteriorated following its provincilization, and strengthening this service as also the research and development systems in the country is critically needed. These are matters the government should address as a matter of highest priority rather than switching to organic farming!

5. The unsaid side of organic farming.

Some of the products used in organic farming are as toxic as conventional agrochemicals. Sodium nitrate used in organic farming as a nitrogen fertilizer is mined in South America. It carries highly toxic sodium perchlorate as an impurity, which is known to enter the soil and water bodies. Then, sulphur, copper and copper sulphate are toxins for pests allowed for use in organic farmlands and the latter is a Class 1 toxin, which can also bio-accumulate.

Further, as large amounts of farmyard manure and other organic material of the order of 20-30 tonnes/ha are added seasonally, much larger quantities of heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead can enter the soil than through chemical fertilizer.

Further, rotenone and pyrethrum being natural pesticides are used in organic farming. However, rotenone is suspected to cause Parkinson’s disease and pyrethrum is carcinogenic. In short, natural pesticides can be as toxic as synthetic ones.

A serious problem with organic agriculture is the surreptitious mixing of chemical insecticides with organic ones. Some time ago, Prof. Nioki Motoyama of the University of Tokyo, showed that eight of the so-called organic pesticides in the market, contained abemectin and other highly toxic chemical pesticides.

So, when expanded on a national scale organic farming can lead to as many problems of the same scale as conventional!

Non-agricultural environmental pollution

It is regrettable that hardly any attention has been paid to air and other non-agricultural pollution issues which can be as serious as agricultural pollution. Significant pollution with increased industrial and population growth is obvious. For example, release of toxins from coal power plants locally is substantial. About 3 tons of mercury, 2 tons of arsenic, 2.9 tons of chromium and 5.7 tons of lead are reported to be spewed out annually from them.

Waterways are getting increasingly polluted with human sewage, and air pollution within cities such as Colombo and Kandy, especially with regard to ozone gas and fine particles, is a serious problem not addressed. The quality of air we breathe not only affects the health of our lungs but also other organs!

Motor vehicles have increased 20 times over the last thirty years of which the three wheeler increase is the highest being 88 fold! Thus, the importance of overall environmental pollution control cannot be overstressed.

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