Chandre Dharmawardana, whose preferred title is “Political Rhetoric, or Sounding the Death Knell of Sri Lanka’s Agriculture?”
A quote attributed to the Greek play write Euripides says that “ Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”. Reading the news from Sri Lanka, one can only wonder if a prescient Euripides had Lanka’s successive rulers since 1970 in mind.
The President has “vowed” to ban the import of fertilizers. Politicians are famous for vowing to bring rice from the moon. But they brought the consumer “Iti haal” and American flour. Australia has worked hard on its organic agricultural content for THREE DECADES, but without knee-jerk bans. Hopefully, the government and its “VIYATH” will restrain their “VIYARU” individuals and be cautious with the ever precarious food supply of a nation.
You do not cut your supplies without alternatives available. The proposed alternative, “organic manure” is in extreme short supply. A hectare of paddy yielding even a mere five tonnes of grain needs 75-100 kg of nitrogen (N) depending on the soil. If you put more manure, it is a waste and a pollutant as plants absorb only a certain limit. Even a hungry man cannot eat beyond his fill. A plant denied of any fertilizer uses whatever nitrogen found naturally in the soil, giving a very low harvest until the soil becomes totally infertile in a few years. But it may last till the next election, and that is good enough for the politicians.
Organic manure, say good cow manure, may contain 1-2 kg of N per tonne. So, to get 100 kg of N per hectare we need 50-100 TONNES of organic fertilizer. People have used more optimistic estimates, but most organic fertilizers are very varied in the amount of N present, and we use a conservative value. The mineral fertilizer that you bring on your tractor now needs 50 lorry loads in a 2-ton truck. Once in the farm, 100 tonnes (100,000 kg) of manure must be distributed. So the cost of labor for organic farming is orders of magnitude MORE than for normal farming, to get less of a harvest. Such large mounds of humus-based fertilizer get washed away and add to asphyxiation of aquatic life in waterways, as always occur near organic farms.
Sir Lanka has imported about 300,000 metric tons/year of urea, and this amounts to about 120,000 tonnes of N. So we need some 120 MILLION tonnes of organic manure once the ban is in place. This is close to the TOTAL GLOBAL OUTPUT of organic manure!
The Minister Amaraweera “proposes to implement organic farming instead of toxic agriculture which has led to an increase in the number of kidney and cancer patients here”. Apparently, “All the rivers, streams, wells and ponds in Sri Lanka are polluted due to use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. No matter how much water there is, we cannot consume it without fear”. Minister Amaraweera has mentioned pesticides. Perhaps the ban includes pesticides like glyphosate! Again!
Since the Lankan water is unsafe, will the government import bottled water, perhaps from a European source like Perrier or Vittel? It may be cheaper to import water from the Holy Ganges, even with those floating cadavers, with its healing power imbibed by the Gods!
But the scientists of the University of Tokyo, working with the Kandy Hospital scientists failed to find any of these toxins in the rivers, streams and ponds of Sri Lanka in their 2014 study? Nanayakkara et al reported the work in 2014, in the Journal of Occupational Health 56:28–38, (2014). There were six Sri Lankan scientists and nine Japanese scientists who diligently researched the matter. This must be “Patta-Pal-Boru” Western Science!
There was the study led by SJP scientists and US scientists from North Carolina in 2016 (Levine et al., Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 2016). There were seven Lankan scientists and six US scientists collaborating in the study. Another report came in 2020 by roughly the same team of researchers. These scientists have not found the dire situation claimed by the Minister.
A hardly publicized study was the investigation of the water from rivers and other sources that go into reverse osmosis (RO) plants, conducted by Dr. Padmakumara Jayasinghe under the aegis of COSTI. This was an all Lankan team that revealed the embarrassing fact that this water did NOT NEED any RO to make the water drinkable – it was very safe. Interestingly, the study was shelved and never published. It would have upset many who made money by promoting RO plants, claiming that rivers, streams and ponds are polluted!
Although the Jayasinghe-COSTI study was not published, a Japanese study by Professor Takizawa, jointly with Dr. Oguma and Dr. Imbulana studied the water that are input to these expensive RO plants. They compared areas with chronic Kidney disease (CKD), and healthy areas. They found specific evidence to establish that the water was NOT contaminated by agrochemicals. Instead, the water in the CKD areas was rich in fluoride and magnesium of geological origin. This research appeared in the prestigious journal “Science of the Total Environment” in 2020 unter the title “Evaluation of groundwater quality and reverse osmosis water treatment plants in the endemic areas of CKDu in Sri Lanka”.
There are many other crucial studies, e.g., from Dr. Wasana et al from the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Peradeniya, and from Dr. Rohana Chadrajith and other in the Dept. of Geology. The interdisciplinary group known as CERTKID, led by the Kidney specialists of the Kandy Hospital and the University have, by their research, clarified the origins of the Kidney disease which is no longer “of unknown aeteology”. It has no established correlation with agrochemicals. Furthermore, the trace amounts of toxic agrochemicals found in Lankan waters are well below the thresholds set by even the most strict environmental authorities in the world.
Agrochemicals contain micro-quantities of toxic materials like Cd, As, and also large (macro) quantities of phosphates and nitrates that are needed by plants. What HAS been found in Sri Lankan waters is the presence of runoff phosphates and nitrates from excessive use of fertilizers, a problem caused by deregulation introduced since 1977 under the “open economy Mudalali” politics.
The market dismantled the scientific control on fertilizers, and transferred it to the merchant. If a government cannot even impose controls on the USE of fertilizers, how can it successfully impose a ban? The country will be awash with smuggled substandard fertilizers, at a higher price, as we know not only from the ill-fated ban on glyphosate, but even from turmeric or cigarettes.
So, although excess phosphates in the water can cause algal bloom and environmental damage, they should not be confused with “heavy-metal toxins” that the self-styled “environmental warriors” talk about. They should instead note that organic manure contains significant amounts of heavy metal toxins because plants accumulate them from the soil during growth. Straw may contain 200 times more cadmium than the soil it is grown on. It transfers to manure when composted. An ostrich policy of not analyzing the organic manure before use is followed by most “organic’ farmers.
But then, the “Parisara” NGOs and politically active monks, the ‘Jathika chintahnaya’ people, the Ven. Ratana-Nalin-de-Silva-
Recently, stocks of fertilizer were held back on the grounds that the fertilizer exceeded the “safe” threshold for cadmium set by Lankan standards. This standard incredibly requires the fertilizer to have less than 5 parts per million of Cadmium. So, due to the dire need of fertilizers, the President approved it on a “one-time basis”. This may have prompted the President to vow to ban any future import of fertilizers.
Amazingly, the scientists at the Sri Lankan Standards Institute, or its Director did NOT even ask how such absurdly impossible low thresholds for Cadmium had been instituted in Lanka when most countries, e.g., Canada, allows up to 900 mg/kg of cadmium in its fertilizers as being perfectly safe? The lentils grown in Canada with such fertilizers is exported to the whole world including India and Sri Lanka.
Unless saner counsel prevails, Lanka’s cash crops and its food supply will collapse under the ban. By then, the present rulers would have retired with their pensions and perks, and a new set of would be saviours may still “vow” to implement organic agriculture, even if they have to get the organic fertilizer from the moon!