Chandre Dharmawardana, writing from Canada (see below)
Sri Lanka is heading towards an agricultural disaster similar to that created by Stalin who was guided by a so-called “Dialectical Materialist” version of agricultural science announced by Lysenko, a “party scientist”. Sri Lanka’s leaders also have ideologues who have various scientific and medical backgrounds and are ready to present “justifications” for the push for 100% organic agriculture. Here we trace this pseudo-science movement back to some of its roots and discuss some of the pseudo-science that is being presented as “science”.
Dr. Jayasumana and Dr. Sanath Gunatilleke confronting a farmer in an unequal discussion.
Not so long ago, Hon. Champika Ranavaka championed a hair-brained project known as “Polipto” to make petrol from waste polythene. Mr. Ranawaka also pushed the “Toxin-Free Nation” program and one of his university mates ran a project with the acronym SEMA. It championed the “new vision” from the presidential secretariat itself. A questionable and ineffective “bio-film” fertilizer was sold to unwitting farmers via this program. The then president Maithripala Sirisena had banned glyphosate as a part of the “Toxin-Free” project popularized by Ven. Ratana, Hon. Ranawaka, Dr. Jayasumana, Dr. Sanath Gunatilleke (California), the clairvoyant (late) Ms. Senanayake and others. Its effect on agriculture led to a financial loss estimated to exceed three times the loss from the so-called “bond scam”. No one has been taken to task for these economic crimes so far.
Today’s 100% organic policy is the reductio ad absurdum of that Toxin-free project. It has the support of many senior politicians like Hon. Chamal Rajapaksa, and juniors like Channa Jayasumana. Influential monks like Ven. BenamaNalaka, Ven. Dharmaratana of Bellanwila and others who have backed it with their “chintanaya”. Political academics like Nalin de Silva, famous for his “Patta-Pal-Boru-Science (that science is a chronic lie), trained a generation of people like Dr. Channa Jayasumana to reject evidence-based science and to rely on commutations from God Natha regarding environmental matters and food safety.
The public has been indoctrinated into the belief that “organic is the way forward”. Dr. Laksiri Fernando, a well-known Humanities academic writing in the Island on 5th November, 2021 says:
“There is no question that high quality organic fertilizer is better for the environment and people’s health. However, that transition requires much time, planning, raising of awareness among farmers, and necessary arrangements to be made to produce (or import) reliable organic fertilizer”.
We have but persistently argue that this commonly held “organic is good” view is false. The production and use of organic fertilizer is certainly not environmentally friendly, and the famines and malnutrition that will follow the widespread use of organic agriculture is NOT good for the people’s health.
That such false views are common is not surprising because, at a more sophisticated level, these supporters of organic agriculture come up with seemingly “scientific” proposals that confuse even the initiated. A false one-sided picture of the “green revolution” as the source of all chronic illnesses has been successfully propagated, amplifying the message of the anti-GMO lunatic fringe in the West. A strong innuendo of conspiracy is added to this narrative, with the question, “Why hasn’t the Dept. of Agriculture (DOA) implemented all this”? Are agricultural scientists who back conventional scientific agriculture part of the “fertilizer mafia”?
Farming in Sri Lanka is a private business, and if the farmers and plantations have not adopted the methods pushed hard by SEMA, MONLAR, and the “chintanaya” ideologues as well as Buddhist monks owning much temple land, then something besides conspiracy theories are needed. Their methods, or the call to return to traditional agriculture of the “ancient kings”, have not been adopted by the private sector as it does not want to committee suicide.
But now the government has legislated their suicide. Dr. Roshan Rajadurai, a veteran tea planter has discussed the current situation in an Island newspaper posting on the 19th of November, 2021: https://island.lk/sri-lankan-teas-current-crisis-only-reinforces-the-value-of-productivity-linked-wages/
The seemingly scientific but false proposals confuse even the professionals. So we hear of various scientists uttering on TV that organic agriculture is indeed the Holy Grail, but that the hasty approach used by this government is at fault. This belief is patently false, as 100% organic agriculture even at its best CANNOT feed even a half of the current population of Sri Lanka. It will lead to enormous environmental degradation and dire famine, as discussed in detail in reply to Adrian Mueller of the Swiss Institute of Organic Agriculture: http://dh-web.org/place.names/posts/CD-Mueller-OrganicL.pdf .
Here we examine some of these seemingly scientific but inadequate or unworkable proposals.
- Plant a legume crop like Mung beans (Vigna radiata L) that takes 45 days to harvest. The Mung being fixes nitrogen and will provide the needed N for the rice that should be planted after the Mung harvest. Some have even claimed that the Mung will produce 200-300% more N than what is needed by the paddy.
What is blithely claimed above is factually incorrect, and no reliable field trials exist. Even short term Mung varieties need 60-70 days, harvested in 90-100 days. Although Mung bean fixes nitrogen, it is NOT ENOUGH even for the mung bean itself to produce a good crop. Read the research: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0206285
So it is usual to add N:P:K in the ratio 5:12:5 PLUS 4-5 TONNES of farmyard manure (compost) to avoid needing more fertilizer. Pendimihlelin and Nitrophen are used as pesticides in India.
Cost of Mung bean farming is some Rs 95,000 to 100,000 per hectare. The Mung bean can be sold profitably. Instead of harvesting the mung growth, it can be ploughed to provide soil nitrogen. Unfortunately, even with N fixation, the most amount of N that one obtains is 4% of the DRY weight of the mung growth, and woefully inadequate for the rice.
However, as Rahaman et al (2014) have shown, crop rotation together with urea can improve agronomic efficiency. A basic amount of urea, as well as standard P, K are needed. The environmental problems from urea can be largely mitigated using slow-release urea, but NOT nano-urea which poses a serious health danger (see Island 29-10-2021 https://island.lk/human-health-and-nano-fertilizers-where-is-the-safety-clothing/ )
In growing mung beans, instead of adding N via the 5:12:5 NPK fertilizer, one may attempt to benefit from biological nitrogen fixation with native rhizobia inhabiting nodule micro-organisms, but at the risk of increased microbial CO2 generation. These possibilities are still being researched, as may be seen from very recent work on the topic: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7835340/
Hence it is plain nonsense to ask farmers to adopt a technology which is still on the drawing boards.
2. Another proposal that has been bandied about since the 1970s is that cyanobacterial algal N-fixation can be used to provide a large part of the N-fertilizer needed.
Long-term urea application degrades the soil, water, and air quality, producing global warming. So there is a biotechnological interest in using nitrogen-fixing microorganisms to enhance crop growth without using urea since current poor practices lead to much waste. The wasteful practice of using water to control weeds in paddy fields where even 60% of the urea applied may get washed away should be stopped, as it also leads to soil erosion. Growing rice without any more water than for any pasture grasses will be the norm when global warming reduces water availability.
If water logging is to be used even in the short term, then N-fixing algae can be considered but this is NOT an optimal solution. Dr. Kulasooriya, then working at the Institute of Fundamental Studies (Kandy), and others elsewhere have reported studies relevant to this proposal. However, even a 2021 research publication merely mentions that there is potential but no standardized farm protocol available. See: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/11/10/4628/htm
- It has been claimed that fast growing N-fixing aquatic ferns like Azolla Pinnata with 20-25% protein content can be used to make N-fertilizer. It is known to double in size every two days if adequate nutrient is provided. So, it is proposed to grow it in lakes and tanks and harvested to produce organic N fertilizer.
This is a complete myth although at first sight the suggestion is plausible. The invasive plant, Azolla Pinnata grows exponentially but then exponential amounts of P, K must be supplied, e.g., as phosphate fertilizer, until its growth saturates the water surface. If it acquires 25% protein during its growth, its nitrogen content would be 4% and no better than from Salvinia Molesta which is already widely present. In practice, naturally growing Azolla or Salvinia do not acquire more than 2-3% of Nitrogen. It is not cost effective to pull it out from the water and dry it to make fertilizers. Any such effort also adds a high green-house gas emission load. I have discussed both Salvinia Molesta and Azolla Pinnata in my plant website:
More details, including that fact that both A. Pinnata and Salvinia also accumulate heavy-metal toxins during their rapid growth are given there.
- It has been claimed that when scientifically fertilized paddy fields were grown with zero fertilizer, it was only in the 4th year that the yield dropped to 45%, and that from then on two tonnes per hectare were assured!
One has to only look at the annual reports of the DOA in the 1940s, 1950s to get decades of data (on harvests from traditional fields without modern agrochemicals) to show that such magical claims may require the intervention of God Natha. Even the ancients knew that after every three or four years it was necessary to burn a forest and make a new “chena”, even to get one or one and a half tonnes of rice per hectare. There is no way to cut through the gullibility of those who are faithful to an ideology.
- The work of Dr. Premakumar of the ITI, and Dr. Roshan Perera of Kothelawala Defence Academy have been cited for isolating many soil micro-organisms that can enhance nutrient delivery to plants. So, has the “fertilizer mafia” prevented its use in farming!
The micro-organisms that enhance nutrient delivery by various mechanisms also enhance the uptake of heavy metal toxins like cadmium, lead etc., by plants, making any water insoluble (i.e., non-bio-available) forms of heavy metals soluble in water. Such methods may upset the microbial balance of the soil and spawn new toxic microbial forms as happens in eutrophic systems. Enhanced microbial action leads to enhanced green-house gas emission of CO2 and reactive Nitrogen. Long term research is needed before such methods can be adopted in the farm.
Those who ask this kind of question know that we can use bovine DNA in a nutrient vat and create beef without cattle and slaughter houses. Why is that DNA technology not being widely adopted? There can be decades between a laboratory result and farm applications. It is this lack of understanding and judgment that propelled the ban on glyphosate, or the100% organic policy, in the belief that there ARE practical alternatives suppressed by big agri-business.
- It has been suggested that modern pesticides are not needed to control weeds and insect or mold infestations as simple crop rotation and the use of traditional pesticides based on plants like “Kohombha” (Neem) or Maduruthala (a type of Basil) can be used. Thus, when the Khapra Beetle epidemic arrived in Sri Lanka, Ven. Ratana is said to have given a press conference claiming that the beetle can be eliminated using “traditional herbal pesticides”.
Other suggestions, e.g., using “biodynamic and telluric forces” to fight pests have been made. Rudof Steiner, the father of Western-style organic Farming” was a great believer in telluric forces”. The claim that “kem”, i.e., using incantations, blessings and special plant parts, a part of “traditional agricultural practice”, can be used to avert pests has also been made by some “toxin-free nation” activists.
Some of the Colombo elites in Sri Lanka have uncritically lapped many of these beliefs, and become warriors of the local “Green movement”. Plants and pests evolve mechanisms to resist all pesticides and even beat methods based on crop rotation, or leaving the land fallow for a season etc.
Traditional herbal pesticides have been used for centuries and today’s pests and weeds are resistant to them. So, just as with the corona virus, agricultural scientists have to continually make NEW pesticides.
We will not address our discussion to those who believe in the efficacy of “magical” portions, “kem” , or those who believe that the molecular structure of water changes and retain a memory when holy texts from “Pirith” or from the Bible are chanted to the water.
- Another typical question is why biochar and other carbon remediation methods had not been used as a soil conditioner in the plantations where soil quality has grossly deteriorated, especially in tea. Sri Lanka’s tea harvest per hectare has now fallen to almost half of its potential due to improper maintenance of tea soils.
Soil deterioration became increasingly acute after the nationalization of the estates when many of the standard maintenance practices were short-circuited by new managers. Many of the experienced mangers left for South Africa and other countries that began to grow tea. The TRI is currently conducting field trials on biochar usage and soil remediation, working in collaboration with local scientists like Ben Basnayake. Improved soils will also mean improved soil micro-organisms that help to generate and retain soil fertility.
However, even if N-fixation microbes could be inducted into the soil, given the harvesting and removal of some 1500-2600 kg/ha of tea per annum, all the nitrogen, phosphorous etc., removed from the land need to be replenished, and this is what we mean by adding fertilizer. The most efficient method of doing this is to use N,P,K fertilizer and that is an operation independent of soil remediation which ensures that the soil has enough carbon in it. So, banning mineral fertilizers is the sound the death knell of the famed “Ceylon Tea” industry.
Those who ask these questions should note that this is not the only thing neglected since the 1970s. Neglect of most maintenance protocols, be they for tanks and rivers and their de-silting, or due collection of garbage, or control of noxious fumes from vehicle traffic and increase in submicron particles etc., can be mentioned.
While submicron particles are probably the biggest environmental danger to health, the unproven danger of there being a few parts per billion of glyphosate in the environment, and the unsubstantiated claim that local glyphosate contains more toxic additives than used in Europe led two medical doctors to demand the ban of glyphosate on the basis of “the precautionary principle”!
Why didn’t these doctors demand a ban on sugar, a proven toxin which causes more diabetes and chronic kidney disease than any other toxin?
ALSO NOTE the career and professional details re Professo r Chandre Dharmawardana