Chandre Dharmawardena, in The Island, 25 October 2023, …. with this title “Monlar, a force for food insecurity, now blames 70-years of government!
Image courtesy CGIAR Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE
According to newspaper reports (Island 16th October ), the NGO carrying the acronym MONLAR has presented the accusation that “the agricultural policies of successive governments have rendered millions of Lankans insecure”. It claims that “As of today, 5.3 million people in Sri Lanka are food insecure. This proves that what the government has been doing for more than 70 years to this date to feed its people has failed”.
Doesn’t MONLAR know that Sri Lanka had reached self-sufficiency in food several times during its 70-year journey ? This was thanks to its legendary rice scientists who came up with technological solutions that matched the increasing population of the country. It was their high-yield rice varieties and scientific agriculture that kept the nation fed, while the population tripled and the low life expectancy (at independence) nearly doubled.
MONLAR should know that the amateurish ideological interventions of pressure groups like itself, and their politicians have repeatedly destroyed the good work achieved over the years. The target for self-sufficiency is well within reach , even after the chaos created by Premadasa’s “grama niladharis” (village officials – political henchmen) who displaced the agricultural extension services.
When Gotabhaya Rajapaksa banned the use of fertilizers, setting off agricultural destruction in April 2021, MONLAR was one of the first organizations to write to the President in acclaim (Daily Mirror ), aping the accolades to Rajapaksa at the Glasgow summit from the European eco-extremists . They demand, not just sufficiency, but a choice in food, including a completely “Toxin-Free” diet while the poor have to face famine.
Even after the failure of those programs, and the dramatic exit of Gotabhaya , MONLAR admits no mistakes, forgets its approbation of Gotabhaya’s ban, and now ascribes failure to “wrong method of switching” to organic! MONLAR says that “the agricultural and food crisis in Sri Lanka, which exacerbated by the wrong method of switching to organic agriculture in one day, however has been gradually escalating due to the wrong agricultural policies implemented for decades” . MONLAR does not understand that even if 10 or 20 years were taken for the “transformation” the same disaster would follow.
MONLAR, the “movement for land and agrarian reform” (with hardly a thought for a Sinhala or Tamil name) was founded by the late Sarath Fernando, an engineer who knew little about the topic. He came to radicalize farmers for the Marxist-Maoist revolutionary movement. In effect, MONLAR wanted farmers out of the fields and on protest marches – first the revolution and then agriculture! This was no different from JVP’s Mahinda Wijesinghe (a future UNP minister) telling me that the “Degree certificate” can wait for “system change”, at a time when I was his Chemistry Professor.
Sarath Fernando’s ideology unreservedly opposed “big agrobusiness”. It landed MONLAR on the slippery path of “alternative agriculture” and all its myths. False claims that the use of agrochemicals has led to an “exponential rise” in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer and kidney diseases have been a fear-mongering dogma of these as activists as well as fellow travellers like Ven. Ratana, Anuruddha Padeniya, Channa Jayasumana and Ranil Senanayake. The latter published a graph “showing the exponential growth” of NCDs in Sri Lanka, without even realizing that his data showed the expected (linear) growth in NCDs proportional to the increase in population . The renowned environmentalist Rohan Pethiyagoda has released an excellent myth-busting video that every MONLAR fellow-traveller should watch, for their education .
The ex-ambassador to Myanmar ex-Marxist and chinthanaya guru, Dr. Nalin de Silva had not only agitated on all these fronts since 2011, but he had also established an occult justification for the validity of these agricultural myths through reference to communications from God Natha.
Nevertheless, the claims that dangerous amounts of pesticide residues are found on vegetables, and that vast amounts of cadmium or arsenic brought in via fertilizers have poisoned Sri Lanka’s agricultural soil as well as the rice crop turn outed to be false as shown by chemical analyses done even by Nalin’s own collaborators. Furthermore, Sri Lanka uses far less agrochemicals per hectare than New Zealand, Malaysia or India. Its soils can produce about 2 tonnes of rice/ha even without fertilizer; but not for long. That was why the ancients abandoned their plots to fallow and burnt-out new chenas periodically. Those methods of traditional agriculture are environmentally unacceptable today.
MONLAR has agitated for “organic agriculture” which emphasizes composting. Composting generates green house gases (GHGs) such as methane – 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in global warming. These emissions catch fire and cause explosions at garbage dumps such as at Meethotamulla. Neither MONLAR, nor Dr. Priya Yapa (an advisor to Gotabhaya) seems to have understood that several tonnes of organic fertilizer are needed to effectively replace a few kilograms of chemical fertilizer.
Certainly, excessive use of fertilizers produces environmental pollution but it is easily controlled by using modern slow-release fertilizers and no-till agriculture and so forth. So, “grama niladharis”, political henchmen or MONLAR-type ideologues should be replaced by knowledgeable agricultural technicians.
The Gotabhaya debacle should have opened the eyes of MONLAR militants, but ideological shutters remain stuck. MONLAR leaders have admired and followed Vandana Shiva, the Indian pseudo-agriculturist who insists that Indians should use traditional seeds (bought from “Nava Dhanya” organizations linked to her), reject modern genetics and GMO products like Golden Rice – a rice crossed with the carrot gene and designed to prevent congenital blindness.
MONLAR and its fellow travellers, some monks and others with a misplaced nostalgia for the past, have pushed for “traditional rice” instead of the modern hybrid seeds, as well as traditional methods of cultivation. Traditional seeds and methods produced low yields, require more water, more erosion, more labour and more encroachment into virgin land. Various myth, e.g., that traditional varieties are “immensely healthier” had been fed to journalists who had not checked the actual (negligible) differences.
A key claim and aim of MONLAR and other activists are to phase out synthetic fertilizers, develop two million organic home gardens, open up two thousand abandoned village tanks, and turn to the production of biofertilizer, or even better, use biofilm-biofertilizers (BFBF) developed by scientists at the National Institute of Fundamental studies (NIFS). Documents from the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and relevant ministries show that some four months prior to the 100% pitch for “organic agriculture”, the DOA had been arm-twisted into approving this BFBF although it would substantially reduce harvests. Careful scientific reviews of the available data on these biofertilizers sponsored by the INFS show that none of their claims for BFBF can be substantiated .
The idea of restoring small abandoned village tanks was already rejected during DS Senanayake’s era for very good reasons, and instead we have larger systems such as Padaviya, Galoya, Victoria etc. Maintaining small tanks with their high evaporation and silting is very expensive, but even the big modern reservoirs are said to be increasingly neglected, though easier to maintain.
Dr. Sarath Ranaweera (associated with “Biofoods” in Sri Lanka) is reported by Karunathileke of the Daily Mirror 30-03-23  to “expose” the Tragedy of Modern agriculture. He claims that
“There are farmers who overcame the challenge posed by the chemical fertilizer ban brought about suddenly by the 2021 Government using environmentally friendly methods as seen in the Ampara district. Ampara farmers cultivated using eco-friendly methods for 3 main seasons and achieved a successful harvest. According to the Department of Agriculture, farmers were able to achieve a yield of 5800 kg per hectare from the 4660 hectares cultivated in Ampara district using biofertilizers. This is an increase of 27.6% compared to the average yield of 4,546 kg per hectare using chemical fertilizers in Ampara over the past five years. Some remain skeptical about the potential of organic farming to increase yields and it is unfortunate”.
Other writers like Neville Ladduwahetty had read the Ranaweera claims and naturally accepted them to be a true . Determining the veracity of such a report requires a significant effort and scientific knowledge. Those who sell biofertilizers claim that they can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers by 50% while boosting harvests by 30%. Our attempts to confirm the above from DOA officials, as well as our detailed scientific study, all established the above to be a false claim . Ladduwahetty had argued (elsewhere) that even if the harvest were low, “organics” will fetch much foreign exchange and that is argument enough! But these harvests do not qualify as “organic” because the NIFS biofertilzers are ineffective without 50% chemical fertilizers!
So that is the elitist false promise of feeding the rich with “high quality food”, earning forex by exporting it too, and then importing low-quality food to feed the poor?
Professor Dharmawardena now resides in Canda and can be reached at C firstname.lastname@example.org
 Food and Agriculture Organization, FAOSTAT database. http://faostat.fao.org/.
 Davis, K.F., Gephart, J.A. & Gunda, T. Sustaining food self-sufficiency of a nation: The case of Sri Lankan rice production and related water and fertilizer demands. Ambio 45, 302–312 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/
 MONLAR’s approval of fertilizer ban, https://www.dailymirror.lk/
 MONLAR FB, https://www.facebook.com/
 Ranil Senanayake, Island 10-10-2022: “If one looks at the statistics of rural health, it is clearly seen that the appearance of non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) in the rural sector began in the early 70s and has been rising exponentially since.” https://island.lk/the-fiction-
 Investigation on the efficacy of biofertilizers. https://www.researchgate.net/
 Neville Ladduwahetty : IMF an beyond, https://island.lk/imf-deal-