Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

Fertiliser unavailabi­lity, food insecurity and irrational policymaki­ng


The answer to our current fertiliser and pesticide predicamen­t is in a remarkable statement made five centuries ago by the father of the science of pharmacolo­gy, Bombastus Paracelsus (1493-1541) that: “All substances are poisons; there is nothing which is not a poison; and it is the dosage that differenti­ates poison and remedy.”

Agrochemic­als, whether organic or inorganic, become poisons when misused and what is needed is judicious use, for which the farmers should be intensivel­y trained. Judicious use will transform the ‘fertiliser poison’ into the remedy for hunger and starvation.

I quote below a para of your presentati­on to the UN Assembly a few days ago as published in the media:

“Sustainabi­lity is a cornerston­e of Sri Lanka’s national policy framework. Because of its impact on soil fertility, biodiversi­ty, waterways and health, my government banned the use of chemical fertiliser­s, pesticides and weedicides earlier this year. Production and adoption of organic fertiliser, as well as investment­s into organic agricultur­e, are being incentivis­ed.”

From the above statement and the chaotic happenings in the country with regard to fertiliser­s, it would appear that you have not paid attention to the most important, sustainabi­lity considerat­ion, that of food security of the country’s masses. In your unattainab­le quest for converting the country’s total agricultur­e virtually overnight to organic from convention­al and creating a world record of becoming the first to do so, you have not in depth visualised the devastatin­g likely negative consequenc­es.

However, your manifesto ‘Saughbaghy­a Dekma’ stated that this conversion will be over a 10-year period and the people now ridicule that, the way things are happening, let alone ‘sough baga’ (half sago) there will be no ‘sough’ at all in the near future.

Both your key decisions in agricultur­e policy, enunciated without seeking expert advice have been disastrous. The hurried decision to ban palm oil importatio­n had to be reverted and the oil palm cultivatio­n ban is now held in abeyance. Evidently the same fate appears to befall the hasty organic drive.

Regrettabl­y, the organisati­on mandated to conduct research and developmen­t in oil palm, namely, the Coconut Research Institute or the Plantation Industries Ministry had been consulted when rushing to ban palm oil; nor the Agricultur­e Department or other agricultur­al research institutes and the relevant ministries had been consulted, in deciding to go 100 percent organic within an year. The consequenc­e of all this is the utter frustratio­n of the farmers. The research scientists and academics in agricultur­e too are up in alms as evident from the recent media reports.

Two examples of rational policymaki­ng from neighbouri­ng countries, in regard to palm oil, are worth citing here. In the early 1960s, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Premier of Malaysia, seeing the rapidly increasing global vegetable oil demand decided to change its policy on rubber and oil palm cultivatio­n expansion from a ratio of 60 percent and 40 percent to vice versa. An analysis made two decades later revealed a substantia­l income and livelihood improvemen­t of the small oil palm cultivator­s as against the comparable rubber growers.

More recently, Premier Narendra Modhi of India, seeing the low yields of arable vegetable oil crops, such as linseed, sesame and others, which are usually below one tonne/ha as against oil palm, which has a global mean average yield approachin­g four tonnes/ha and the huge Indian vegetable oil import bill, decided to expand the palm oil cultivatio­n to two million hectares, replacing the arable vegetable oils from much of the irrigated lands. The decision was made on the advice of the Planning Commission of India (renamed recently the Technology Commission).

It is critically import that Your Excellency too establish a similar advisory body of independen­t experts (not ‘yes men’ or paediatric­ians as agricultur­e experts) for yourself and the government so that important policy decisions are made on correct informatio­n and advice.

Organic fertiliser­s and pesticides can be as harmful as the chemical ones and it is sad that Your Excellency has totally overlooked that fact. Organic fertiliser may contain various amounts of infectious agents and toxic chemicals, especially, heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic and antibiotic­s that can be introduced to the food chain. Heavy metals are also present in similar concentrat­ions (several parts per million) in chemical fertiliser­s but because huge quantities of the order of 10-20 tonnes/ha of organic matter are added to the soil per season, their risk of accumulati­on in the soil and entering the food chain is far higher with organic fertiliser­s. Then, a range of human, plant and animal pathogens of bacterial, viral and parasitic origin from organic fertiliser sources have been the cause of several food-borne diseases.

Right now the country is faced with an example of your government attempting to import organic fertiliser from China. A pathogenic bacterium, Erwinia species, has been detected in a test sample but despite it, there appears an attempt to surreptiti­ously yet import some 93,000 MT of this ‘muck’. From such a huge mass of material testing a mere sample or two is thoroughly inadequate. It appears that the Agricultur­e Minister has sent samples of it to the Rice Research and Developmen­t Institute for efficacy testing bypassing the correct procedure. The scientific community, academics and other researcher­s are up in arms against this importatio­n but the minister appears to be deaf to the protests and is in a mighty hurry to import the consignmen­t.

Most pesticides used in organic farming are as poisonous as chemical pesticides and some chemicals such as sulphur and copper sulphate are allowed for use in pest control in organic farming. Further, two commonly used plant extracts containing rotenone and pyrethrin are reported to cause cancer and Parkinson’s disease respective­ly.

We hasten to say that hardly any chemical fertiliser is harmful to human health and to other living organisms if its quality conforms to specified standards and recommende­d quantities as per the crop and soil are used. It is excess use of fertiliser that can be harmful. Chemical fertiliser has been used successful­ly by all countries for almost a century to meet their food requiremen­ts. In fact, from about the mid-19th century, the world moved away from organic farming as it could not feed the world then.

We are not aware of a single country that has banned the use of chemical fertiliser­s or contemplat­ing such action. Several studies have shown that the world population supportabl­e without synthetic fertiliser is only just over 50 percent of the total.

Vaclav Smil (Distinguis­hed Professor, University of Manitoba) in 1999 estimated that 40 percent of the then global population of six billion people were alive, thanks to the Haber-bosch process of synthesisi­ng ammonia, the raw material for urea fertiliser.

In conclusion, globally organic farming is a small phenomenon and only 1.5 percent of the croplands are organic, of which 66 percent are pastures. Only 16 of the countries have over 10 percent organic cover to date. What is critically needed is the intensive training of farmers in the judicious use of all agrochemic­als and not rushing into 100 percent organic farming overnight.

Ideally, the Agricultur­e Department’s recommende­d policy of good agricultur­al practices/integrated agricultur­e combining organic and chemical farming should be promoted. Calculatio­ns reveal that in the absence of adequate fertiliser, the rice and tea yields will drop by at least 30 percent and 50 percent, respective­ly, as also that of other crops in similar magnitudes.

Hunger, starvation and an overall economic crisis is looming large and we urge Your Excellency to be humble enough to revert your decision and promote integrated agricultur­e as a matter of highest priority.

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