The not-so -subtle  mis-information about fertilizers contained in a Divaina article.
Posted on June 12th, 2015

by Bodhi Dhanapala, Quebec, Canada.

The tendency to present total falsehoods as half truths is all too common in many journalistic  write ups.  Another ploy is to  lever in a valid and topical piece of news within  a popular  set of misconceptions.

A recent Divaina article entitled “A biofilm technology brought to light by a professor to escape the chemical fertilizer trap has arrived at  the farm  රසායනික පොහොර උගුලෙන්  ගැලවෙන්නට මහ ඇදුරුතුමා ගෙනා ජෛවපටල තාක්ෂණයවගා බිමට එයි” illustrates some of this and hence we examine it in some detail. The Divaina article reports an environmentally appropriate high-tech agricultural product, but only after a fog of patriotically couched misinformation. Such articles can do more harm and good.

The article is in Sinhalese. We present a free-style translation of whatever  we quote in Sinhalese. The article  begins by claiming that:
“The mixing of lethal poisons to the water that the nation drinks to quench its thirst or produce its food plate is complete. ජාතියේ බත්පතට පිපාසයට බොන දියදහරට මාරාන්තික වස විස මුසු වී හමාරය.”

This is completely incorrect as shown by the published analysis of water, soils and food by many  Sri Lankan scientists as well as by members of wider research projects involving the WHO, University of Tokyo etc.
The writer also claims that:
“Because of Urea, Muriate of Potash, Super phosphate etc, and also trace elements, and large scale agro- chemicals and fertilizers used for economic crops,  for paddy, vegetables etc., what runs in the holy ground of Sri Lanka as well as in the bodies of  young, old, youth and others who form the lifeline of the nation is full of Arsenic, Cadmium, and such heavy metal toxins and chemicals.
යූරියා, මියුරියේට්‌ ඔf  පොටෑෂ්, සුපර් පොස්‌පේට්‌ ආදී වශයෙන්ද තවත් අංශුමාත්‍ර මූල ද්‍රව්‍ය වශයෙන්ද ලෙස ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ වී, එළවළු අනෙකුත් බෝග වගාවන්ට තේ ඇතුළු ආර්ථික බෝග වගාවට යොදන අති විශාල කෘෂිරසායන, රසායනික පෝර හේතුවෙන් අද මේ පූජනීය සිරිලක්‌ භූමි තලයේ මෙන්ම ජාතියේ ජීවනාලිය වන බාල, මහලු, තරුණ කොයි කාගේත් ශරීර අභ්‍යන්තරයේ දුවන්නේ ආසනික්‌, කැඩ්මියම් වැනි බැර ලෝහ හා වෙනත් රසායනික ද්‍රව්‍යයන්ය.”

A recent Japanese publication with  Prof. Kawakami as the lead author has presented analytical data for most parts of the Island, showing that our water table, soils, and hence the food grown there are safe, and do NOT contain undue mounts of metal toxins or pesticides. That was also the conclusion of the WHO study, and the conclusion of  the Geology department of Peradeniya, led by Prof. Chandrajith.

But it is more romantic to attack the  agro-chemical industry, just as it was very fashionable in the 1960s, in the days prior to the coming of the Sirima & LSSP partnership,   to call for the  nationalization of all plantations owned by the Foreign Tea companies as a solution to all our problems.

The Divaina writer goes on to attack the “Green revolution” and says:
A proud nation has kneeled to the white man’s green revolution and  ended up with only the length of a grave yard. The nation’s food plate is completely furnished by the hybrid rices and vegetables resulting from the green revolution.
ආඩම්බරකාර ජාතිය සුද්දාගේ හරිත විප්ලවයෙන් දණ බිම ඇනගෙන පමණක්‌ නොව හතර රියනද උරුම කරගෙන සිටී. ජාතියේ බත්පත සරිකරලන ගොවිතැන අද සම්පූර්ණයෙන්ම සිදුකරනු ලබන්නේ හරිත විප්ලවයේ ප්‍රතිඵල ලෙස අපට ලැබුණු zහයිබ්‍රිඩ්Z නොහොත් දෙමුහුන් වී සහ එළවළු වර්ගවලිනි.
This hybrid farming has a definite chemical fertilizer utilization time table, with various agrochemcals being needed after planting, after two weeks, on flowering, when grains appear etc.  But today this agro-chemical time table is given by the Mudalai and not by agricultural or farm-technology officers
මේ හයිබ්‍රිඩ් වගාවට රසායනික පෝර බෙහෙත් කාලසටහනක්‌ම ඇත. නොහොත් කප්පරක්‌ යෙදිය යුතුය. පැළ සිටුවා සතියෙන්, දෙකෙන්, මාසයෙන්, මල් හටගැනීමේදී, කරල් පීදීමේදී ආදී ලෙස මේ බෙහෙත් වට්‌ටෝරුව සෑදී ඇති අතර ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ගොවියාට අද මේ බෙහෙත් පෝර නොහොත් කෘෂි රසායන කාලසටහන (ප්‍රතිකාරය) කියා දෙන්නේ කෘෂිකර්ම හෝ ගොවිජන සේවා නිලධාරීන් නොවේ. කෘෂි රසායන මුදලාලිය.
At the time our paddy fields were formed by clearing the forest, tilling the soil, damming the water and making mud with the rotted grass. Instead, today what we have is a complete weed control system where we “burn” completely with pesticides.
එදා කැලය කපා පුරං කොටා වතුර බැඳ තණකොළ කුණුකර මඩකරගත් කුඹුර වෙනුවට අද ඇත්තේ වල්නාශකවලින් සහමුලින්ම පුලුස්‌සා විනාශ කරන වල් මර්දන ක්‍රමවේදයකි.

Thus the author has given a vivid, passionate  but completely false description of environmental pollution in  Sri Lanka, completely at variance with what is known from scientific investigations. He has merely painted this sordid picture which is part of popular belief and hence he sees no reason to attach any evidence to support this.

Furthermore, if anyone questions this, the nationalist and emotional vantage point enables the writer to label the critic as an anti-national who is most probably in the pay of  global agri-business.

Scientists labour for years collecting data and doing field work before they attribute a cause to an illness or other effect. However, this writer has already set the scene and  got ready to announce the  aetiology of all non-infectious diseases! He writes:

“Its consequence is that the whole nation is on the sick bed. The present day Sri Lankan is subject to many dangerous non-infectious diseases like Cancer, Kidney disease, Heart disease, diabetes, gastritis, and faces an untimely death, signaling the end of the nation and a nations misfortune.
එහි ප්‍රතිඵලය වී ඇත්තේ ජාතියම ලෙඩ ඇඳට ඇදවැටීමය, පිළිකා, වකුගඩු, හෘදයාබාධ, දියවැඩියාව, ගැස්‌ට්‍රයිටීස්‌ වැනි බෝනොවන එහෙත් අතිශය භයංකර රෝග රැසකට ගොදුරුව සිටින වර්තමාන ශ්‍රී ලාංකික පුරවැසියා අකාලයේ මියෑදීම ජාතියක අවසානය මෙන්ම ජාතියේ අවාසනාව නොවන්නේද?”

Although almost every article in the Divaina on these topics has peddled this point of view, with Saman Gamage a vociferous advocate, the writer states that:
“those who speak of this sad state of affairs is rare මේ අවාසනාවන්ත  ඛේද වාචකය පිළිබඳව කතා කරන්නෝ විරලයහ”.
As we expected, now the writer is ready to bring out the conspiracy theory and claim that responsible people have been bribed to keep quiet.

“The mouths of politicians, agriculturists, scientists, and others who can rise against this calamity have been closed by multi-national agro -business by filling their pockets with bundles of dollars  දේශපාලකයන්ගේ, කෘෂි බලධාරීන් හා විද්‍යාඥයන්ගේ ප්‍රතිපත්ති තීරකයන්ගේ ආදී වශයෙන් මේ කෘෂිරසායන ව්‍යසනයට එරෙහිව කටයුතු කළ හැකි බොහෝ දෙනාගේ මුඛය බේත් – පොහොර විකුණන බහුජාතික වෙළෙඳ සමාගම් මගින් අගේට අගුළු දා වසා දමා ඇත. නොහොත් පොකැට්‌ටුව zඩොලර්Z මිටිවලින් පුරවා ඇත”.

If the soil is rich and fertile, no one would need to use fertilizers. Even a fertile soil becomes infertile on repeated use. If manual labour is enough to control the weeds, and if such labour is cheaply available, then  pesticides are not needed. However, cheap labour has almost always been a case of exploiting some subjugated  people by an elite, as was the case of tea estate labourers and the British, or the Vellalas of the North exploiting the “lower castes”.
Furthermore, if the number people that have to be fed is only a few million, as was the case in the 1920s, then traditional agriculture may be sufficient. However, we should remember that even in the hay day of the Anruadhapura civilization, the country lurched from one famine to another, with periods of prosperity punctuated by invaders who played havoc with a very fragile hydraulic civilization that moved from Mannar to Anuradhapura,  and then to Polonnaruwa, and finally to the southern hills. Even the writing down of the Buddhist scriptures (preserved  till then by recitation and memory) was done at Alu Vihara during a  decades-ong famine when it was feared that even the Sangha, and with it the Dhamma  would perish.  The Mahawamsa, and other chronicles talk of the great “Baeminitya  saaya”  famine and other famines. Traditional rice is today reviewed  with nostalgia, forgetting the reasons for the development of hybrids that began in the 1920s.  They did not begin with Borlaug ‘s Green revolution (as may be implied  by this writer).

Traditional varieties  need more water, take longer to mature, have yileds wich are a third of modern varieties;  they are very unresponsive to fertilizers (be it organic or inorganic), and hence their yields cannot be significantly optimized.

So, if the nation had to kneel, that was because we have been all too fecund and increased our population by leaps and bounds, and well beyond our means. We are not the only culprits. All over the world, the rise of modern agricultural technology made sanitation and food available to the masses for the first time, and the human race began to multiply. These elementary facts are put under the rug by the Divaina author as he wishes to present a heroic, romantic myth for the consumption of his readers who are for the most part having similar simplistic views.

Having spun his myth, the Divaina writer  is now ready to bring in a more factual story about a bio-film technology developed at the Institute of fundamental Studies that presents a method of greatly reducing the use of chemical fertilizers. Of course, the first step in greatly reducing the use of chemical fertilizers is to use the correct amount, and not use five to ten times the optimal amount, as seems to be the case with farmers fooled into buying larger amounts of fertilizers and pesticides than are needed. Successive Directors of Agriculture during the past decades have brought this matter to the attention of the government. But the government since 1977 has chosen to let the “free market” take care of all matters.

The miracle is that even with such excessive use of fertilizers, the water table and the soils have remained relatively free of phosphate blooms and other problems that are usually noted in Western countries even with much less misuse of fertilizer. Prof. Darmawardana and others have argued that the heavy monsoons and our climate help us to wash off much of this pollution every year.

However, the situation in the dry zone is different. There are natural geochemical processes (first outlined by Panabokke in the 1950s) that create inorganic salt imbalances by reduction and oxidation (redox) processes. Salts brought in from the hill country and elsewhere by rivers can leave behind increased salination in stagnant ground wells used by dry-zone residents  for  drinking water.  Many scientists now believe that it is these shallow ground wells, laced with a high salinity, fluorides, phosphates etc.,  that set the stage for  the onset of Kidney diseases. When the kidney fails to filter the impurities, even trace amounts of metals, usually non toxic at those levels, begin to accumulate in the body and residents begin to succumb to chronic Kidney disease.

Of course, that picture is not what is painted by the Divaina writer. However, in the second half of the article the Divaina writer describes the promising bio-technology approach to creating a sustainable type of manuring. The article does not tell us if some sort of composting is involved  in this biofilm approach to fertilizers. If the method produces greenhouse gasses excessively, then its environmental impact may be equally unacceptable. Traditional composting for making “organic manure” is unacceptable because such methods produce large amounts of greenhouse gases. Plants concentrate metal toxins, and using compost from them repeatedly  increases the toxin content in the soil sites used for tradional compost-based agriculture. Centralized high-tech approaches to composting are far better as the fermentation can be scientifically managed and the methane and other gases can be harvested.

The Divaina account suggests that the  biofim technology leveraging micro-organisms in the soil for our purposes, and this is a goal looked for by many agricultural researchers all over the world, although a good solution has not been found. Let us hope that the IFS-research will provide a useful breakthrough.

It has long been recognized that the soil itself  is host to millions of  living organisms. However, even micro-organims and bugs cannot grow in soils which are extremely poor in the needed inorganic chemicals. Hence chemical fertilizers and herbicides will always be, and we cannot waste them as the world supplies of phosphates are dwindling.

Thus we see that  the solution to today’s problems  cannot be found by going back  to “traditional” methods which were abandoned precisely because they were found to be inadequate.  It is only by going to a full harnessing of our knowledge of soil, water, plant physiology, microbiology etc., that we can develop a non-invasive form of agriculture which looks at the health of the crops and its habitat, and not just the  bottom line of the farmer and the merchant.

Such a solution can be found only with the power of science, and not by abandoning science.

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