Moving from conventional farming to Organic farming – Jumping from the frying pan into the fire?
Posted on March 17th, 2016

 Chandre Dharmawardana, Ottawa, Canada.

Most people assume, without further inquiry, that moving to traditional farming methods, or what is sometimes caleld organic farming”, es essential to a ensure a healthy food supply and a sustainable future. Unfortunately, that view is too simplifitic and in fact wrong. Furthermore, a number of people have  expresses surprise about my statement  that “Organic fertilizers made by repeated composting of leaves can have dangerous amounts of metal toxins like Cd and As, as plants bio-accumulate them”,  quoted from   ‘Wholesome agriculture’ for a ‘toxin free nation’?  (see: The Island 11/03/2016, or in the longer article in The Lankaweb, March 10th:

 “Whole-some agriculture” for a “toxin-free nation” ?

Others have expressed surprise at the statement that Chemical analyzes of the soil, water and food have NOT revealed any relevant toxins from agrochemicals.”

The latter is the conclusion that we can derive from the world-health-organization (WHO) and Sri Lanka National-Science foundation (NSF) funded study (2013) of the Rajarata environment in the context of chronic kidney disease. The WHO-NSF issued a second report where they speculated on the possibility that there may be some risk from Cadmium toxins in the food. The latter has  been questioned by subsequent studies, while the absence of metal toxins  like Cd, As, lead etc., in the soil, water table, reservoirs and rivers has been established  subsequent studies (after 2013) from the geology department, Peradeniya University,  by the University of Tokyo and from other studies including those from an Australian study.

Professor James McWilliams, a green” advocate and author of  Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong  and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly” writes:

One issue … overlooked in the rush to  embrace organic agriculture is the prevalence of excess arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, mercury, copper, and zinc in organic soil. Soil ecologists and environmentalists … have known for more than a century that … conventional farming leave heavy metals in the ground. But the fact that you’ll also find the same toxins in organic soil has been something of a dirty little secret”.

New Zealand is one of the biggest users of synthetic fertilizer, applying 1700 kg/hectare in 2012. Other comparative figures (per hectare, World Bank data) are, Malaysia,1600, Singapore 3400, Holland 300, India 165, Sri Lanka 198,  Nicaragua 50. Both Nicaragua and Sri Lanka have chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDU). There are similar trends for glyphosate (herbicide) use. While Nicaragua uses very  little fertilizer and glyphosate, New Zealand which uses more than 34 times has no CKDU.

Singapore (3400)  and especially Qatar (11,650)  use enormous quantities of synthetic fertilizer while Quatar has to deal with a desert. Singapore attempts to make the most out of its small land area and use modern agriculture. There are parts of USA where the fertilizer use is even double that of New Zealand, but the overall national average is less than that in Europe.

It is instructive to draw a map of Fertilizer and Glyphosate usage in the world, and also plot the incidence of kidney disease or cancer. It is clearly seen that there is no correlation of fertilizer or herbicide use with CKDU, Cancer  or nay other disease. The fertilizers and glyphosate are not toxic enough to cause problems even if  farmers did not use gloves  and protective garments when applying these  agro-chemicals. Meanwhile, the substitutes that have come on the market as safe” alternatives are only safe because they are ineffective, or are used only in small domestic quantities.

Organic fertilizers.

Organic fertilizer” or manure” is made by composting plant matter,  animal matter, kitchen and farm waste,  river sludge, etc.  Crushed minerals like phosphate rock are also included.  Human night soil” is  included, especially in China. So, organic fertilizer will contain what ever toxins that are  found in the soil, and in plant and animal matter used in the compost.   Perfectly  virgin” soils  naturally contain small  amounts of metal toxins like As, Cd, mercury, lead. Since  plants don’t have kidneys”, the toxins they absorb tend to accumulate in the plants. If plants are re-used in composting, the new compost will contain higher amounts of toxins.

If the soil becomes toxic, plants themselves can be used to suck up the toxins and clean the soil. This is known as phyto-remediation. The sunflower (Helianthus annus, sooriya kaantha”, curiyakantam),   Datura innoxia (Aththana, Vellaiyumattai), Water Hyacinth (Japan Jaabara, Akasathamarai) are three examples among many Sri lankan  plants that accumulate metal toxins  effectively. A detailed list of Sri lankan plants may be found at a website that the author maintains:

( http://dh-web.org/place.names/bot2sinhala.html ).  Thus eating sunflower seed or using oil from plants grown in contaminated soil is inadvisable. But do you know from where your oil comes from, even if it is said to be organic”? The same is true for most other foods, oils and nuts.

The WHO study of the Rajarata  in the context of the CKDU  had  identified lotus root  as a toxin accumulator.  Most plants bio-accumulate toxins, and compost made from them transfers the enriched toxins to the crops that are used in the next compost. Thus an enrichment chain gets set up.  Organic farmers, naively  confident of a  healthy product of our fore-fathers”, make no chemical analyzes of their organic manures or  crops. But crops grown on such organic” soils may be as contaminated or as safe as those from conventional farming. Hence such monitoring is essential for all soils, fertilizers and harvests, be it organic fertilizer, or synthetic fertilizer. The fore-fathers” used slash-and burn chena” cultivation exploiting the available forest land, and not composting, as they had ample forests and very small populations. Today we are trying to deal with a mono-culture of humans that have densely covered the earth’s surface. Drastic industrial methods are needed to feed all these billions of people, many being hungry even though the technology is there to feed them. Turing to organic farming to provide custom-made healthy” food for the rich is to abandon the poor. In fact, as we have argued here, even the rich are fooling themselves when they think that organic food is necessarily healthier.

The problems of organic farming” is not well known because organic farming  is still  marginal. When it becomes capable of feeding even 1/5 of the world population, it will show itself to be another monster, and that we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire on embracing organic farming.

When  organic farms are set up, complaints of smells”, pollution of the water table  etc., become common, because large amounts of fertilizer are needed compared to synthetic” fertilizers. While a few tea-spoons of synthetic fertilizer suffice  to grow a pineapple plant, many kilograms of organic manure are needed, contributing a larger amount of toxins, foul smells, and attracting flies and  insects.  Composting  produces much  methane and carbon dioxide,  i.e., unwelcome  green house gases.  If  house-hold bio-degradable garbage” and  meat have been used, the compost will  contain pharmaceuticals, growth-hormones and other contaminants. Hence, backyard composting must be avoided. A central facilities where the methane is harvested as bio-gas without letting it escape to the atmosphere, with the compost  reaching  the needed temperatures to kill infectious bugs and foul smells is needed. Chemists  can analyze the manure for metal toxins etc.,  and  bring  them  to the maximum allowed values (MALs) by dilution.  Thus, providing safe  organic compost manure” containing certified amounts of N, P, K and  trace plant nutrients is a very  high tech”  operation which is  as industrial as producing synthetic fertilizers”.

The soil is mostly inorganic matter (sand, rock etc) but it is a complex ecosystem containing bacteria and bugs, worms etc that are vital to its health and nutritive capacity. But these bacterial have alos a negative metabolic effect. Bacteria working on the  manure produces nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, I.e, unacceptable green-house gases. The same problem exists equally with synthetic fertilizer unless the soil is so acidic that it does not have much living matter, as may happen if it is used in excess. Suc soils are dead soils and such short-sighted, wasteful, environmentally dangerous  practices should be put sharply down by the agricultural authorities.

Since large amounts of organic fertilizer is needed, in comparison to synthetic fertilizer, there is more room for water wash off. Once the organic fertilizer is applied, the rains can carry of much of its organic nitrogen and phosphorous, in a manner even more drastic than with synthetic fertilizer. In December 2011, the environmental group Environment Maryland”  found that  runoff from organic agricultural was polluting  Chesapeake Bay (USA) and creating dead zones”. This type of problem is becoming quite common with increasing installation of organic farming.

Synthetic” (aka. Inorganic)  fertilizers

Phosphate rock and potash rock  used in Inorganic fertilizer  contain naturally occurring toxins like As, Cd, Lead, mercury etc. Sri Lanka’s Eppawela phosphate, if used in a fertilizer mixture will add some 0.025mg of Arsenic per kilo of Eppawela added to the fertilizer mixture.  Whether this will make the soil toxic or not depends on weather the optimal amount for the soil is used, or not. A virgin soill (like a newly opened chena”) may not need ANY fertilizer. But most conventional farms need regular application of fertilizer, even with inter-cropping, inclusion of legumes etc. If fertilizers are not added to the soil, there will be no crop to harvest!

Toxins from inorganic ore are easy  to remove, whereas removing toxins from organic manure is much harder. Hence producing very clean synthetic fertilizers” containing no toxins adds only a marginal costs. Many home-garden fertilizers are already of that category.   Thus a modern approach to conventional farming would  be to use purified fertilizers, and that would still be much much cheaper and also safer than trying to go fully organic”. If the organic fertilizer can be trusted to be free of toxins or antagonistic microbial strains, a blended fertilizer including inorganic and organic fertilizer has many attractive features.

The Harber process harvests  atmospheric  nitrogen  for synthetic fertilizers, while the phosphates and potash come from the earth. The world was saved” of famines by this process commercialized  by 1913. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in the body of most humans and even livestock living on the earth  today is  from the nitrogen coming from the synthetic Harber process!  New  Haber installations  use solar energy, and  avoid fossil fuels, and hence the accusation that they are based on fossil fuels” is largely invalid.

Coal-power plants in Tamil Nadu.

Besides  toxins from the soil, there are air borne toxins as well.  Nearly  fifty  coal-fired power stations along the coast of Tamil Nadu spew out metal toxins and particulate gases,  brought southwards by the trade winds and monsoons.  Some 1,15,000 premature deaths in India result  from  pollution due to coal-fired generators (Hindu, March 11, 2013). This number is much more than the deaths from kidney disease in the Rajarata. The environmental impact of Indian  power plants on Sri lanka is unknown and it is urgent that those who talk of a toxin-free nation” should immediately study it. The fact that these coal-power plants are across the ocean is irrelevant as some of them are near than Colombo is to Jaffna.   Sri Lanka too has coal-fired  polluters in Sampur (known as Saamapura), and in Norochcholai, known in earlier times as Horagolla”.  Both organic  and inorganic” agriculture will be smothered by over-arching pollution from the Indian coal-fired generators, as well as  from the ubiquitous pollution from petroleum fumes and other petro-chemicals. All these are class-I carcinogens (i.e., you definitely

get cancer on exposure to them). Class-II carcinogens may give cancer at very high doses and long exposures.  The Sri Lankan government has banned just one of the class-II carcinogens (Glyphosate),, while leaving most class-I carcinogens and  all  other class-II carcinogens untouched.

Chandre Dharmawardana, Ottawa, Canada.

One Response to “Moving from conventional farming to Organic farming – Jumping from the frying pan into the fire?”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    A great response from Lal Jayasinghe, Island newspaper, Mar 21 :

    Organic and inorganic fertilisers – a response
    March 21, 2016, 6:37 pm

    Chandre Dharmawardana (CD) seems very concerned by the fact that plants absorb As, Cd and other metallic toxins from soils containing small amounts of these minerals. (“Organic and inorganic fertilizers” – The Island March 17th 2916). He forgets that our life and the lives of animals depend on the ability of plants to absorb minerals from the soil. How do we obtain the vital nutrients like iron, calcium, potassium etc. which are essential for life? It is from plants. The fact that there are small amounts of toxic metals in the soil has not bothered us since life began on earth, and should not concern us now.

    CD makes some statements without much thought: “Most plants bio-accumulate toxins, and their compost transfers the enriched toxins to the next compost.” According to this concept we would be living in a dead planet. Think of what happens in nature without the intervention of man, say in a virgin forest. Plants grow by absorbing minerals from the soil, including toxic ones. The plants then die and the plant material is broken down by small animals, insects, fungi and bacteria (i.e. made into compost). The next generation of plants and trees use this compost to grow. This has been going on for millennia. If CD is right, this cannot happen because the natural compost would be too toxic.

    I don’t want to respond to his comments on CKDU because still the cause of CKDU is unknown although chemical fertilizers and herbicides are chief suspects. However, I must emphasize that why we should practice organic agriculture is not because of CKDU alone. CKDU is not a problem in most countries of the world, but there is a strong desire worldwide to move away from using chemical fertilizer and adopt organic methods of growing food.

    A lot of people including CD have a wrong idea of what organic fertilizer is. CD mentions a list of things that go into making compost (not “manure” which is basically animal waste). Not all things mentioned are either necessary or included in making compost. Another misconception is that organic agriculture is not possible without using either manure or large amounts of compost “While a few teaspoons of synthetic fertilizer suffice to grow a pineapple plant, many kilograms of organic manure are needed, contributing a large amount of toxins, foul smells and attracting flies and insects.”

    “A central facility where the methane is harvested as bio-gas, with the compost reaching the needed temperatures to kill infectious bugs and foul smells is needed. Chemists can analyze the manure for metal toxins etc, and bring them to the maximum allowed values (MALs) by dilution. Thus, providing safe “organic compost manure” containing certified amounts of N, P, K and trace plant nutrients is a very “high tech” operation which is as industrial as producing “synthetic fertilizers”.”

    Organic farming would not be possible or economical if it is based on bringing compost from a central facility as CD suggests.

    Another of CD’s unthinking statements is: “The problems of ‘organic farming’ are not well known because organic farming is still marginal”. Most people know that organic farming has been practiced throughout the world until about the 1950s.

    CD also mentions “dead zones” which are areas of the ocean where nothing can live, neither fish nor plants. It is strange that CD uses dead zones to support his argument in favour of chemical fertilizers. One of the main causes of dead zones is the large amount of nitrate and phosphate contained in the runoff from agricultural land using chemical fertilizers that end up in the sea. In fact, one reason for promoting organic agriculture in places like US is the presence of dead zones.

    CD heaps much praise on the Haber process. “Perhaps, 80% of the body nitrogen of most humans on the earth is from the Harber (sic) process!” This is another of his unthinking statements. He knows very well that the Haber process does not “make” nitrogen. The process makes ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. Contrary to what CD says, I think the Haber process was the start of our troubles. Until then nitrogenous fertilizer was expensive and in short supply. Suddenly nitrogen fertiliser like urea could be made rather cheaply and in large amounts. Together with mined minerals containing phosphate and potassium, chemical fertilizers were introduced to the world. The great advantage of chemical fertilizer is its low cost and the small quantities required compared to compost or manure. During the same period that chemical fertilizer became widely available, new varieties of high yielding plants were also developed. As CD says the “world was ‘saved’ from famines”.

    Unfortunately, this modern miracle to save the world came in a package. In order to obtain the high yields, not only chemical fertilizer and seeds of high yielding plants but also herbicides and insecticides were necessary. All these required money up front. The farmers had to borrow money. The banks were not prepared to give loans to farmers who had no valid collateral. So they went to money lenders. They gradually got into debt. Once embarked on chemical agriculture there was no going back. The farmer is caught in a vicious cycle. He dares not to try anything like organic agriculture. This is where we are now in Sri Lanka.

    Fortunately, the Govt. has realized that this cannot go on and embarked on a three-year project to promote organic agriculture. (I hope that is the case and not merely as a solution to CKDU).

    What people don’t realize is that the Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potassium (NPK) that the chemicals fertilizers provide are available free (almost free, in the case of Phosphate from Eppawala)! Although they are available free we must be smart enough to get them. Our forefathers were smart enough to do so even if they hadn’t heard of NPK.

    Take nitrogen, 78% of the atmosphere is nitrogen. Potassium is present in rocks. Atmospheric nitrogen is converted by micro-organisms to a form that is available for absorption by plants. Potassium in rocks is extracted by rock eating fungi. Besides NPK, the plants need trace elements which too are available in most soils. In other words, we do not need to “import” anything to the land in order to grow crops. The other ingredients needed for plant growth are water and sunlight, which too are free. However, why we have to be smart is because we need to manage our free resources intelligently. We need to grow plants like gliricidia to capture the nitrogen; we need to grow plants with deep root systems to extract potassium from deep soil. Besides the raw materials like NPK, water etc. we need to look after the “workers” who will convert these ingredients to food that we can use. Who are the workers? They are the small creatures, bacteria and fungi in the soil. The last thing we must do is use pesticides, which are poisons and can do no good to these workers or us. The “workers” don’t have to be paid but they have to be fed. Compost is their food. We must produce the compost on site (also free) and not import it at a cost.

    Finally, I am grateful to CD for mentioning coal-fired power stations. There is no point in saving our people from death and disease by providing toxin free food if they are then sickened and killed by toxins in the atmosphere produced by coal fired power stations.

    Lal Jayasinghe

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