Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?
Posted on November 28th, 2021

by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha Courtesy The Island

When the potato crop, the staple diet then in Ireland, began to totally fail with a fungal infestation that lead to the historic Irish famine (1845-1852), the Irish leaders in Dublin turned to Queen Victoria and the British Parliament for redress. However, the British government under which Ireland was then a colony, acted negatively repealing certain laws and tariffs that made food such as corn and bread prohibitively expensive. Tenant farmers were unable even to produce enough food for themselves, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition!

The exact role of the British government in the Potato Famine and its aftermath—whether it ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence—is still being debated. However, even during the famine some food items were exported out of Ireland. Our situation looks very comparable to the Irish fiasco except that our leaders are not acting with malice but with foolish obstinacy, not analysing the issues at stake, not consulting experts in the subject and sticking coherently to their policy of organic farming with unattainable goals.

Our rice farmers may yet not be starving because they have at least the last Yala rice crop which has been reasonable despite the fertilizer and other agrochemical shortages. On the other hand, tea and vegetable farmers appear to be the most hit. Many tea smallholders complain that without adequate nitrogen fertilizer their crops have declined immensely and some are not even harvesting the meagre flush as it can hardly meet even the workers wages. The seriousness of the situation is further aggravated by our losing the markets which the industry claims can be substantial.

At the same time, for the general public, sky-rocketing prices of food and other essentials are unbearable. Our women won’t be able even to emulate what the French women did during the days of the French Revolution due to inflation, carrying the money in the shopping bags and bringinging back the purchases in their purses, because they have no money to carry.

It is regrettable that the President did not consult the agricultural experts in deciding to rush to convert the country entirely to organic from conventional farming within one season.He has not positively responded to the current fiasco of neither chemical nor organic fertilizer being available. His main consultants on matter appear to be a pediatrician who wants to go back to traditional rice varieties which yield less than half the new improved varieties and a professor of agriculture who identified sorghum as a rice variety, Swayanjatha wee’, with which, he claims, King Dutugamunu fed his ‘Dasa Maha Yodayas.’ There are many other ‘yes men’ behind him nodding their heads to every thing he says.

The President should be mindful that the world moved away from organic farming from about the 1850s to conventional farming because even in that era organic farming could not meet the food demand. The writer hopes that he would at least look at Table 1 here which shows how chemical fertilizers and new high yielding varieties pushed production from essentially organic farming and traditional rice to chemical farming and new varieties by three to four fold across many countries. Distinguished Professor Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba calculated that 40% of the global population in 1999 would not have lived if urea fertilizer had not been invented.

Table 1. Comparative Rice

Production (Million MT)

Country 1960 1999

China 48 170

India 46 112

Sri Lanka 1.1 3.4

The transition from traditional agriculture where fertilizer comprised essentially farmyard manure(FYM) and green manures, to conventional agriculture(CF), as we know it today, took place in the mid 19th century with two ground breaking inventions , the synthesis of soluble (super) phosphate(John Lawes,1814 to 1900) and the need for chemical nitrogenous fertilizer for crop growth (Justus von Liebig,1803-1873) by two great scientists. In 1909, another great German scientist, Fritz Haber (1868-1934) successfully synthesized ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen which revolutionized the production of urea and other commercial nitrogenous fertilizers.

These inventions and the rapidly growing knowledge then in plant chemistry led to the substitution of natural dung with chemical fertilizer. The third important element, potassium, was provided largely by potash, a substance that had been known from antiquity. It has been said that without these inventions, the industrial countries of Western Europe could not have supported the dense population growth of the 19th century. It is the same reason that later led to the Green Revolution. This is ironically the fundamental question that we should ask: is there adequate organic matter and associated technologies to go green” fully, as the President calls it, now, if it was not possible then with much lower populations but more farmlands. Sir John Russell (1942), the reputed British soil scientist, in an article titled British Agriculture states that: it is difficult for us in this distance in time to recapture the feelings with which the farmers received the information that a powder made in a factory and applied out of a bag at the rate of only a few hundred weights per acre could possibly act as well as farmyard manure put on the land as dressings of tons to meet the nutrient demands of crops’. The question then is if organic matter was inadequate to meet the fertilizer requirements then, can it do so now on a global scale?

The main blame of the President and his cabinet colleagues is on health hazzards of agrochemicals. There is no argument that there are risks largely due to misuse of agrochemicals. One serious problem recently has been phosphate pollution of the Rajarata water bodies due to excessive application of phosphate fertilizers in the upcountry vegetable farms. On the other hand, no comprehensive studies reveal pollution of water or soil with heavy metals or pesticides, a subject much spoken about. Farmer training on judicious use can greatly reduce the risk of agrochemical misuse which sadly is not happening with the very ineffective extension services of the day. Strengthening this service is matter of highest priority.

On the other hand hardly any politician utters a word about ambient air pollution, which is a far more serious problem than agrochemical pollution. Records reveal that it caused 3.5 million premature, non-communicable disease- deaths, globally in 2017. These were from stroke, ischemic heart disease non chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and diabetes. Local health records reveal that our situation is no better.

The President and many of his cabinet colleagues including the Minister of Agriculture continue to lay the blame on agrochemicals for the kidney disease in the Rajarata and other non- communicable diseases, apparently the main reason for the President ‘going green.’ At some public meeting the President was heard to say that if he gives ‘chemical fertilizer with one hand he will have to give a kidney’ to the farmer with the other. He was prompted to say so by one of his key advisors in agriculture, a pediatrician turned agriculture expert. Sadly he has not sought advice from the health authorities as to the causation of the kidney disease. Numerous knowledgeable scientists and publications have revealed beyond doubt that hardwater and fluoride are the cause of the disease, and a recent comprehensive report by the Health Ministry reveals that there is no evidence to implicate agrochemicals in the causation of the disease.

In this crisis situation, of diminishing food production, the President does not appear to have sought the advise of real agriculture experts. In fact a letter delivered to him over a month ago with some 140 signatures of qualified agriculture researchers and academics seeking an opportunity to discuss the current agricultural calamity has fallen on deaf ears. Let alone the local expert knowledge, he should have sought evidence from what happens elsewhere in the world. Many countries are only gradually expanding their organic crop cover which, however, yet stands at 1.5 % of the total global croplands expanding annually at a meagre 2% per annum.Only 16 countries have exceeded 10 % of the crop cover in organic farming, and in nearly all them the major extents are in pasture fertilized with farmyard manure.

Policy blunders continue to be committed. To meet the rice fertilizer needs the government claims importing 2.1 million litres of nano fertilizer at a cost of USD 12 per litre. It appears to be nano urea although the Minister of Agriculture vehemently claims that it is not nano urea but ‘nanonitrogen’ to give it an organic stance. Urea is not allowed in organic farming. The authorities claim that the cost of a litre is USD 12, and it has 4% nitrogen, meaning there are 40 grams nitrogen/litre. As average rice crop of 5 tons/ha removes over 100kg nitrogen , meaning to meet the crop demand the farmers should spray 2,500 bottles of which the theoretical cost should be USD 30,000. However, the government makes the ridiculous claim that five litres/ha of nanonitrogen is adequate to meet the crop demand. God save the farmers!

The global synthetic urea prices have soared to about USD 750 per metric ton from about USD500 last November. Assuming that a farmer applies 100kg nitrogen/ha with urea (46% N) his cost should be Rs 32,608 without subsidy; and assuming he sells his crop of five tons at Rs 60/kg, his gross income should be Rs 300,000, and the cost of urea alone should be over 10.6% of the gross income. On the other hand, with the huge fertilizer subsidy in previous years the total fertilizer cost for rice farming was a mere 2 to 3% of the total cost of production or about 1.5% of the gross return. Incisive thinking on fertilizer subsidy is another matter that needs state attention.

The need for a national advisory body like the one in India set up by Nehru in 1963, which still continues with a name change made by Prime Minister Modi to give it more emphasis on technologies. Modi also recently reported repealing antiquated regulations that are adversely affecting small farmers. Moreover, whereas we have rushed to ban palm oil imports (now reversed) and oil palm cultivation, promoting coconut cultivation to meet the national oil yields despite it yielding only 20% of oil as oil palm, Modi has engaged in a policy of expanding oil palm cultivation extending it to irrigated lands and replacing some of the low-yielding arable oil crops. His target is to expand the oil palm cover from the current level of about 400,000 ha to a million by 2025. This writer repeats that our leaders should look at what happens elsewhere in the world apart from listening to proven experts in the respective fields.

2 Responses to “Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?”

  1. Cerberus Says:

    These are two very important videos which show the connection between many diseases such as Autism, Diabetes, Heart disease etc to Glyphosate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snNRfAfSeUk  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYC6oyBglZI Some more information about dangers of Glyphosate.Former pro-GMO scientist speaks against the use of glyphosate at a lecture in 2014. Thought this video presentation  (39 minutes) made in 2014, might interest you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN3LXjigjIg&t=57s Another video interview that might interest you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QqR68BY6F4 Attachments areaPreview YouTube video Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate  Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate

    Preview YouTube video Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate  Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate Attachments areaPreview YouTube video Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against GlyphosatePreview YouTube video Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate  These are two very important videos which show the connection between many diseases such as Autism, Diabetes, Heart disease etc to Glyphosate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snNRfAfSeUk  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYC6oyBglZI Some more information about dangers of Glyphosate.Former pro-GMO scientist speaks against the use of glyphosate at a lecture in 2014. Thought this video presentation  (39 minutes) made in 2014, might interest you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN3LXjigjIg&t=57s Another video interview that might interest you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QqR68BY6F4 Attachments areaPreview YouTube video Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate  Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate

    Preview YouTube video Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate  Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate Attachments areaPreview YouTube video Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against Glyphosate Dr. Thierry Vrain, Former Pro-GMO Scientist, Speaks Up Against GlyphosatePreview YouTube video Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Samsel on the Dangers of Glyphosate   

  2. Cerberus Says:

    Correction: I found a lot the videos have been removed. There are only two videos available on Youtube. Sorry about it.

    These are two very important videos that show the connection between many diseases such as Autism, Diabetes, Heart disease, etc to Glyphosate.
     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYC6oyBglZI 

    Some more information about the dangers of Glyphosate.Former pro-GMO scientist speaks against the use of glyphosate at a lecture in 2014. 

     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN3LXjigjIg&t=57s

     German cabinet approves legislation to ban glyphosate from 2024   – http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-farming-lawmaking-idUSKBN2AA1GF

    Glyphosate Toxicity Alert: How to Detox from America’s #1 Weedkiller  – https://draxe.com/health/glyphosate-toxicity/

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