Arsenic and Lysenkoism
Posted on April 20th, 2013

Dr. Anura Wijesekara Registrar of Pesticides Sri Lanka


 Russian Scientist N.I. Vavilov was the pioneer who introduced the centers of crop diversity to the world.  He was also the scientist who made us aware of the potential value of Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) and need for their conservation.  This great scientist died in prison!  He died in prison because one of his contemporaries, Trofim Lysenko, was seeking popularity! Lysenko did not agree with Vavilov, he argued that plants acquire characteristics and persuaded then Russian head of state, Joseph Starling that Vavilov was wrong.  Lysenko with his political backing succeeded discrediting the great scientist N.I. Vavilov.  It is said that acts of Lysenko have pushed back Russian Plant Breeding by at least 50 years! This episode in Russian science history is popularly known as Lysenkoism.

 I was reminded of this story when one of the former Director Generals of Agriculture mentioned Lysenkoism in a meeting on Arsenic and Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) organized by the Ministry of Environment recently.  This led me to wonder about similarities that we share between the proponents of CKDu due to Arsenic and the Lysenkoism.  Some personalities in our society (not only the Arsenic proponents) do not seem to understand that they behave like Lysenkos dragging progress backwards based on their highly unscientific and egocentric reasoning. 

 The quest for finding the cause of CKDu in Sri Lanka is still on.  At present, as I understand, there are eight hypotheses proposing possible causal relationships. The eight proposed hypotheses for CKDu are 1. Fluoride poisoning through water, 2. Chronic Cadmium poisoning through water and food, 3. Fluoride poisoning aggravated by aluminum from cooking utensils, 4. Cyanobacterial toxin from water, 5. Chronic Arsenic poisoning through hard water, 6. Adverse effects of traditional medicine, illicit liquor, pesticides and other agrochemicals, 7. Chronic cadmium poisoning through food chain aggravated by arsenic and 8. Multi-factorial including genetic predisposition.  Scientific evidences have been provided in support of all these hypotheses and some of the evidence has been questioned by peers as it usually happen in science. In my opinion, none of these hypotheses are closer to being mature as a theory.  “ƒ”¹…”In science, a theory is a well-substantiated, unifying explanation for a set of verified, proven hypotheses but a hypothesis consists either of a suggested explanation for an observable phenomenon or of a reasoned proposal predicting a possible causal correlation among multiple phenomena’.

 The most controversial among the above is Chronic Arsenic Poisoning hypothesis.  This is not because it has been argued among the scientific community but the proponents of the hypothesis have been making emotional appeal to the public with the support of mass media and some politicians.  This is where I see a parallelism with Lysenkoism.  Lysenko also got publicity from the Russian news paper “ƒ”¹…”Pravda’ for his work including a discovery of a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals.  He was able to portray himself as a “ground to earth scientist” coming from peasant and working for peasants.  During this time the Soviet political authority gave their full support to Lysenko.  Armed with the media and political backing Lysenko spent much of his time discrediting other scientists, especially geneticists, claiming their laboratory work were not helping the Soviet people.

 Same efforts are being made in Sri Lanka.  One of the key points in Arsenic proponents’ argument is that there is no Arsenic in the bed rock of Sri Lanka and therefore, whatever the amount of Arsenic found in soils of Sri Lanka must have been added by human activities.  At the early stages of Arsenic debate one of the geologists from Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) in Kandy wrote to a news paper explaining that bed rock of Sri Lanka and the minerals found in Sri Lanka naturally contains trace amounts of Arsenic.  Since then, in the eyes of Arsenic proponents, this geologist became a person working for the money from multinational companies!  A professor from the University of Peradeniya argued in various forums against the Arsenic hypothesis.  As a result his work also came under fire of Arsenic proponents.  This professor tested a well-known theory of Fluoride behavior in the presence of Aluminum in CKDu endemic areas of the country and suggested potential correlation.  This work was unjustly criticized by Arsenic proponents as plagiarism for not referring to a discredited scientific article written by another Sri Lankan scientist.  Anyone who read the article would have known that professor has given due credit to the sources of his information.


 Irrespective of the fact that Arsenic is a ubiquitous element in nature Arsenic proponents keep insisting that the level of Arsenic in pesticides imported to the country should be zero as it is a non threshold carcinogen.  Similar to any other chemical produced, Arsenic can be present in pesticides as an impurity in very low levels.  This does not indicate an unnatural state or deliberate addition of Arsenic to pesticides.  It is because of the fact that Arsenic is a common element in nature that the maximum level of Arsenic is set to be 10 parts per billion even in drinking water by the World Health Organization.  The claim that there are no set Arsenic standards in anywhere in the world is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.  The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a world body established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) sets such internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods.  For example, the maximum limit of Arsenic in table salt according to the Codex Alimentarius is 0.15 parts per million.  In 2012 Codex Alimentarius Commission has suggested that maximum level of total arsenic in rice to be set at 300 parts per billion.  Everybody will agree that it is the best if we can get everything, including pesticides, with zero level of Arsenic and other unwanted elements but unfortunately it is not practical due to the nature of the world.  The Arsenic hypothesis proponents have tried to mislead even the scientists by stating that “minimal Arsenic amount for chronic cancer (non threshold) effect is 0.0015 ug/kg/day. Hence it is nano gram level problem”.  They conveniently ignore the fact that this level given in Saskatchewan toxicological profile 2010 is a slope factor, which is an estimate of risk of life time exposure.

 It is also argued that the Arsenic is deliberately added to pesticides by the companies to increase the effectiveness of pesticides yet no scientific evidence is provided for the proof of this claim.  However, proponents of Arsenic hypothesis claim they can provide scientific evidence to show that some formulated pesticides are more toxic to insects than the active ingredient alone.  This is not a surprising finding because all pesticide formulations include adjuvants incorporated for increasing the efficiency of a pesticide. Therefore, it is a fact that a pesticide formulation is more effective in destroying pests than the active ingredient alone.  But it is highly unlikely to increase or decrease the effectiveness of a pesticide by addition of Arsenic or any other ingredient at parts per million levels.

 Although it is proposed by Arsenic hypothesis proponents that Arsenic is high in water used by the people in disease endemic areas all other researchers have shown that arsenic levels in water is below the standard maximum levels.  Arsenic hypothesis proponents have gain a large publicity by stating that use of pesticides has lead to Arsenic accumulation in soil and water in Sri Lanka, yet a recent peer reviewed publication has shown that there is no significant increase in heavy metal levels (including Arsenic) in agricultural soils compared to non-agricultural soils in Sri Lanka, even in CKDu endemic areas.  All these misinformation published in popular media therefore indicate, in my opinion, modern Lysenkos at work.


 As an Entomologist all my research work has been on ways of reducing insecticides use for insect pest management.  I have no hesitation in agreeing that we should live in harmony with the nature without polluting our environment, especially with modern agricultural practices and synthetic agrochemicals.  Modern agriculture is a big contributor to the environmental pollution and there is no doubt that we need to stop indiscriminate pollution of our environment through conventional agriculture practices.  Arsenic hypothesis proponents claim that they have demonstrated that environmental pollution can be reduced using organic/traditional farming practices without significant reduction in yields. 

 While it is true that the organic/traditional farming methods are gaining popularity worldwide such methods alone are not sufficient to feed the ever-growing world population with diminishing arable lands. Even if this is possible I do not believe that converting ourselves totally to organic agriculture is a simple matter of will or the political patronage.  There are many other social intricacies involved in such a transformation.  Let us put aside the question whether it is possible for alternative agriculture, especially organic agriculture, to feed the nation and concentrate on the question whether traditional/organic agriculture is safer than conventional agriculture?  Obviously, organic agriculture is better for the environment, safer for the consumers and the workers involved in terms of exposure to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals.  However, is it better in relation to heavy metal contamination?  Is it better in terms of food safety? No such studies have been conducted in Sri Lanka but evidence from elsewhere suggest not so.  For example, in 2007, scientists in Belgium have conducted an analysis of wheat grown on various farms in Belgium.   According to the results, they estimated that consumers of organically grown wheat take in more than twice as much lead (Pb), slightly more cadmium (Cd), and nearly equivalent levels of mercury (Hg) as consumers of wheat grown on conventional farms.  It is not difficult to imagine such problems cropping up when large quantities of compost (usually 4-8 mt/ha) are used for sustaining organic farming.  Especially use of compost from urban waste can aggravate the problem.  A recent study (May 2012) published in Nature concluded that yields from organic farming are lower than from conventional agriculture especially in case of cereals, which are staples of the human diet.  Therefore, before we rush to abandon conventional agriculture it is wise to critically evaluate the pros and cons and be cautious of the way to utopia that modern Lysenkos promote.

 Before we jump the gun and rush towards utopia let us critically examine the status of agriculture in our country.  We still import some of our food with no concern for the pesticides used by the exporting countries not only during the cultivation but also during storage and transportation.  Import of food will continue to rise as Sri Lanka cannot grow all varieties of food its citizenry demand.  Fortunately though we are now self sufficient in our staple food; rice.  We have achieved this thanks to new improved rice varieties which respond to agrochemicals for higher yields.  Can we do the same with indigenous varieties using traditional cultivation methodologies?  In 1952, Sri Lanka produced 604,000 metric tons of rice mostly using indigenous varieties and traditional farming practices.  The population of the country at the time was around 8 million people and we had to import over 600, 000 metric tons of rice to feed the nation in addition to a similar amount of wheat flour.  Rice production in Sri Lanka changed to better gradually with the introduction of new improved varieties and new cultivation practices (and of course agrochemicals) as a result of green revolution.  At present, we produce over 4 million metric tons of rice making the nation self sufficient.  This is a significant achievement considering 250% population increase within 60 years to over 20 million. 

 However, this achievement did not come without repercussions.  As many countries have now recognized the ills of green revolution include degradation of land, increase of pests, loss of biodiversity, water scarcity, loss of indigenous varieties, chemicals in water and food and increase in chronic health problems.  One can argue that our adaptation of green revolution is very much similar to our adaptation of free market economy.  We have just copied it in verbatim instead of taking advantage and adopt the parts which are suitable under the local conditions.  That I think is the main reason for our problems at present and we need to rationally address these problems to mitigate them. 

 The best way of tackling problems of industrial agriculture may not be conversion to traditional/organic agriculture or trying to re-implement the nostalgic past.  The policy of “ƒ”¹…”Sustainable Crop Production Intensification’ gives us a more moderate path for mitigating the problems of industrial agriculture without hindering the progress.  Integration of sustainable crop production intensification into smallholder crop production through “ƒ”¹…”Divi Neguma’ program would be a very viable option. As Albert Einstein has said “ƒ”¹…”we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them’.  We need to think outside the box but Lysenkoism is certainly not the answer.

 I see ghosts of Lysenko at work in Sri Lanka in many different fields.  In the present endeavor of developing our country the political authorities need to recognize such ghosts as their intentions are mainly self centered.  They are mainly learned people sometimes with highest educational certificates.  But we need to realize that a degree in any science itself does not make one a great scientist. Great scientists are rational thinkers. To be a rationally thinking scientist it is necessary to have wisdom along with the right education.  A learned toxicologist may claim that Arsenic is poisonous irrespective of the amount present but it takes a toxicologist with wisdom like Paracelsus to claim “ƒ”¹…”Poison is in everything and nothing is without poison.  The dose makes it either a poison or remedy’.

6 Responses to “Arsenic and Lysenkoism”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    First the gods now the ghosts!!

    But people suffer from kidney disease. This is a FACT, not an opinion. And some AGRO CHEMICALS DO CONTAIN arsenic. If we add arsenic to the ground, we reap arsenic from the ground. So why add it?

    We are open to OTHER POSSIBILITIES as well.

    These must be investigated and the criminals PUNISHED with ARSENIC.

  2. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    When you have a corrupt administration driven by huge dollar term commissions and the leaders are oblivious to the issues of this nature. Most politicians in Lanka are lawyers and arts graduates who are ignorant of scientific issues and they need to be re-educated.

  3. Kosala777 Says:

    Our hats off to Rathana Thero for exposing the kidney problem

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    How about a Science Advisory Committee for the Parliament ? I mean Parliament, not only for the political party in power.

  5. aloy Says:

    Dr. Anura,
    Could you please clarify as to why major rice exporting countries like Thailand, India and Pakistan do not have a problem like this?. Their people are not dying of CKD. From where do they get agric inputs and from where we get them and if possible a price comparison.
    Your name is mentioned in the following link from the Nation:

  6. aloy Says:

    Dear Dr. Anura,
    You have posted this article and I asked a simple question- from which country these agric inputs came as the same input coming from a country like China may even be lethal, according to my understanding. However reading the above mentioned link I found that the pesticide known as Carbofuran has been widely used. From the link given below I found that it is a product that has been used as a poison to kill animals and it even affects users reproductive capacity:
    Why were all these poisons allowed to be used over a long period of time while you were the Registrar with a PHd and a sound knowledge of pesticides?

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