Expert advisor, sustainable farming and the rice farmer
Posted on November 7th, 2021

by M. P. Dhanapala, Retired Director, Rice Research and Development, Batalagoda

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Tel: 071 8412444

The two critical facts relevant to rice farming in Ceylon/Sri Lanka that one might consider seriously when dealing with farmers are as follows:

1. Rice cultivation is the least remunerative of all occupations and that the farmers grow rice mainly because of the social dignity attached to it (Bevan, 1914),

2. And that farming is an independent profession that cannot be governed by rules and regulations.

Now we can witness that both the above aspects are being overlooked. Farmers come out with slogans demanding fertilizer because they know that the little profit they had in rice farming is denuded by the unfamiliar organic manure based sustainable rice cultivation. And now they are adamant that they would not cultivate rice if inorganic fertilizers and other agro-chemicals are not allowed. No rules or regulations can force them to cultivate their lands, unless they do it voluntarily. You may intimidate them by threatening to confiscate the land, but this may worsen the situation.

They humiliate policy makers, because right now they are the most affected by this abrupt change in the policy. You may interpret this as a politically motivated issue and take the least resistant path, but this is real. This is the situation we witness almost daily from the news telecasts in TV, radio and news papers; the farmers are almost on the verge of losing the only opportunity for their hand to mouth existence. They have families to look after, children to educate and meet the basic requirements of food and clothing, even if the shelter and health facilities are available. You need not have a sixth sense, but just common sense to predict this situation.

One of the farmers on a hunger strike at Elahera, demanding fertilizer and agro chemicals, was quoted on TV responding to a Div. Secretary who told him to use the liquid nano urea and see , by saying, ” Madam, you get a salary at the end of each month for sure, but we get nothing and cannot afford to wait six months to see the results of this experiment as we do not know what will happen. Let them do it and show us”. So the writing is on the wall and we are set to get a double punch, Covid and Famine.

I worked in paddy fields of the RRDI, Batalagoda for 31 long years; drinking the so called contaminated water from wells adjoining paddy fields manured with inorganic fertilizers and breathing polluted air of Wasa Visa” generated by herbicides and pesticides. So did the work force and other field staff (skilled and unskilled). We never had bottled water for drinking or air conditioned rooms for working in or salubrious conditions outside in the field, but never complained. I hope my kidneys are functional at this age; also my four children did not end up in cancer hospital. And we never had any incidences of kidney failures other than occasional stones in the urinary system, probably due to drinking hard water and inadquate intake of clean water. Now, we know chronic kidney disease of unidentified etiology (CKDu) is confined to one region, but the use of fertilizer and other agrochemicals is well distributed throughout the country.

There is enough scientific evidence published and communicated through media, regarding the root causes of CKDu, but our educated advisors do not respond or are reluctant to accept this insisting that the disease is caused by inorganic fertilizers and other agro-chemicals. Also, they brand the scientific informants as recepients of rewards from chemical companies for promoting their products. I have never received any reward from any company.

When it comes to fertilizer and other agro-chemicals, the most sensitive group is a handful of medical professionals. They have inculcated misconceptions in the minds of policy makers and the general public that cannot be easily got rid of. However, we are grateful to them for their great concern for our health. Now, let me ask who introduced Chlorinated Hydro Carbon, DDT, to control the malaria mosquito domestically? Was it the Department of Agriculture (DOA) or the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI)? During my childhood, I had seen DDT spraying of such a heavy density in one shot, almost white washing” the walls and the cadjan roof of our homes at least once a year with DDT.

This is the first insecticide introduced to Ceylon/Sri Lanka. If I ask medical opinion on this, someone might say casually, the risk of malaria (certain death then) is much higher than that of carrying a small quantum of DDT in the liver. Fair-enough. Some medical professionals are crazy, highlighting that the modern rice varieties are hybrids or genetically transformed entities. They do not know that they do not know, same as we do not know many things in the medical field. We don’t have any genetically transformed rice varieties or hybrid varieties in Sri Lanka, except Bg 407, the seeds of which are not being produced (Govikam Sangarawa, Page 11-17, 2020). If I turn back and ask, what is Humulin administered to manage diabetes or what are those vaccines like, Astra-Zeneca, Pfizer, Sputnik, Moderna, Sinopharm etc. administered to protect from COVID 19, the answer may be that ” they are non-virulent or mild products (DNA/RNA) to build up the immune system by antibody formation or by cross-protection”.

Aren’t they genetically modified material ? We have nothing against them, but aren’t they products of multinational companies? I do not want to ask the second question about the rewards because I respect the medical profession. Why then the diabolical standards of medical professionals (not all) that are not in favor of agriculture, on which they also depend for their own needs of food for existence. The recommended usage of agro-chemicals, approved by the Registrar of Pesticides, is within the safe limits as any of the medical prescriptions are, to patients. No casualties were reported so far due to eating rice of modern varieties produced using agrochemicals. Those claims on the spread of non-communicable diseases are based on incomplete scientific evidence.

There are procedures to circumvent these incidences if needed (Govikam Sangarawa, Page 11-17, 2020). We have well defined Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) as recommendations, but no trained extension staff at ground level to excute them; this important fact was deliberately ignored with provincialization. But, now that is history.

The expert advisors, like some of us, are from the same school of thought though our teachers and the thinking processes are different. We cannot rule out the generation gap or the possibility of emerging outliers though the school is the same. I am from the old generation when we had only one School of Agriculture (Department of Agriculture) and one Faculty of Agriculture (University of Ceylon). Both of these were located at Peradeniya. Like the first generation of fertilizer, urea for example, I also learnt from the first generation of teachers in the Faculty of Agriculture; some of them were teachers of the school of Agriculture earlier.

I was totally confused when the farmers were told that urea will be replaced with liquid nitrogen”. No fool would believe it if he knew the status of liquid nitrogen in storage and the temperature at which nitrogen will remain in the liquid state. And also argue why the gaseous nitrogen cannot enter the plant system through stomata and perform its function within the plant the way that carbon dioxide or oxygen in the atmosphere does. We have nitrogen, more than any other gas in the atmosphere. Please excuse me as I am from the old school and unfamiliar with the so=called nano-technology.

Now the farmers are more confused when we were talking of third or fourth generation of nano-urea formulation as the source of nitrogen. Earlier we were talking of organic nitrogen extracts from seaweeds. The so-called nano-urea may be different from first generation urea, which is not considered organic in organic farming. The nano-urea cargo received from India is within the country and being distributed among the rice farmers. Also, this is described as very efficient; four times as efficient when compared to first generation urea as a fertilizer, but comes as a solution and has to be applied through foliar means to be absorbed through stomata, hydathodes etc. on the leaf surface. As it appears, I do not smell anything wrong other than that stomata are concentrated on the lower surface of the leaf; it may work much better than urea applied to the root zone soil, if everything goes according to the expectations, in spite of the fact that the source of nitrogen is the so called prohibitive urea.

My first concern is, have this product/technology being field tested in scientifically designed experiments? Whether this technology is appropriate; feasible, sustainable, economically viable and as effective as or better than the soil application of urea? Also, can this nano-urea look after the peak requirements of nitrogen at different growth stages of the rice plant?; that is, timely applications at different growth stages of the plant is needed or not.

Rice, being a grass, has a fibrous root system. Anyone who has done basic botany would know that absorption of water and nutrients is the major function of the root system, beside anchorage of the plant. Water ascends through vessels (xylem) by the evapo-transpirational pull, but the nutrient elements need energy to travel up against the osmotic gradient. Similarly, the shoot system of the rice plants has distinct functions. Evapo-transpiration, gaseous exchange (CO2 and O2), in addition to trapping solar radiation for hydrolysis of water to generate energy for different physiological processes within the plant, are the primary functions of the shoot system. Apart from performing these functions, the shoot system of the rice plant is not naturally or evolutionarily designed to absorb water or nutrients, the functions performed primarily by the root system. This may not be so in epiphytes and xerophytes, however. To my mind, therefore, foliar feeding of the rice plant appears similar to feeding someone from the distal/wrong end of the alimentary canal; besides, nitrogen is not a micro element but a major nutrient required in large quantities. Therefore, efficacy of foliar absorption of nutrients in rice is needed to be determined prior to the recommendation of the intended technology.

Now, we are going to replace a technology (soil application of urea) which is appropriate and well established, with an alternative technology based on inconclusive evidence of expert advisors, but unfamiliar to the rice farmer. This is ready for implementation. These expert advisors therefore can come out from their hiding places to demonstrate this technological package for rice farmers of different agro-ecological regions to convince them. We should not blame the staff of rice research for the failure to implement this innovative and valuable technological package in the field. It is the responsibility of the advisors to promote the package by demonstrating it to the farmers and establish their recognition in the minds of the public. They fail in their duty if this new technology is not demonstrated to the new generation of rice farmers they intend to bring up in the country and help the government to alleviate the farmer unrest.

I have all the rights to demand the expert advisors to demonstrate their Technological Package” as I was recognized in 2014 by the President’s Award (His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa) for development of modern rice varieties and spearheading the development of a technological package to acheive self-sufficiency in rice.

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