The first ‘Sena attack’, carried out unwittingly and in good faith, began soon after the ‘Yahapalana’ government came into being in 2015 and under the much hyped slogan of Toxin-Free Nation. The second was the banning of glyphosate, with similar stupid science behind it as for the first but evidently the most damaging of the three, economically.
They were both conducted bypassing the mainstream scientists, agricultural research and development institutions and the Agriculture Ministry but under the behest of the president himself and directed by a Buddhist monk and an engineer, supported by some anti-green revolution and anti-agrochemical lobbyists.
Both leaders had no formal training or knowledge in agriculture and the outcry and warnings of the mainstream scientists and officials against the decisions were totally unheeded.
The third Sena (Armyworm) attack is by a pest, possibly visibly more devastating but economically less in that technologies are available, generated in other countries over the years, most of which can be directly applied here for its management. While integrated pest management technologies should be the final, the long-term answer, the wide use of insecticides initially to contain the pest, appears necessary.
So, the toxin-free nation is now compelled to use ‘toxins’! There are of course some like Ratana Thera, who led the Toxin-Free Project, now promoting bio-pesticides such as Kohomba (Azaridicta) to control the pest, as against chemicals, not knowing that many of them are as harmful to humans and animals as conventional pesticides.
Fortunately, we have been for some years now, only using less toxic, class three and four pesticides and the Agriculture Department has identified three of them, which are reported to be quite effective in controlling the armyworm.
India and several African countries, for example, have not banned even the highly toxic (class one and two) pesticides such as monocrotophos and chlorpyrophos, both of which have been used extensively in the control of this pest. Education of both extension workers and farmers in management of the pest is critical and the Agriculture Department appears to be doing the needful.
What is disappointing is that the country has been caught ‘pants down’ in meeting this pest onslaught. Having come from the Americas and across several African countries, the Middle East, Pakistan and to India over the years, the risk of its invasion here should have been anticipated.
Full of errors, howlers
The pest appearance had apparently been first reported by a farmer from Ampara as far back in September last year and the Agriculture Department officials had correctly identified the pest instantaneously but had not apparently been adequately vigilant in containing it and now we have to pay a huge price for it.
Coming back to the Toxin-Free Project or the first Sena attack, it was an excellent example of ‘how not to do anything’. A document on its concepts and strategies had been published without consulting the relevant technocrats and consequently, it was full of errors and even howlers. Let us give just three examples.
The project was rushed in the belief but without evidence that the chronic kidney disease (CKDu) afflicting large numbers of residents in the North Central Province and neighbouring areas was a result of agrochemicals and the project document in the background section boldly stated that ‘Both Sri Lankan experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have found the cause of the illness to be the mixing of brackish waters with sub-standard fertilizers and agrochemicals’. (The author(s) did not even know that the fertilizers are also agrochemicals).
Agrochemicals have been suspected but there has been no tangible evidence either from the WHO 2013 study or from the subsequent WHO-sponsored 2017 International Consultation on CKDu or from other research that agrochemicals played a role in the aetiology of the disease.
The 2013 report stated that cadmium, a nephrotoxic heavy metal, suspected to have come as an impurity in phosphate fertilizer, was above reference limits in more CKDu patients than among the control subjects.
However, no subsequent research has supported the contention that cadmium is an etiolating agent in CKDu. The report also stated that some other pesticides were also above reference levels in urine of CKDu patients but for some unknown reason, failed to report the urine pesticide status in control subjects. However, on subsequent reanalysis of the WHO raw data, unbelievably, it became evident that the non-CKDu (control) group had far more numbers with pesticide residue levels above reference limits than among the CKDU patients.
In fact, as regards glyphosate that was banned on the premise that it was linked to CKDu, the percentage of CKDu subjects above reference limit of the pesticide was only 3.5 percent, as against 7 percent among non-CKDu (control) subjects.
The second howler in the Toxin-Free Nation document is as follows: “There are four reasons why a farmer engages in agrochemical-based reductionist farming: to obtain bigger yields; to obtain yields quickly and easily; to reduce labour costs; to feed his addiction to agrochemicals”. Why should not a farmer strive to earn bigger yields, higher profits and reduce labour costs?
The third blunder was an invention of Ratana Thera himself – the ‘Pivithuru Pohora’ manufactured at a factory in Jayanthipura using rotting vegetables from the Dambulla market and comprising three formulations. None of them showed any response in trials conducted at the Aralaganwila Research Station of the Agriculture Department.
It was also revealed that the Mahaweli System B farmers, who used it, had the same fate but they surreptitiously applied urea in the night, got good yields and sold the paddy to a key Polonnaruwa politician’s daughter’s lorries at Rs.38 per kg as organic paddy, as against a price of Rs.30 for conventional paddy.
That was not all. There was the Toxin-Free policy proposal to return to traditional varieties on the premise that they were more healthy but ignoring the fact that because traditional varieties at best yield only 25 to 30 percent of the new improved varieties, such a large extent under traditional varieties would have affected the country’s self rice sufficiency.
Moreover, there are new varieties that have the health attributes of the traditional varieties. In any case, the staple diet is for energy (starch) and other nutrients should come from other food sources.
Following the outcry of the plantation industries, the ban on tea and rubber has been lifted but not on coconut with difficult to control noxious perennial grasses. This is the vision of ‘Yahapalanaya’ on ‘Walpalanaya’
Fortunately, despite promotions, the traditional rice cover hardly exceeded one percent of the total. The other proposal was to phase out chemical fertilizers and pesticides and expand organic farming. That objective too was a total failure and less than one percent of the total rice cover was organically grown.
There are also small extents in other crops such as tea and vegetables. The whole world has also less than 2 percent in organic farming, of which 66 percent is in pasture for the elite to eat organic stakes and drink organic milk. Of the balance 20 percent is in arable farming and 8 percent in horticulture.
Fortunately, the Toxin-Free Nation Project has now been disbanded following not only its technical failure but also resource mismanagement and other causes.
Walpalanaya of ‘Yahapalanaya’
The third ‘Sena’ attack, the glyphosate ban across the entire country, was a consequence of a hypothesis that this chemical forming complexes in hard water with nephrotoxic metals was probably a cause. It was a hypothesis considered chemically faulty by leading chemists in the country and not supported by any research other than that of the three co-authors published in a paper in an open access journal.
The only concern about glyphosate was the 2015 report of International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC), that this chemical was probably cancer causing. There were however many other studies including the American Health Department Study conducted for some 25 years across all farming communities in the US that did not support the IARC contention.
There has been no tangible study indicative of glyphosate causing CKDu. But Sena rushed with stupid science to ban glyphosate across the country. Nearly all crops were affected and clearly the greatest economic loss was for tea. The Tea Research Institute’s estimations reveal the annual crop loss to be Rs.19 billion over the four years. The dry zone farmers, especially the maize growers weeding costs had shot up several folds and their saviour has been illicit glyphosate shipped across from India. A 100 gram sachet sold at Indian Rs.42 is sold here at Rs.600 – that is six times the Indian price. Just like the narcotics, it is available at every nook and corner.
Following the outcry of the plantation industries, the ban on tea and rubber has been lifted but not on coconut with difficult to control noxious perennial grasses. This is the vision of ‘Yahapalanaya’ on ‘Walpalanaya’.
The Yahapalana government has been a ‘blunderbuss’ firing blunder after blunder. It has totally failed to consult the right people in decision-making. Why cannot it learn at least from other countries?
India for example, has the National Technology Commission, a revised version of the Planning Commission of India that was created by Shri Nehru way back in 1952, with top technocrats and bureaucrats and just a few key ministers and chaired by the prime minister himself, to make national decisions – not priests and mullahs!
(Dr. Parakrama Waidyanatha is a former Chairman of the Coconut Research Board)