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Ban on agrochemicals - EDITORIAL

12 May 2021 03:44 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Weeks ago the Presidential Media Unit announced, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following up on promises made in his election manifesto, had decided to immediately ban the import of fertilizers, weedicides and pesticides -agro-chemicals. Following the sudden blanket ban on these items, it was reported that ships carrying the aforementioned banned goods had been turned away.


From way back in the 1970s, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) had been campaigning for a ban on the use of petroleum-based agrochemicals -a reference to pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.


The main reason for the use of agro-chemicals or petroleum-based fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides was to increase agricultural production and to protect crops from pests and control the growth of weeds which would otherwise lead to a fall in the yield.
However, the unbalanced application of agrochemicals leads to environmental degradation and poses numerous challenges to agricultural ecosystems as well as to human life.


In 1977, it was estimated that every year 20,000 fatalities resulting from the use of pesticides. Most of these occurred in developing countries. The 1981 estimate by OXFAM gave a figure of 40,000 fatalities from about two million cases of poison per year.


Writing in ‘Toxiology’  Wasim Aktar, Dwaipayan Sengupta and Ashim Chowdry point out the use of agrochemicals has resulted in serious health implications to man and his environment.


There is now overwhelming evidence that some of these chemicals pose a potential risk to humans and other life forms and unwanted side effects to the environment. They point out worldwide deaths and chronic diseases due to pesticide poisoning number about one million per year.


The World Health Organization’s Geneva Non-Communicable Diseases Director, Prof. Mrs Shanthi Mendis, revealed Sri Lanka was the highest user of agrochemicals in the world. Sri Lanka uses 287 units of agrochemicals per hectare, whereas Myanmar used only eight units and Bangladesh 144 units per hectare.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) points out that Prof Shanthi Mendis had shown Sri Lanka was the highest user of agrochemicals in the world.


The GMOA emphasised that even in advanced countries, such an amount of agrochemicals are not used. It was therefore an obligation of the Government to promptly conduct an intensive and extensive investigation on the use of agrochemicals to save the lives of farmers and consumers.
The GMOA added it had information that some officials employed in the Agriculture Ministry were also doing part-time jobs in agro-chemical importing companies!


Research, including UN studies, have revealed pesticides have been implicated in human studies of leukaemia, lymphoma and cancers of the brain, breasts, prostate, testis and ovaries. Reproductive harm from pesticides includes birth defects, stillbirth, spontaneous abortion, sterility and infertility.


The call to ban the use of agrochemicals is therefore a laudable one as well as a bold and necessary one. A weakness in the plan is, that as far as the general public is aware, there is no plan as to how our farmers are going to face the challenges arising from the sudden ban.


How will rice farmers/cultivators -who have got into the habit of going to the nearest town to purchase a bottle of fertiliser/weedicide/pesticide etc- now fill the gap created by the sudden change? How will the major plantations crops of tea, rubber and coconut manage?
Environmentalists and NGOs have from the 80s promoted organic farming -agro-forestry- for home garden cultivation.


We need to replicate these measures on a macro-scale if the President’s vision of a green Sri Lanka is to be fulfilled. MONLAR (an NGO) has promoted the use of organic farming which not only increases agricultural production, it ensures consumers of a poison-free diet and drastically reduces agro-input costs to the farmer.
The President has taken a bold first step. It is not an ill-thought out measure based on a single individual’s whim or fancy, as some lobbyists for giant MNCs try to make out.


What needs to be done, is before a blanket ban being imposed on petroleum-based agrochemicals, is to commence large-scale production of organic farming inputs. These products are not harmful to humans or the environment.Not unexpectedly, the ban on agrochemicals has already run into numerous criticism put up by vested interests.
This is to be expected and we saw similar protests when rules were brought in to control the tobacco trade in the country.  


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