By Oliver A. Ileperuma –
The reason for banning synthetic fertilisers to be replaced by compost is one of the stupidest decisions taken by the Government. Our President was led to this irrational decision on the premise that agrochemicals cause the kidney disease in the north-central province by a set of pseudo experts without any experience in either the kidney disease or agriculture. This myth propagated by various individuals has influenced our President who committed political hara-kiri by banning the import of all agrochemicals. He was also misled by some members of the Viyathmaga who promised to deliver goods with compost to gain their own political mileage.
The reason for the Rajarata kidney disease of unknown origin is certainly not agrochemicals. Consider the following facts:
1. Major agricultural areas like Jaffna, Kalpitiya and Nuwara Eliya using identical agrochemicals are free from this disease.
2. Even in the north-central province, people consuming reservoir water or municipal water which in turn get their water from reservoirs do not have kidney disease.
As early as 2003, this writer proposed that fluoride is the causative factor involved in kidney disease. Use of sub-standard aluminum utensils too exacerbate the toxicity of fluoride to the kidney. Later research also confirmed that fluoride in combination with hard water is the key reason for the occurrence of the kidney disease, My own field visits to the affected areas confirmed that all kidney patients have consumed water from deep wells rich in fluoride. This hypothesis arose from the chemical analysis of well waters and common sense.
There are two villages in the Dehiaththakandiya area named as Sarabhoomi and Badulupura. Sarabhoomi is located near the Mahaweli river in the plains and people use either river water or water from shallow dug wells and such waters have very low levels of fluoride and hardness. Badulupura village is located at a higher elevation and people use water from deep wells and these are rich in fluoride with increased hardness. There are no kidney patients in Sarabhoomi while over 30% of adults in the Badulupura area are kidney patients. People in both villages cultivate the same lands in the plains, use the same agrochemicals and consume similar food. These studies give conclusive evidence that fluoride/hard water combination is responsible for the kidney disease and agrochemicals have absolutely no role.
In spite of such overwhelming evidence our President appears to be still unconvinced that agrochemicals do not cause the kidney disease and instead listens only to his advisors who continuously press him to maintain the ban of synthetic agrochemicals. Anyone who articulates opposing views are promptly labelled as agents of the agrochemical industry however scientific and logical their arguments are. In my academic career I have faced a lot of flak for my criticism of the ill-conceived hypothesis that glyphosate and arsenic are the causative factors of the kidney disease, a myth propagated by a group of Kelaniya University academics who based their arguments not on science but on the supernatural power of God Natha.
Sri Lanka is a country where the blind lead the blind and pseudo experts influence crucial decisions mainly for climbing up the political ladder. There are even a few University Professors who support the Government for the purpose of gaining favours from the politicians. Scientific bodies comprised of agricultural professionals and soil scientists have written to the President expressing their concern about the danger of abruptly going organic banning all imports of agrochemicals. Yet the President does not wish to listen to anyone with opposing views. Biggest virtue of a sincere ruler and an honest leader is to listen to those with opposing views. A former UNICEF director in Sri Lanka told this writer that Sri Lankans are like crocodiles; big mouths and no ears. This aptly summarises the behavior of our politicians and officials as well.
Our President was telling a group of people when he visited an organic farm that he used to bathe in a stream in his village and even drank water from it during his childhood days, During my childhood too in a remote village by the Sinharaja forest we used to drink water from a stream which flowed to Gin ganga. When talking about the need for agrochemicals, we conveniently forget that the population of Sri Lanka at the time of our independence was 6.8 million which has now increased to 21 million. Agrochemicals have been a necessary evil to enable us to feed the entire population of Sri Lanka. Due to the dedication and untiring efforts of our scientists in the Agriculture department, we have achieved self-sufficiency in rice and this involved the use of new hybrid varieties requiring chemical fertiliser and pesticides. During the early days, rice production using organic manure was sufficient only for farmer households and from the time of the British we have been importing rice from India, Burma and other countries to fulfill the needs of the general population. If the fertiliser ban continues, we will again have to import rice from other countries with even higher application of agrochemicals. At one time we imported rice from Bangladesh well known to have toxic levels of arsenic.
Agrochemicals are necessary for our own food security and the fertiliser ban will directly affect our food supply and severely affect the lives of our farming communities. Farmers have already shown that compost is ineffective to get a substantial yield compared to what they have been getting earlier. Already prices of vegetable are skyrocketing and in spite of Government propaganda, famers are unconvinced that compost will work.
Life expectancy at the time of independence was 46 years which has now increased to 72 years. Agrochemical use became prevalent only after 1960s and it is a blatant lie to claim that agrochemicals have reduced life expectancy. There are even some pundits who claim that in the old days Sri Lanka had a life expectancy of 140 years without even an iota of evidence. Rajarata kidney disease became prominent only after the 1990s mainly because of colonisation schemes where people settled in lands away from the irrigation tanks. In the newly colonised areas although they got the water for cultivation from the irrigation tanks, they had to dig deep wells to supply their drinking water. These wells had high fluoride and hardness coming from geogenic sources and well established scientific evidence demonstrate that these two factors are the causative factors of the chronic kidney disease. Such chronic diseases appear only after the continuous exposure to a nephrotoxin for 15-20 years. With the discovery that fluoride and hardness are responsible for this disease, people have started using water from springs and reservoir sources. As a result, kidney patient numbers have been decreasing since 2018. While the health ministry has released statistics on patient numbers till 2018, later statistics have not been released for some unknown reason.
Although agrochemicals are required for sustained agriculture indiscriminate use of agrochemicals is widespread and proper control procedures should be strictly implemented. We had an efficient agricultural extension service to advise farmers on proper pesticide use, this service was disbanded by the late president Premadasa. As a result, now farmers get advice about agrochemicals from shop owners selling agrochemicals who often recommend combinations of pesticides and in excessive amounts. Also, our vegetable farmers apply pesticides just before harvest and in developed countries application of pesticides is prohibited at least two weeks before harvest.
Scientific evidence with common sense for looking at problems with an unbiased mind is essential to decide whether agrochemicals have caused the kidney disease. Myths propagated by some pseudo experts will ruin the great strides taken by the agriculturists of the country to ensure food security through their efforts over several decades.
*Prof. O.A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya