Colombo Telegraph

Gift Horses

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

In the national tragedy that is the health of our faming families, no one seemed to have asked the question ‘was the health of our faming communities always like this? After all, with a farming history of over two thousand years, such a dire situation within the farming community should have been recoded. The fact is there is no such record of the massive numbers of the rural population afflicted with Kidney failure, liver problems, cancers, diabetes etc. Problems that plague the farming communities today. The problems are of relatively recent origin. In fact, it was only in the 70’s that their problems began to be recorded. The obvious question that arises is ‘did we affect any change to our traditional agricultural systems around this time? And the answer is ‘yes’ we began changing our systems of agriculture to the chemical driven ‘Green Revolution’ that was promoted to ‘modernize’ our agriculture.

But there is still no recognition of this fact. The death and misery of the rural population becomes a quest for the origin of this ailment or that. We spend an inordinate amount of energy in researching if such and such a chemical was responsible for this or that condition. No one wants to look at the overall picture. That the fact is the health of the faming community has degraded with the implementation of the ‘Green Revolution’. No one wants to recognize that the gift of the ‘Green Revolution’ was actually a gift of disease and energy dependency for the farmer.

Much like the gifs of Mega cities, Ports and airports, that we are so eager to receive, we were once treated to the ‘gift’ of the agricultural ‘Green Revolution’. ‘Doubling the crop’ and ‘feeding the world’ became the catchphrases. Even at that time, the promise of a free lunch (doubling of crop) seemed suspicious. But in the heady days of foreign trips, conferences and highly paid research to ‘feed the world’; no one wanted to examine the aid packages that were promoting the ‘Green Revolution’. So in Oct 1977, I published the article below in the Observer:

A Closer Look at Aid

“Do not look a gifted horse in the mouth” – So goes an old adage. The import of this statement would seem to be: except a gift with gratitude and do not question its value for after all, it is a gift. It would seem that we have as a nation accepted many gifts in this spirit. A fleet of tractors or a thousand tonnes of pesticide does indeed seem to be a generous expression of friendship. These offers are made by the donors in a genuine effort to help the least privileged nations and our accepted in gratitude with the hope that these gifts will help lighten our national load. But, it may be time for us to question such gifts however well intended they may be.

A case in point is the “miracle rice” that gives an immediate manifold increase in crop over traditional varieties. This would seem indeed a welcomed gift, if not a virtual godsend in troubled, food scares times like this. The reckoning is simple, if we have an acre of paddy with a yield of 30 bushels, then all we need to do is transform to the new intensive varieties that give twice the original yield and we have 60 bushels with the same acreage. Presto! The problem is solved. Not quite: there is an important feature called energy that we often fail to take into our accounting.

Energy is one of the most important features of an ecosystem. At the human level, the food we eat represents the source from which we derive energy for all our functions. This food too, whether animal or vegetable in origin, requires energy for its organization. Animals like us, derive their energy from plants and other animal (heterotrophs) and most plants derive their energy form the sun (autotrophs). Therefore, as we are so dependent on energy, it would bode well for us to examine the sources and cost of the energy available to us.

One of our primary sources of food is rice. The agricultural system that yields this grain requires some extra input of energy in addition to the sun to make it yield utilizable crops.

The traditional varieties of rice used with traditional agricultural methods, utilize composted fertilizer and animal power as the source of extra energy for subsidy. This type of system use 0.25 to 0.35 calories of energy input for one calorie of food output. As this energy input is basically biological i.e. man and animal power, it does not represent an economic loss to the nation. On the other hand the use of “miracle rice” entails intensive agricultural systems which use around 0.5 to 1.0 calories of energy input or more for 1 calorie of food output requiring heavy doses of fertilizers and agrochemicals. This system represents tangible financial or economic losses to the nation.

It can be argued that, though such a system may entail finance cost to the country the increase of crop by the application of these techniques would justify such an expense, specially as in the present situation we are still not self sufficient in our rice production. This argument is a valid one, if we are concerned only with a short-term result. Unfortunately, on the long term it would seem that we stand to lose tremendously in adopting such strategy.

The new breeds “miracle rice” are merely genetically selected dwarf plants with small roots systems and the minimum amount of leaves needed to capture a maximum of usable solar radiation. Such a plant has not potential for protection and maintenance, these functions being taken over by men, fuels and chemicals. It is selected to produce edible grain at the expense of non-edible tissue and responds excellently to high inputs of fertilizers. Such plants coupled with the use of tractors, pesticides, weedicides, etc. would and do produce seemingly wondrous crops.

All the components that go to form this high yield agriculture are also dependent on energy for their organization. In this case the source of energy is from fossil fuels i.e. oil and coal. We in this country having no fossil fuels would then become increasingly dependent on imported energy, if such methods of agriculture were to be actively utilized. Achieving a high agricultural productivity at the expense of being enslaved by the price of fossil fuel would seem a hollow victory.

It would be illuminating to ask the question why could we not use these methods as long as it was economically profitable and then revert back to the traditional systems? The answer is already obvious to the farmers who use high-energy agrochemicals. They observe that their field “gets burned” with the use of fertilizer and agrochemical. The meaning of this simple but very important observation is that the soil organisms that make up the micro fauna and flora are disrupted and the natural fertility of the field falls. The build up of the soil organisms to the pre agrochemical complexity could take from one to four years. So, once we depend on the high-energy dependent rice agricultural system it is very much a case of taking hold of the proverbial tigers tail, there is not letting go.

Do we really need these systems? It may be we do, but the dangers to the country should be carefully evaluated. It may be wise to examine gift horses.

The words above were written forty years ago, but until today, we still do not examine these gift horses accepting a plethora of chemicals and increasing inputs of fossil energy to maintain the ‘Green Revolution’. Forty years later, the results are clear to see, we have a rural population suffering from an explosion of non-communicable diseases. We have great debates as to what particular chemical is responsible for which disease; it is as esoteric a discussion as one on ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, but the farming community continues to suffer. There is no discussion on the reduction of biomass or the value of biodiversity in the agricultural field. There is no discussion on the fact of biological magnification where a toxin, safe at low concentrations is magnified to a dangerous level by plants or organisms that we consume. There is no discussion on synergistic effects of chemicals, where a chemical safe by itself becomes dangerously toxic in combination with other ‘safe’ chemicals. There is no discussion on the dependency on external fossil energy that are farmers have been forced into as a consequence a narrow vision of agriculture.

Not content with the desperate dependency that this system of agriculture has brought our farmers into, there are insidious moves to push them into the next level of dependency, genetically modified Rice with a promise of more nutrients or as out-growers for multinational agribusinesses. Gift horses full of corporate raiders and pirates bringing more dependency and ill health to our farmers. Too long have we allowed the agricultural bureaucrats to determine the national agenda by themselves with no reference to the public health sector or to the need of sustaining our biodiversity. It is time when we understand that ‘we are what we eat’ and demand the examination of such gift horses by a wider sector of society including the public health and sustainability. Now with the politically bankrupt process of offering of parts of our nation to any bidder for the ‘gift’ of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the public must learn to examine these gift horses, very carefully indeed!

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