Imagine a space rocket whose controls are taken over by zealots who are driving the rocket straight into the sun due to ignorance of its controls. Mission control detects danger and advises the pilot to correct the course. “Rubbish, you technos and engineers know nothing – yes, we are having increasing glare from the sun and it is YOUR FAULT”. But WE KNOW how to command God Rahu to swallow the sun. We are now guided by telluric and biodynamic forces, and by traditional knowledge. Our ancestors flew in wondrous flying machines – read the Ramayana. The region of “Panchaaba” (modern Panjab) was the granary of Jambudveepa and the ancient world. Traditional agriculture fed our people who were free of disease and lived to the age of Methuselah. Our ancient engineers knew how to send water even up against gravity. They built a bridge across the Palk straits. Our ancients knew about organ grafting, even creating Ganesh by grafting an elephant’s head onto a human. Didn’t the Mahabharata mention a woman who gave birth to 100 children? This is evidence of advanced reproductive technology and stem-cell research done thousands of years ago by our ancestors”. All this and more were asserted at the annual Indian Science congress in January, 2019.
The plight of the space rocket heading towards disaster mimics the current state of the planet. The threat of global warming gives only a decade more for corrective action. Even those who are skeptical of man-made global warming agree that the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting noxious emissions must stop. The rapid reduction of biodiversity has perhaps five to ten decades more for corrective action. Scientists find that a human-caused sixth mass extinction of species is now underway. Vertebrates on land and sea are threatened globally by human activities. The proportion of insects in decline is twice as high as for vertebrates. The insect extinction rate is eight times faster than for mammals, birds and reptiles (Sanchez-Bayo et al, 2019, J. Bio. Conservation). Insects play a profound role in Earth ecosystems. They are critical pollinators who also recycle nutrients into the soil. Meanwhile, the clogging up of the oceans with more plastic than all the weight of the fish may happen in just three decades!
What drives this menacing trend? When did this dive towards the apocalypse begin? The menacing trend can be reversed, but not by nostalgically going back to the limited methods of the past.
How the menace began with the rise of large scale slavery
This menace began in the 19th century with millions of shackled humans from Africa transferred to the Southern USA, and to the colonies of Europe. Slaves were forced to create a huge monoculture of cotton covering vast territories. The ships of the British empire burning coal brought the US cotton to feed the textile industry of Lancashire and the industrial revolution. British coal as well as other mining ensured complete habitat engulfment by human activity making UK one of the most polluted lands, even today, as shown by the map of soil cadmium in UK compared to continental Europe. Most of the cadmium toxins came from the mining and use of coal.
We do not have a similar adequately authenticated map for Sri Lanka. However, the research work of Dissanayake, Chandrajith and other Geologists, as well as studies by Levine et al (2016) and Jayatilleke et al (WHO study, 2014) show that Sri Lanka has high levels of geological cadmium even in its virgin-forest soils. Fortunately the soils contain counteracting zinc ions as well. Furthermore, the dissolved (bio-available) amounts are negligible (and well below risk) in Sri Lanka’s water sources.
Salmon used to swim up the river Thames in England all the way to Berkshire, but disappeared by 1833 due to pollution. British agriculture in the UK, and in the cotton, potato and wheat fields of America used “traditional agriculture”, using slaves or surfs. Extremely dangerous but traditionally accepted pesticides like arsenites, copper sulphate and cyanide, as well as plant products from Chrysanthemums (as pyrethrins), or Neem-family products (as azadiractins) were used in large amounts, as is needed for them to be effective, but hurting the environment.
The industrial revolution in Europe was also driven on the backs of the colonies and slavery.
Southern Europe cut its forests for fuel while northern Europe turned to coal as well. Pollutants in European soils consist mostly of high levels of cadmium, arsenic and such heavy metal toxins. These likely came from the coal-powered economies and mining during the industrial revolution. So, although attempts have been made to link soil cadmium with contamination from modern-day mineral fertilizer usage, quantitative modeling shows this to be completely false (see: J. Environ. Health & Geochemistry: vol. 40, p 2739, 2018). Pristine forests in the colonies were also burnt and converted to plantations for cash crops and transported to European markets. Transportation of invasive species occurred, further threatening biodiversity.
The discovery of mineral fertilizers where a few spoons could do the work of many sacks of traditional fertilizer came at the end of the 19th century and amazed farmers. This was quickly followed by the discovery of the Harber-Boshe process in the first years of the 20th century for exploiting atmospheric nitrogen converted to urea. This was probably the most far reaching discovery of modern agriculture.
The discovery of DDT and modern pesticides
This extreme assault on pristine environments by habitat encroachment via human activity created enormous mono-cultures of cotton, wheat, potatoes, soya, coffee, tea and tobacco, starting from the 19th century. This inexorable attack on biodiversity happened on a global and imperial scale. Such monocultures became a necessity to feed the increasing populations as well as the labour forces in the colonies, and at home. Governor Ward in British Ceylon realized that the Malabar “coolies” (slaves except in name) brought to work in the Tobacco and Coffee plantations will have to be fed. So he turned to the restoration of ancient Tanks (‘veva’) that fed paddy cultivation.
The discovery of DDT by Paul Mueller in 1939 provided the farmer with the first truly effective and inexpensive pesticide nontoxic to human operatives, even when applied at the large amounts used with traditional pesticides (like arsenites or pyrethrins). However, although only incredibly small amounts of these pesticide were needed, farmers deployed what they were used to, and created the “Silent Spring” recorded by Rachel Carson.
Bambaradeniya writing about bio-diversity in Rice fields states that “most biotic communities in the rice field ecosystem are able to react physiologically and/or behaviorally to the drastic conditions in these temporary wetlands. As they possess the ability to recover rapidly from various disturbances, including chemical inputs, these organisms could be interpreted as biota with high resilience stability” (Bambaradeniya, Ph. D Thesis, 2000). The widely accepted in-soil indicator organisms are the earth-worms (Eisenia fetida and E. andrei), the springtails (Folsomia), the mite (Hypoaspis aculeifer) and microorganisms that transform nitorgen (Ockleford et al., 2017).
In contrast, Ranil Senanayake (RS), a Forestry ecologist seems to unreasonably claim that in Sri Lanka the egrets that flock to the farmer’s plough are just “resistant species” eating “resistant earthworms”. Egrets are not known to become resistant to pesticides. They simply die of them or become debilitated if toxic amounts are consumed. Perhaps RS meant “resilient” and not “resistant”. If the “silent spring” is any indicator of ecological doom, “flocking of birds ” to eat earthworms and other grubs, are a necessary (but not exhaustive) sign of a live, highly resilient soil ecology. Similarly, Wickramasinghe et al (J. Appl. Ecol. 2003) had used visitations by bats, and also nocturnal insects (2004) to compare the health of conventional and organic farm plots. Such experiments confirm what is a priori reasonable i.e., lower-intensity farming, or going right back to a hunter-gatherer approach is best for biodiversity but worst for feeding humanity.
It took decades to appreciate the negative long term effects, as well as the power of DDT in eliminating good insects as well as bad insects. DDT itself was banned in 1974 but re-approved by the WHO in 2006 only for domestic use. The new pesticides at last freed the farmer from being a slave to the soil as he/she could now farm thousands of hectares almost “single-handedly,” and have time for leisure and life, using pesticides, fertilizers and farm equipment instead of vast amounts of human labour and massive mounds of compost.
The introduction of these methods, constitute the basics of the green revolution and went hand in hand, albeit often in hindsight, with new legislation to control the use of pesticides. The acute and chronic toxicity data for pesticides, coal burning, industries and mining were determined and globally introduced by national authorities. They were guided by the WHO and the FAO data for legislating safe usage of environmentally acceptable agrochemicals. That was “mission control” telling the pilots what to do. Ecosystems gradually recovered when these rules were followed. Salmon and sea trout returned to the river Thames by mid 1980s.
And yet, the fear that pesticides are poisoning the food we eat has increasingly gripped a technologically unprepared public. Low-intensity farming (e.g., organic farming) will require massive habitat encroachment and extensive water resources to yield enough food for everyone, adding to the assault on the ecosystem. Even without such an assault, an anthropogenic mass extinction has arrived in response to an over-populated planet. Given the global magnitude of the problem, the size and impact of the human population etc., returning to “traditional agriculture” or “organic agriculture” that rejects modern molecular genetics is sheer lunacy. Possible strategies to direct our destinies towards a happier end will be outlined in a continuation article.