20 March, 2019

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How A Menaced Humanity Facing A Threatened Environment Turns To Ludicrous Remedies

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

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.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    Excellent and timely article. I will await the continuation to see what remedies are going to be proposed by Dr. Dharmawardana.

    • 2
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      From my experience I see no EARTH WORMS now when I dig the earth to plant trees., Is it due to use of chemicals?

      • 1
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        From my experience I see no EARTH WORMS now when I dig the earth to plant trees., Is it due to use of chemicals?
        Not necessarily.
        Check the pH of your soil. Even if you used chemicals (what chemicals did you use?), nothing very much remains in the soil if you are in a country with two big monsoons.
        Everything gets washed off. That is why there are no residues of DDT (a persistant chemical) in Sri Lankan soils in spite of its extensive use against malaria many years ago. Also, chemicals much more toxic than common agricultural pestiicides are used in the spray against Dengue. Even that gets washed out by the monsoon rains.

        This claim by the Ven.Rathana-Jayasumana lobby that toxins are affecting Sri lankan soils is most probabaly to promote the “organic” so called “biofilm” fertilizer that they areset to be selling.

        • 1
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          Thank you Goviya.

  • 2
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    Ah, Chandre is at it again, this time trying his hand as a writer of science fiction and melodrama. He uses this multi-faceted article to push his own pet agenda to deny the role of heavy metals in agrochemicals (fertilizers, mainly TSP) in the tragic epidemic of CKDu which has decimated the Sri Lanka farming populations in selected hot spots and now spreading.

    The truth is outing, but slowly, Chandre, and you better accept it, you poor soul.

    And, by the way. what you refer to as the “Harber-Boshe process” is actually correctly known as the “Haber process”, also called the “Haber–Bosch process” for production of ammonia.

  • 1
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    It looks you are writing for money or for a certain client. If not how can you justify an artificial chemical Glyphosate is not at all toxic to the living beings whether it is small animals and plants living in the water and thereby to the environment.
    There is a unbelievable exploitation of resources by some of the powerful countries. That is unavoidable and UN is there organization. USA became a developed country after the war. One generation of theirs’ enjoyed everything and now it is over. So, what is the meaning of the economic development .

  • 2
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    Are you clear on what Bambaradeniya said ? You are way off the mark.

    Read : Senanayake R.1983 The Ecological, Energetic, and Agronomic Systems of Ancient and Modern Sri Lanka in Gordon K. Douglass (ed.) Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order pp 227-307. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press,1984 also in Lok Niti, Journal of the Asian NGOs 1(1) also in :11-14.Lanka Guardian 5(7-8),

    It sad to see you struggle so hard to make yourself relevant to Sri Lanka, the truth is you are not !. Pushing your chemical agenda on an already poisoned populace, with over 85% of deaths attributed to Non Communicable Diseases (NCD’s), is no any help at all..

    Your comment that “A farmer from being a slave to the soil ” exposes the shallowness of your understanding. I will respond to this at a later date.

    Just because you live in Canada. Do not try the old western ploy of BBS (Baffiling with Bullshit) on us with your misquotes.

    Also please give us the names of the articles that you have published on the agroecosystems of Sri Lanka, which you claim to know so well. If you have not published in this area then quit acting like you are an expert on agroecosystems.

    • 0
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      I say Chandra Dharmawardane is very dishonest. HE should talk about why Canada is using Integrated Pest Management and Pesticide as the last resort. He should Talk about the Cancer Prevalence in North america. He should understand the contributions of Water (pesticide, fertilizer and other chemical residues, pH changes and heavy metals in Ground water etc., , air (fossil fuel residues and smoke and dust for Asthma) and then comes the Artificial ingredients as well as specific food patterns Food contribute to 40% of the cancers). I am pretty sure he is writing for Monsanto like companies. It IS COMMON IN THE WEST BUSINESSES CONTRIBUTE TO GARBAGE RESEARCH HELPING THEM AND PUBLISH THOSE IN THE NEWS PAPERS.

  • 1
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    I write as a retired administrator who began a carrier in government service as a young hand in Mr. Subasinghe’s Ministry of Science in the early 1970s.
    Saddened to read Dr. RS’s comments which have gone to the level of personal attack, which I found surprising because I had a different image of Dr. RS.
    Dr. RS writes “It sad to see you struggle so hard to make yourself relevant to Sri Lanka,…
I will respond to this at a later date. Just because you live in Canada. Do not try the old western ploy of BBS (Baffiling with Bullshit) … ” etc.

    Dr. CD chaired the heavy chemicals panel in Mr. Subsinghe’s ministry and probably for the first time raised the issue environmental impact evaluations. The UN expert (an Indian) rejected it saying “totally unnecessary in the Asian context”. Dr. CD began food science and environmental chemistry courses at Vidyodaya university for the first time in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. Many of today’s “environmentalists, chemists etc” are students of his students. Even after he left Sri Lanka he has contributed to various technical committees in submitting reports or opinions as requested by panel chairs etc. Also, he has been writing popular articles to the Sri lankan press since the 1970s. So, although I am not a scientist, as a civil servant I have seen, by being involved in these matters, that Dr. Dharmawardana has provided inputs over the years, and been relevant to most governments, working with people like Dr. Panabokke and others like Dr. Kovoor form France brought in during Chandrika KB’s time.
    In contrast, I haven’t seen Dr. RS contributing to anything during my time in various ministries. Perhaps he is more involved now, as Ven. Ratana has said in TV interviews that Dr. Rs is “standing with him”.
    As for research Dr RS has listed his old research e.g., from 1984, i.e., from 35 years AGO! Is that relevant today?

    • 2
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      What matters is not blind adherence to science but to use science sensibly and with concern for the people it serves and the environment it applies to. Chandre is a physical / theoretical chemist who has no training in biological systems or in practical applications/ manifestations of chemicals, synthesised to mimic their raw native state or in bound form in various products such as Apatite – phosphate rock – (which is processed into TSP) on human systems.

      Chandre has (for reasons best known to himself) latched on to the ionicity theory (even supports the fluoride theory) in explanation of the tragic CKDu epidemic when there is not a shred of peer-reviewed evidence in the literature which supports this. In any event, he has not provided any practical suggestion to mitigate against this threat anyway, probably because it won’t make a jot of a difference to the trajectory of the disease.

      The heavy metals such as cadmium and lead implicated in the pathogenesis of CKDu comes mainly from TSP, particularly because this has been used with gay abandon for the past 40 years or so without control, and magnified in the NCP from excess application in the hill country transported via the Mahaweli, due to the simple aspect of the difference in elevation and the path of the river and its diversion.

      I agree with Ranil S here. Chandre’s expertise is best channeled to resolving problems in Canada, and best retained in physical modelling and theory – I bet he is excellent at these.

      • 1
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        The question of heavy metals from Mahaweli waters have been proposed by only a few so called scientists who have not published any credible data. These metals form insoluble substances and probably only a small amount leach out into the reservoir water. They are mostly bound to the sediments of waterways and reservoirs. The earlier claimed high cadmium in reservoirs was found to be wrong and the values are a thousand times lower. These lower values have not been challenged by those who earlier claimed higher values. If Mahaewli waters is the cause, then people who drink reservoir waters should be affected more with CKDu and the observation is exactly the opposite.

        People who criticize Chandre are guided by the likes of Jayasumena and Ratana who have changed their stance many times, from bioterrorism, arsenic, cadmium and glyphosate.

        Credible data by Japanese scientists show that the average cadmium levels in Anuradhapura is 0.01 microgrammes/L and that of Mannar, Mullatvu and Jaffna are 0.02 which do not get Mahaweli waters are 0.02 microgrammes/L. (Groundwater quality Atlas of Sri Lanka, Kawakami et al. 2014) . No one has scientifically proven that cadmium is responsible for CKDu. Animal experiments too show that it is the fluoride which has the highest correlation to CKDu and not cadmium.
        To paint everyone who go strictly by the scientific observations as agents of multnationals are often ridiculed by those who promote their own fanciful theories mainly for political reasons. One should be open in their judgements rather than proogate lies expounded by their political scientists.
        Facts are sacred and comment is free!

  • 2
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    Famous Chandre again….I was wondering why he was talking of Ramayana and pesticides this time without referring to his famous medicine “Glyphosate”. Did Monsanto suggested to you to change the topic at least for now?

  • 3
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    Rubbish! There’s enough of land space and people to restart traditional organic agriculture. Trouble is, traditional land and its people are ever encroached for commercial and industrial activities.

    • 0
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      To Ramona TF :
      You mean open up more land and destroy more of the ecosystem even more and you think there is enough space?

      Ramona TF would have been happy if we can burn and slash the forest (as in the Chena cultivation approach) and move to a new piece of land every time the ground becomes infertile due to traditional agriculture. That traditional approach is not available. But not even organic agriculture using the same plot will work.
      Do the calculation.

      If organic farming gives us one tonne of harvest per hectare, while fertilized farming gives 6 tonnes per hectare (as is the case), then we need six times more land, and six times more water to produce (using organic farming) what is currently produced (by fertilizer farming).

      So, Are you going to tear up six times more land? Where do you find such arable land? Are you going to open up six more Mahaweli systems? Unfortunately, there are no more rivers to dam in a useful manner as far as agriculture is concerned.

      What is going to happen to the birds and bees who have lost their habitat?

      • 1
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        Bandara. Nonsense. The only reason we need artificially high yields/hectare is because all land has been taken up by commerce and industry.

        Get rid of all the cash crops (gradually , of course, so we don’t go onto monetary devastation). They are the ones that destroyed our ecosystems and environment.

        Lankans traditionally never did slash and burn, except some of the forest people.

  • 1
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    In Response to the Retired Administrator : I give below an excerpt from my book ‘clowns and Jokers

    “By 1981, the direction was clear. It was energy consumption as ‘development’ at any cost. Bigger was better, commissions and profits set the pace. At this time I was a consultant Ecologist to the ministry of the Mahaveli, The check and balances that was supposed to be in place became mere pieces of paper to be signed at the whim of a minister or senior bureaucrat. This was a time when absurd proposals, clearly not in the interest of the country began to come up I was compelled top oppose them. There were two environmental officers at the time, the ministry bureaucrat and as consultant. My concern based on science and the interests of this the nation .My opposition was initially voiced at the ministerial level and when there was no response I took my opinion to the public as in the commentary below, in the Sun newspapers in December 1981. It was effective ! The donors , objected to the project and it was not implemented. As a consequence, I was dismissed from my post and the officer who acquiesced, was rewarded by getting a job with the World Bank for his compliance. Thus began the years of victimisation by the bureaucracy, which continues up to the date of writing today.”

    Up till today I have never been invited to any government committee or provide any input into the bureaucratic process. But I have been pointing out what needs to be done for this nation for over forty years in all the national newspapers. Even then my views had not been taken into account until decades later. This is the reason as to why I was not seen at those various ‘ministerial affairs’.

    I will be happy to post a copy of my book on CT is there is any interest in the history of these issues.

  • 1
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    To RamonaTF:
    I suggest you do a bit of arithmetic. According to the Sri lanka Department of Statistics, the total amount under tea, rubber are 450,000 acres (say 2015-2016 figures rounded). A good part of the tea acreage is unsuitable for paddy cultivation. The same goes for runner due to lack of enough irrigation for a water hungry crop like paddy. We need our coconut as we are in fact SHORT of coconut in Sri Lanka.
    The Dept of Statistics gives the 2015 acerage in Sri lanka under paddy to be 1,200,000 in round figures. So even if you convert all the tea and rubber to paddy (impossible to do), we only get a pittance. And where is the water coming from?

    • 1
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      Bandara,

      Tea and rubber lands were the former forest, and fruit and vegetables lands that people used to subsist by. The remaining paddy lands have-been/are-continuously taken up for commercial and industrial development. Essential water goes for commercial and industrial enterprise, as well as the tea and rubber plantations. So there is a limited amount for subsistence crops. We produce enough coconuts, but they are on the global exchange and nothing much is left for our people. But I agree that certain carefully planned, well-researched, and organic GM and mineral fertilizer can be used at minimum levels. Best is not to have them at all. Also all these things might still be in the experimental phase, and we might be the guinea-pigs.

      • 1
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        To RamonaTF:
        I hope you agree that we don’t have enough land and enough water to grow the rice we want, using organic agriculture, even if you convert the WHOLE of sri lanka’s cultivable land (including coconut) into paddy.
        Even if we use force and commandeer the land, there is not enough irrigation water. So organic farming is a formula to feed a small amount of Elite people while most of the the ordinary people perish due to malnutrition, ill health and famine.

        • 0
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          Bandara,
          _
          We would have plentiful of land and water to grow traditional organic rice for ourselves (esp. if we chase away all those industrial and commercial enterprise on traditional land). But if we are to sell rice as a cash crop to places like India, then we would need plenty of GMO’d varieties and all kinds of artificial minerals and fertilizers on limited land.

          • 1
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            Do your arithmetic, and show that what you say has even a shred of validity. How come you don’t use any numbers in your arguments? We know the total area. We know how much rice we eat. Taking one metric tonne per hectare (from Organic farming), the area needed in hectares is exactly the same as the consumption of rice in metric tonnes. We DONT have that much land even if ALL industries and all agriculture is taken over for Organic paddy growing.
            We are not talking of selling rice to anybody, but just feeding ourselves.

            • 0
              1

              It was a bit difficult to find rice export statistics of sri Lanka. Could be that GoSL might be suppressing this info? I managed to find this info (the link would not come up, but I got the info when I googled if Sri Lanka exported rice):

              //Alibaba.com offers 52 rice export products. About 86% of these are rice, 1% are other food & beverage. A wide variety of rice export options are available to you, There are 52 rice export suppliers, mainly located in Asia. The top supplying country is Sri Lanka, which supply 100% of rice export respectively.\\

              Here’s another link:

              http://www.sundaytimes.lk/111009/BusinessTimes/bt16.html

              Seems that SL is quite self- sufficient in rice and can export.

              With the northern rice bowls opening up Ranil intended to sell rice to India. (Will find that link). The country is usually up in arms against such a trade option that it doesn’t take off, or is kept hush. The thing is, the intent is always there so as to balance the capitalistic budget.

              These rice surpluses are due to the green revolution of artificial pesticides, fertilizers and GMO. It’s time, if it is not too late, to go back to natural organic farming –
              we do not need the surplus. Once the government has the tenacity to invest in it, instead of placing country money on the developing of extraneous capitalistic enterprise, the traditional organic rice and other agriculture produce will bloom and boom.

              Information with given arithmetic and numbers is hard to acertain. One might not take into account the numbers used to balance country budgets. I can only look at the overall picture and deduce.

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