15 August, 2022


Let’s Cut The Cackle – And Get On With It 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It is reported (Sunday Island, of 1 August 2021), that a team of experts from Switzerland in the field of Organic Farming, is due to arrive shortly. They are to advise and help in training farmers and officials in practical operational matters. This is a very practical help, and the Private Sector sponsor is to be thanked for this. Messrs Baur and company have a long history of engagement in the Agrochemical (Fertlizer and Pesticide) import business, and their initiative in this is to be appreciated. We remember with gratitude, Baurs’ long term Colombo Manager, Mr Thilo Hoffmann, who until his retirement, was a stalwart in promoting Wildlife Management as well.

Much has been written lately about fertilizer and pest control matters, especially following the official decision to immediately cease import of agrochemicals.The question has arisen whether this is wise, practical and in keeping with our national goals and responsibilities? Organic or inorganic (traditional or modern), is not a black or white issue: It is a shade of grey. Whether light or dark, is a matter of detail and depends on particular circumstances and good judgment.

I wish that I could have used the words “Debate or discussion” to capture the spirit of the discourse, but cannot because the several authoritative and acceptable articles represented only one side – that of caution and evidence based on good science. The other group did not show their hand, and is possibly based on emotion, prejudice and poor criteria. Obviously (?) the best would be a blend, aimed at harmonizing into practices that could combine the “best of both Worlds”.

It would not be prudent to plan action on a “this or that” basis, but on a “plus and plus” goal. The tragedy is that this sudden and ill-advised act has become a “rabbit out of a hat magic”. Just shutting off the taps in the hope of rains to come is unwise, possibly disastrous. Let the emotional and tragic haste sort itself out, and calmly focus on the less-charged longer term. The views of the visiting expert team will help.

There is little disagreement that in regard to manuring crops as well as in other matters, the best option is to seek a “Middle Path” (moderation rather than extremes). Those in the agricultural science sector, will well know the ills of either form alone. The Tea industry is an example, where long term reliance on inorganic high nitrogen fertilizers (mainly sulphate of ammonia), has increased soil acidity to a point where no other crop can be profitably grown, without extensive soil amelioration by heavy “liming” or long term fallowing. In common terms such a soil would be regarded as “dead” in contrast to a living soil, throbbing with a variety of micro-organisms including those which could “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into forms which can be utilized by plants. Also supporting earthworms of enormous value to soil fertility.

Sudden changes of fertilizer practice, in an unplanned manner and the pathetic distress thereby caused to poor farmers, being suddenly faced with a lack of timely vital fertilizer, is to be seen daily on our TV screens. Experience has clearly established that paddy requires an application of a soluble form of nitrogen (eg Urea) soon after transplanting, to ensure good “tillering”. This is obviously crucial to final yield. To ignore their helpless cries is extreme cruelty. Slow-release nitrogen, as from “compost,” is ineffective. Trotting out excuses and unsubstantiated allegations and conspiracy theories, is plain silly and profoundly unacceptable.

Our paddy farmers have traditionally practiced organic farming, until just a few decades ago, when High Performing cultivars such as of the “H-Series” took hold. They required high fertilizer inputs for optimum yields. In the not too distant past, paddy was heavily supplied with organic material supplemented with very small amounts of inorganics as affordable. The farming system met its needs by readily available shrubs and trees dominated by species such as “Wal Suriyakantha”( Tithonia diversifolia), now hardly seen except as a few isolated clumps. A special effort should be made to reestablish this useful shrub. Other commonly used ones are Vetahira or Makulatha (Glyricidia maculata), Andara (Prosopis Juliflora), Eramudu (Dadap) Andanahiriya (Crotalaria sp.) and other localized fast growing, and quick-decaying shrubs or low trees. A further traditional practice was to grow on the bunds (niyara) vegetables like beans, bandakka, wambatu and others, whose unharvested parts were also ploughed in, along with the straw harvested.

The prospects of moving cautiously and methodically towards an ultimately balanced, sustainable, environmentally sound, financially viable, environmentally sensible and popularly acceptable system, must rely on good science. In the present state of disarray, all attempts should first be made to identify raw material sources, production methods and product utilization.

Raw material availability

At first glance, apart from domestic waste (Kitchen and garden), Coir factory fibre-dust, paddy husk, waterweeds (Salvinia, Eichornia, habarala, ketala), Sugar cane Bagasse, carpentry waste, tree loppings and opportunistic sources (lawn, weed and roadside shrubs) could make a fair source for domestic composting. Municipal waste (subject to adequate safeguards) too may have a place. Human sewage (just as cattle and poultry manure), could be a rich resource. It is apparent that recent improvements in processing, offer an escape from natural revulsion and health risks.

Methods for the production of compost are well documented, and allow considerable flexibility for adaption to suit particular situations. The practice is of such antiquity that the only requirement is sufficient time to develop sustainable methods and practices.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Dr. UP, Bigger than compost production is the need to print more rupees, pay the teachers, get the students taught and education as a whole put back in order to stop a civil movement which could starve us.

    • 0

      Thank you Dr Prthiyagoda for the positive thinking.
      Will printing paper money solve our problems?
      They have tried it elsewhere, and it only made things worse.

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