26 July, 2017

Moving From Conventional Farming To Organic Farming

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

Moving From Conventional Farming To Organic Farming – Jumping From The Frying Pan Into The Fire?

I number of people have expresses surprise about my statement that “Organic fertilizers made by repeated composting of leaves can have dangerous amounts of metal toxins like Cd and As, as plants bio-accumulate them”, quoted from ‘Wholesome agriculture’ for a ‘toxin free nation’?. Others have expressed surprise at the statement that “Chemical analyzes of the soil, water and food have NOT revealed any relevant toxins from agrochemicals.”

The latter is the conclusion that we can derive from the world-health-organization (WHO) and Sri lanka National-Science foundation (NSF) funded study (2013) of the Rajarata environment in the context of chronic kidney disease. The WHO-NSF issued a second report where they speculated on the possibility that there may be some risk from Cadmium toxins in the food. The latter has not been confirmed by subsequent studies, while the absence of metal toxins like Cd, As, lead etc., in the soil, water table, reservoirs and rivers has been confirmed by more recent studies (after 2013) from the geology department, Peradeniya University, by the University of Tokyo and other studies including those from an Australian study.

Professor James McWilliams, a “green” advocate and author of “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly” writes:

“One issue … overlooked in the rush to … organic agriculture is the prevalence of excess arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, mercury, copper, and zinc in organic soil. Soil ecologists and environmentalists … have known for more than a century that … conventional farming leave heavy metals in the ground. But the fact that you’ll also find the same toxins in organic soil has been something of a dirty little secret”.

New Zealand is one of the biggest users of synthetic fertilizer, applying 1700 kg/hectare in 2012. Other comparative figures (per hectare, World Bank data) are, Malaysia,1600, Singapore 3400, Holland 300, India 165, Sri Lanka 198, Nicaragua 50. Both Nicaragua and Sri Lanka have chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDU). There are similar trends for glyphosate (herbicide) use. While Nicaragua uses very little fertilizer and glyphosate, New Zealand which uses more than 34 times has no CKDU.

Singapore (3400) and especially Qatar (11,650) use enormous quantities of synthetic fertilizer while Quatar has to deal with a desert. Singapore attempts to make the most out of its small land area and use modern agriculture. There are parts of USA where the fertilizer use is even double that of New Zealand, but the overall national average is less than that in Europe.

It is instructive to draw a map of Fertilizer and Glyphosate usage in the world, and also plot the incidence of kidney disease or cancer. It is clearly seen that there is no correlation of fertilizer or herbicide use with CKDU, Cancer or nay other disease. The fertilizers and glyphosate are not toxic enough to cause problems even if farmers did not use gloves and protective garments when applying these agro-chemicals. Meanwhile, the substitutes that have come on the market as “safe” alternatives are only safe because they are ineffective, or are used only in small domestic quantities.

Organic fertilizers

“Organic fertilizer” or “manure” is made by composting plant matter, animal matter, kitchen and farm waste, river sludge, etc. Crushed minerals like phosphate rock are also included. Human “night soil” is included, especially in China. So, organic fertilizer will contain what ever toxins that are found in the soil, and in plant and animal matter used in the compost. Perfectly “virgin” soils naturally contain small amounts of metal toxins like As, Cd, mercury, lead. Since plants don’t have “kidneys”, the toxins they absorb tend to accumulate in the plants. If plants are re-used in composting, the new compost will contain higher amounts of toxins.

If the soil becomes toxic, plants themselves can be used to suck up the toxins and clean the soil. This is known as phyto-remediation. The sunflower (Helianthus annus, “sooriya kaantha”, curiyakantam), Datura innoxia (Aththana, Vellaiyumattai), Water Hyacinth (“Japan Jaabara, Akasathamarai) are three examples among many Sri lankan plants that accumulate metal toxins effectively. A detailed list of Sri lankan plants may be found at a website that the author maintains.

Thus eating sunflower seed or using oil from plants grown in contaminated soil is inadvisable. But do you know from where your oil comes from, even if it is said to be “organic”? The same is true for most other foods, oils and nuts.

The WHO study of the Rajarata in the context of the CKDU had identified lotus root as a toxin accumulator. Most plants bio-accumulate toxins, and compost made from them transfers the enriched toxins to the crops that are used in the next compost. Thus an enrichment chain gets set up. Organic farmers, naively confident of a healthy product “of our fore-fathers”, make no chemical analyzes of their organic manures or crops. But crops grown on such “organic” soils may be as contaminated or as safe as those from conventional farming. Hence such monitoring is essential for all soils, fertilizers and harvests, be it organic fertilizer, or synthetic fertilizer. The “fore-fathers” used slash-and burn “chena” cultivation exploiting the available forest land, and not composting, as they had ample forests and very small populations. Today we are trying to deal with a mono-culture of humans that have densely covered the earth’s surface. Drastic industrial methods are needed to feed all these billions of people, many being hungry even though the technology is there to feed them. Turing to organic farming to provide custom-made “healthy” food for the rich is to abandon the poor. In fact, as we have argued here, even the rich are fooling themselves when they think that organic food is necessarily healthier.

The problems of “organic farming” is not well known because organic farming is still marginal. When it becomes capable of feeding even 1/5 of the world population, it will show itself to be another monster, and that we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire on embracing organic farming.

When organic farms are set up, complaints of “smells”, pollution of the water table etc., become common, because large amounts of fertilizer are needed compared to “synthetic” fertilizers. While a few tea-spoons of synthetic fertilizer suffice to grow a pineapple plant, many kilograms of organic manure are needed, contributing a larger amount of toxins, foul smells, and attracting flies and insects. Composting produces much methane and carbon dioxide, i.e., unwelcome green house gases. If house-hold “bio-degradable garbage” and meat have been used, the compost will contain pharmaceuticals, growth-hormones and other contaminants. Hence, backyard composting must be avoided. A central facilities where the methane is harvested as bio-gas without letting it escape to the atmosphere, with the compost reaching the needed temperatures to kill infectious bugs and foul smells is needed. Chemists can analyze the manure for metal toxins etc., and bring them to the maximum allowed values (MALs) by dilution. Thus, providing safe “organic compost manure” containing certified amounts of N, P, K and trace plant nutrients is a very “high tech” operation which is as industrial as producing “synthetic fertilizers”.

The soil is mostly inorganic matter (sand, rock etc) but it is a complex ecosystem containing bacteria and bugs, worms etc that are vital to its health and nutritive capacity. But these bacterial have alos a negative metabolic effect. Bacteria working on the manure produces nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, I.e, unacceptable green-house gases. The same problem exists equally with synthetic fertilizer unless the soil is so acidic that it does not have much living matter, as may happen if it is used in excess. Suc soils are dead soils and such short-sighted, wasteful, environmentally dangerous practices should be put sharply down by the agricultural authorities.

Since large amounts of organic fertilizer is needed, in comparison to synthetic fertilizer, there is more room for water wash off. Once the organic fertilizer is applied, the rains can carry of much of its organic nitrogen and phosphorous, in a manner even more drastic than with synthetic fertilizer. In December 2011, the environmental group “Environment Maryland” found that runoff from organic agricultural was polluting Chesapeake Bay (USA) and creating “dead zones”. This type of problem is becoming quite common with increasing installation of organic farming.

“Synthetic” (aka. Inorganic) fertilizers

Phosphate rock and potash rock used in Inorganic fertilizer contain naturally occurring toxins like As, Cd, Lead, mercury etc. Sri Lanka’s Eppawela phosphate, if used in a fertilizer mixture will add some 0.025mg of Arsenic per kilo of Eppawela added to the fertilizer mixture. Whether this will make the soil toxic or not depends on weather the optimal amount for the soil is used, or not. A virgin soill (like a newly opened “chena”) may not need ANY fertilizer. But most conventional farms need regular application of fertilizer, even with inter-cropping, inclusion of legumes etc. If fertilizers are not added to the soil, there will be no crop to harvest!

Coal-burning power stations

Coal-burning power stations

Toxins from inorganic ore are easy to remove, whereas removing toxins from organic manure is much harder. Hence producing very clean “synthetic fertilizers” containing no toxins adds only a marginal costs. Many home-garden fertilizers are already of that category. Thus a modern approach to conventional farming would be to use purified fertilizers, and that would still be much much cheaper and also safer than trying to go “fully organic”. If the organic fertilizer can be trusted to be free of toxins or antagonistic microbial strains, a blended fertilizer including inorganic and organic fertilizer has many attractive features.

The Harber process harvests atmospheric nitrogen for synthetic fertilizers, while the phosphates and potash come from the earth. The world was “saved” of famines by this process commercialized by 1913. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in the body of most humans and even livestock living on the earth today is from the nitrogen coming from the synthetic Harber process! New Haber installations use solar energy, and avoid fossil fuels, and hence the accusation that they are “based on fossil fuels” is largely invalid.

Coal-power plants in Tamil Nadu

Besides toxins from the soil, there are air borne toxins as well. Nearly fifty coal-fired power stations along the coast of Tamil Nadu spew out metal toxins and particulate gases, brought southwards by the trade winds and monsoons. Some 1,15,000 premature deaths in India result from pollution due to coal-fired generators (Hindu, March 11, 2013). This number is much more than the deaths from kidney disease in the Rajarata. The environmental impact of Indian power plants on Sri lanka is unknown and it is urgent that those who talk of a “toxin-free nation” should immediately study it. The fact that these coal-power plants are across the ocean is irrelevant as some of them are near than Colombo is to Jaffna. Sri Lanka too has coal-fired polluters in Sampur (known as Saamapura), and in Norochcholai, known in earlier times as “Horagolla”. Both organic and “inorganic” agriculture will be smothered by over-arching pollution from the Indian coal-fired generators, as well as from the ubiquitous pollution from petroleum fumes and other petro-chemicals. All these are class-I carcinogens (i.e., you definitely
get cancer on exposure to them). Class-II carcinogens may give cancer at very high doses and long exposures. The Sri Lankan government has banned just one of the class-II carcinogens (Glyphosate),, while leaving most class-I carcinogens and all other class-II carcinogens untouched.

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  • 1

    Sri lanka should explain, the farmers, the cost of modern agriculture with respect to the cost of fertiliser, cost of pesticides, money required for machinery and the care needed for new improved varieties as opposed to old varieties which could have added value as a market product and it does not need organic fertilizer, pesticides, and does snot need much care with respect to pest control whether it is weeds or insect diseases.

    People also should be explained how not application of pesticides and fertilizers protect the soil by allowing earth worms like animals which bring leached soil from underneath the crust, protect insects which can be biological agents for pest control and finally old varieties can give advantage even over the rice varieties like Basmathi.

    that was a very brief summary.

  • 3

    Great article. I have been using glyposate for the past 20+ years in my garden and will continue to do so. So as chemical fertilizers in my vege patch.
    Are all these current efforts in SL in the pursuit of solving the CKD problem a wild goose chase?.

    • 0


      Wish you a long and hopefully healthy life. If it doesn’t work out, you can refer back to this article and be comforted

      • 1

        We meet again! You seem to depend more on gut reaction than well-presented facts. The only inaccurate statement I could find in the article was :”The Harber process harvests atmospheric nitrogen for synthetic fertilizers, while the phosphates and potash come from the earth. The world was “saved” of famines by this process commercialized by 1913.”
        There were lots of famines after 1913, including one in Bengal in 1942 (2 million dead). But there have been no famines in Asia for 50 years.

        • 2

          The end of famines has not yet occurred, even now. The green revolution that gave the world new seed varieties was necessary in additon to modern fertilizers and herbicides. T

          he new step of Genetically Modified foods is being opposed tooth and nail by anti-technology Luddites, but they are half right in that the big companies are allowed to patent seed varieties that they invent. Instead, national governments should get their own labs to create GMO seeds and make them freely available instead of allowing capitalist companies to control it. Chin is doing this, and India is doing this.

          But idiot activists like Shiva Vandana in India have prevented the use of even Indian made GMO seeds. Golden rice (rice genetically modified to have a bit of carrot-based vitamins in the rice) is opposed purely because it is a GMO seed, while even admitting that there is nothing wrong with it and that it can do immense good, as well as prevent blindness.

          Unfortunately, some Marxist “agriculturists” in Sri lanka invited Shiva Vanadana to Sri lanka, to influence the “agricultural thinking” of the government which is controlled by Ven. Ratana who knows nothing about science but distrusts it completely. He prefers the mambo-jambo of God Natha and such stuff. Sirisena listens to Ven. Ratana. So, in the end there will be a man-made famine in Sri lanka.

          • 0

            Edward’s chicken Little Story.

    • 0


      “I have been using glyposate for the past 20+ years in my garden and will continue to do so.”

      Is it still available despite of the ban? In case it is we have identified another regulation that is not enforced.

  • 0

    The proposed link (e.g. Jayasumana et al (2014) ) is between hard (Ca++ and Mg++) ground water used for drinking and glyphosate and chemical fertilizer use in surrounding areas.

    The flawed analysis of Prof. Dharmawardana ignores

    a) New Zealand has high rainfall and rural communities use rain water collected from roofs for drinking purposes.

    b) Sri Lanka does not have a CKDu problem in the wet zone.

    c) Jaffna which has hard ground water has low incidence of CKDu because agro chemicals were prohibited during the war.

    • 2

      There is hardly any scientific data correlating non existence of CKD to rural water usage in New Zealand and also many of the western countries still continue to use glyposate as an effective weedicide. The US EPA has only recently started monitoring the health effects of glyposate after a recent publication in the oncology lancelet magazine.

      From the studies conducted in the recent past people in CKD endemic areas in Sri Lanka who consume water from sources where water is not hard were found to be to be free from the disease. People within CKD endemis areas of Anuradapura and Polonnaruwa who drink treated water from large water supply schemes do not have the disease. Also, it was found that the people in the endemic areas with natural springs with no hard water are free from the decease. However, I do agree that there is strong evidence to conclude the occurrence of CKD due to waterbound chemicals in the endemic areas.

      I do appreciate the research work by Dr Jayasumana et al in finding a solution to this decease, however, I am not convinced that their findings are conclusive enough to prove the source of CKD is solely due to the use of glyposate. In the absence of hard data, their research findings can be considered more hypothetical than definitive at this stage. Though, as a nation, we cannot stay idle and do nothing at this stage.I do support the current efforts to provide clean drinking water to the affected areas, however, sudden banning of glyphosate without providing an alternative for the agriculture might not be the best option to prevent CKD.

      • 0

        I am not saying the Jayasumana is necessarily conclusive.

        What I am saying is Prof. Dharmawardana’s analysis is totally flawed in trying to disprove the connection between CKDu and Hard ground water used for Drinking + glyphosate + fertilizer.

        To quote
        New Zealand is one of the biggest users of synthetic fertilizer, applying 1700 kg/hectare in 2012. Other comparative figures (per hectare, World Bank data) are, Malaysia,1600, Singapore 3400, Holland 300, India 165, Sri Lanka 198, Nicaragua 50. Both Nicaragua and Sri Lanka have chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu). There are similar trends for glyphosate (herbicide) use. While Nicaragua uses very little fertilizer and glyphosate, New Zealand which uses more than 34 times has no CKDu.

        New Zealand does not use groundwater for drinking.

    • 1

      These Glyphosates and other pesticides may be coming from India like countries which send very dirty chemicals full of heavy metals and other toxins which can absorb to plants easily and then pass to the people who eat that.

    • 2

      I have read this “story” conccocted by Jayasumana and also by Ms. Senanayake, the lady who is supposed to hear voices of God natha. She too is an author of this “science paper” though she has never studied science. That is how cheap it has got.
      They claim that glyphosate joins with Calcium and arsenic to form a substance that gets into the body!. In the first place, there should be glyphosate in the water, and no one has found any. if there is any, no algae will grow in the water there. But anyone can see the amount of algae in Padaviya, or in any well in the CKDu area. So, there is no glyphosate residues. Also, no one has found any Arsenic in the water. The WHO didn’t find it. And research by others later (Japanese, Peradeniya people etc) also did NOT find it. So two of the items missing. Even more interestingly, researchers who have put all three together find that hard water makes the arsenic precipitate as an insoluble sand and becomes inert. Hard water protects. So, after more than two years since writing about this, Jayasumana and others have not been able to find any evidence to justify it. There have been no more papers by them on it!!!

      • 0

        Jayasumana et al is an internationally peer reviewed article.
        The complete article is here.
        Please read and comment.

        Priyantha Senanayake of the Hela Suwaya must have been included because she helped in collecting data, such identifying locations of CKDu incidence etc. Does not have to be a scientist.

        Pretty standard practice in research papers to include people who have provided data.

        • 1

          They did NOT publish in an internationally peer-reviewed journal. They published in a journal owned by a Chinese businessman who lives in Switzerland and charges 1500 euros for publishing any article submitted to them. The journal was listed as a “predatory” journal, i.e., one of the many electronic journals that had sprung up to suck in the need of many people to “publish” and claim scientific status.
          There is/was no peer review. They will even correct your English for a fee. I listened to a seminar where a Peradeniya professor pointed out that this Jayasumana paper is nonsense, and not peer reviewed, and has references when when followed up leads to a dog food advertisement or something like that!
          Please read:
          Because of the international outcry, this “journal” may have been forced to clean up its act subsequently. That I don’t know. But when jayasumana et al published, it was a “junk” journal where anything could be published if you paid the page charge.
          Here is a critique of this journal that you can find on the internet:
          1. The publisher cleverly uses the names and reputations of legitimate scholars, including Nobel laureates, to make the operation look more legitimate and accepted than it really is. The publisher claims that that several Nobel Laureates serve on its editorial boards, but one investigation found that they didn’t realize they were listed.

          Also, MDPI publisher Shu-Kun Lin managed to convince the former de facto head of the open-access movement, Peter Suber, to serve on the editorial board of one its journals, Publications, a tactic designed, in my opinion, to forestall criticism of MDPI from OA advocates and to mingle the publisher’s reputation with Suber’s and that of the OA movement itself. [I was also personally invited to serve on the journal’s editorial board by MDPI owner Shu-Kun Lin but declined. In 2010, I published a paper in one of the firm’s journals, an action I now regret.]

          2. The publisher has a large fleet of journals, many with one-word names, copying the practices used by legitimate subscription journals such as Cell. MDPI uses the gold (author pays) model of open-access publishing, and I think its article processing charges are high, and the publisher regularly launches new journals. The journals’ one-word titles (e.g., Animals, Children, Diversity) give each journal a broad scope, a strategy that draws in more articles and their accompanying author payments.

          3. Because its mission is to earn as much money as possible through article submissions, the publisher regularly accepts questionable papers, resulting in a kind of “controversy of the month” for MDPI that draws attention – both wanted and unwanted – to the publisher.

    • 1

      Actually, the NewZealand rainfall is similar to that of Sri lanka’s dry zone
      See the links:

      The dryzone rain fall in Sri lanka is:
      Climate – Department of Agriculture
      Climate of rice growing regions in Sri Lanka … The Dry zone receives a mean annual rainfall of 800- 1,750 mm with a distinct dry season from May to …

      Now look at New Zealand:
      The West Coast of the South Island is the wettest area of New Zealand, whereas the area to the east of the mountains, just over 100 km away, is the driest. Most areas of New Zealand have between 600 and 1600 mm of rainfall, spread throughout the year with a dry period during the summer.
      Overview of New Zealand climate | NIWA

      • 0

        New Zealand does not use ground water (let alone hard ground water) for Drinking purposes in rural areas.
        Apparently they use rain water collected from roofs for drinking purposes.

        Also where are the areas of farming (glyphosate use) as against husbandry such as sheep and dairy farming.

        Please free to provide info or correct me.

  • 0

    Amazed to see this statement “while the absence of metal toxins like Cd, As, lead etc., in the soil, water table, reservoirs and rivers has been confirmed by more recent studies (after 2013) from the geology department, Peradeniya University, by the University of Tokyo and other studies including those from an Australian study.” is it total absence? or levels well below maximum limits?

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