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 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!
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.