The officials of the Sri Lankan Ministry of agriculture have placed all their bets on a new nano-urea available from India. High level politicians and government officials went to the airport with much fanfare to receive the air-cargo. This is a plea to the authorities concerned to halt the deployment of this product until its chronic and acute toxicity data, not only for humans, but also for critical organisms like earthworms, bees and other pollinating insects as well as on the microbial biomass of the soil are investigated by the various competent research institutes and university departments in Sri Lanka.
The rationale for banning agro-chemicals in May 2021 and “going all organic” was mostly the claimed (but false) “poisoning of the food chain” by “chemicals”. It was well known that organic farming even at its best can only supply a tiny fraction of any nation’s food requirements, unless drastic steps are taken (like reducing the population to a half or more, and forcing all to be vegetarians; check here). Even the best implementation of 100% organic farming would reduce harvests by a factor of four or five and create much pollution and serious soil erosion, especially if water is used to control weeds. Today, having realized the impossibility of providing the vast amount of “organic fertilizer” needed even to get minimal harvests and avert famine, the government has done a knee-jerk purchase of nano-fertilizer from India.
A government working in the crisis mode has NOT asked if nano-urea can be a health hazard to farming communities, and instead accepted what the Indians say. The product was launched only on 31st May 2021 and sells in India at about $3-4 for a 500ml bottle. It is claimed that 11,000 farm trials were conducted by the Indian National Agriculture Research System in the preceding years. Looking at the published research material I suspect that these only looked at harvests and did NOT monitor the HEALTH of the farming communities. The preceding years even overlapped with the pandemic when health chaos prevailed.
Weather with DDT, thalidomide, glyphosate or nuclear waste, the impact on human heath requires studies over several generations. With conventional materials, tests on micro-organisms and smaller animals with short life spans provide useful information. But this is not true for nanoparticles as their toxico-kinetic pathways are still quite unknown. Although the Indians say that the nano-urea has been tested for bio-safety and toxicity following Indian government guidelines as well as OECD “international guidelines”, no details have been published. It is an open secret that there are no accepted or well-tested OECD guidelines for the toxicity of various nanomaterials. The earliest nanourea declared nearly two decades ago in the CN1269774C Chinese patent, other products like the hydroxy-apatite nanourea from SJP university which is a few years old, or the Indian product which is only a few months old, have not been adequately investigated for their environmental and health impact. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, “Hydroxy-apatite (nano),” European Commission, March 16, 2016, stated that there have been no studies that would enable a risk assessment of hydroxy-apatite nanoparticles even in the research and development phase of these products. The same seems to be true for the Indian product using a polysaccharide encapsulation. Life-cycle exposure assessments of nanotechnology products in field conditions should be a per-requisite to regulatory review for commercialization and general use.
The claim by the Indians that their product is “eco-friendly” and safe to humans is an unsubstantiated statement, very likely to be false.
Nanoparticles are ultra-small and have a large reactive surface area compared to normal materials. Their size is that of Covid-19 Corona virus particles. Being ultra-small, nanoparticles penetrate rapidly into foliage, roots or soil extremely efficiently.
These materials, especially when sprayed, can get into human skin, eyes, ears, lungs, intestines etc., and instantly penetrate through epithelial layers into every organ and cell, womb and fetus, brain and neuron, chromosome and gene. While a farmer is unlikely to get normal urea into his lungs, if nanourea is spray, the likely hood that his lungs collect some nanoparticles is very high, and may trigger unknown inflammatory toxic reactions. The nanomaterials act with high efficiency becoming hundreds of times more toxic than the parent substance, i.e., urea in this case. While the nanoparticle penetrates the foliage like a “magic bullet”, their action on soil and leaf organisms, and on pollinating insects like bees can be akin to a “cluster bomb” that destroys them indiscriminately. When nanourea particles enter earthworms and other organisms at a rapidity faster than most standard toxins, these organisms do not have mechanisms for coping with the resulting physiological damage.
We already have some experience with nanotoxicity resulting from previous rushed applications of nanotechnology in environmentally sensitive systems. Lung inflammation, granuloma, and focal emphysema are found in studies on SiO2 nanoparticles entering the human body. Gold nanoparticles are used in food technology and found to cause chromatin changes in the nucleus of human lung fibroblasts, making changes in gene expression in mouse fetus leading to lung cancers. Silver nanoparticles enter the intestinal mucus barrier and increase oxidative stress, damaging cell membranes, DNA, and chromosomes as well. Even at low concentrations, the toxicological effects of silver nanoparticles become evident, while abnormal cell damage, shrinkage, apoptosis, and skin cancers occur at higher concentrations.
Use of nanofertilizers will create a sophisticated agricultural industry that is indeed the future. Nanofertilizers will increase yields, but they should be deployed with highly sophisticated safety clothing and usage protocols. Full-face masks and overalls should be unpenetrable to nanoparticles. The nanomaterials must be applied by trained farm technicians with the discipline of semi-conductor “clean-room” technicians who engage in the fabrication of nanomaterials.
My research on nanomaterials at the National Research Council of Canada since the 1980s have been for optical, laser and electronic technologies where well-isolated clean rooms and sealed fabrication plants are used in manufacturing. Similarly, in the context of agriculture, I have long advocated that the steps beyond the green revolution require these sophisticated technologies, but deployed within “sky-scraper” grow towers sealed from the environment. Then water, nutrients, agrochemicals etc., be they nano or conventional, remain contained within the grow tower. The use of grow towers frees up farmland for reforestation (see my article in the Colombo Telegraph). The alternative of using these technologies in the unprotected environment is like releasing synthetic viruses (nanoparticles) into ecosystems whose evolutionary tools have no defense against them.
Let us forget about the environment for the short term and ask about human safety. Where is the necessary nano-impregnable cloths and masks for the 1-2 million farmers who are expected to spray the nanourea? Furthermore, nanourea should be sprayed so that the flora and fauna other than the targeted plants are spared. The long-term effects of such exposure are UNKNOWN at present.
In contrast to nanomaterials, conventional agrochemicals have been used for many decades. Substances like glyphosate or DDT have faced large-scale studies and periodic reviews sine the 1970s. Their acute and chronic toxicity data are well known. The large scale health study of the US government on Glyphosate with its adjuvents involved monitoring some 54,000 farming families over nearly a quarter century. The study formally ended in 2018 and established its safety (see my article in the Colombo Telegraph). In spite of such clear evidence, the propaganda against glyphosate use has been so successful that a California jury awarded billions of dollars worth damages to a gardener who claimed to have contracted cancer by using glyphosate, even though no cause and effect relationship exists. In spite of such detailed studies, two Sri Lankan medical doctors claimed that glyphosate should remain banned on the basis of the “precautionary principle”.
There had been many in-depth studies on most agrochemcials, and in many countries. Deaths from accidents, attempts at suicide using agrochemicals etc., have also given us real time indicators of their level of toxicity, and how to use them safely based on experience form over 75 years. In contrast, nanofertilizers have been available for a very short time, and we do not have reliable health-safety guidelines for these new materials.
The agricultural policies of the present government, or the previous government had been increasingly set by pseudoscience activists mesmerized by upper-class propaganda about creating toxin-free environments and food for themselves. They get their cues from wealthy environmental NGOs in California and Europe that nickname genetically engineered food as “Franken-food”. The local movement was strengthened by nationalists who equated traditional agriculture to “organic farming”, and by leftists who target multinationals like Bayer-Monsanto and become heroes in their minds.
So an unlikely combination of Colombo-7 tree-saving (“Ruk-Raekaganno”) types, wealthy lawyers pushing what they claimed to be “environmental justice”, leisurely ladies armed with half-truths and falsehoods about diets and disease, Buddhist monks like Ven. Rathana, Marxist-inspired MONLAR activists, “Natha Deviyo” inspired shamans like the late Ms. Senanayaka of “Helasuvaya”, misguided academics like Dr. Nalin de Silva and their acolytes, lined up with medical doctors like Anurddha Padeniya of the GMOA, and Sanath Gunatilleke of California. Their foreign inspiration is from figures like Stephanie Seneff and the quack “doctor” Mercola, or the anti-GMO Indian activist Vanadana Shiva who has successfully opposed the use of golden rice meant to provide Vitamin A to rice-eating Asians.
Their band wagon blamed every non-communicable disease on agrochemicals. The rise of an unusual form of Kidney disease, now believed by many researchers to be caused by geologically polluted water containing fluorides and other salts was a trump card for them. A staunch supporter of traditional agriculture (and traditional medicine) could write (quite incorrectly) that:
“Paddy and other cultivations have been done in this country for thousands of years without chemical fertilizer. During these times there were no serious CKD problems. Started using Chemical Fertilizer from 1950s and after about 20 – 30 years serious CKD problems arose”.
Prior to the 1950s, the average life expectancy of Ceylonese was less than 50 years, while today it is close to 80. The average Ceylonese of those times basically died of malnutrition, although the direct cause would have been some infection. Similarly, 10% of infants died within the year, while today infant mortality is negligible and pregnant mothers and babies are far more healthy.
Meanwhile scientists themselves had rightly begun to express serious concern over the excessive use of agrochemicals and the degradation of the soil and environment. This had begun to occur after the arrival of an uncontrolled “free” market after 1977. This was further aggravated by subsidized fertilizers. It should be noted that even then, the usage of fertilizers per hectare in Sri Lanka remained much lower than those of most countries, as seen from world-bank data. Nevertheless, given Sri Lanka’s soils and its rainfall patterns where fertilizer wash-off is a problem, proper management of agrochemical distribution and usage was needed
So, the stage was set for a rational use of agrochemicals under tighter restrictions. Instead, the Toxin-Free bandwagon set the pace. First came a ban on the popular herbicide “RoundUp” by the Sirisena government. Ven. Ratana was Sirisena’s prime mover in agriculture. This debilitated all agricultural sectors, causing a loss of at least three times the bond scam, and created the prospect of a collapse of tea exports. However, ideologically driven movements do not learn from evidence, and the present government decided to outsmart not only the Sirisena government, but all other nations, by becoming the first to “go 100% organic” by banning all agrochemicals.
That ban was imposed like a bolt from the blue in May 2021. Even the military was diverted to making compost, while shipments of “chemical” fertilizers and pesticides were turned away. That it was impossible to generate enough organic fertilizer, containing at most a mere 2% of nitrogen to replace urea fertilizer with 46% N dawned on the government planners only when their yeoman efforts failed. This had been predicted in our earlier articles, already during the Sirisena era when the threat of the so-called “toxin-free” agriculture had loomed over the country.
So, in trying to create a “toxin-Free nation” based on 100% organic, a desperate government has come to its very antithesis, i.e., very high technology that deals only with artificial materials that are beyond anything organic or inorganic. It plans to explode a cluster bomb of nanoparticles on a fragile ecosystem and an unsuspecting citizenry. The government must delay its attempt to impose an untested and unsafe agriculture based on nanomaterials when our farmers could not even deploy conventional agrochemicals in a safe and frugal manner.