By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
Enforced captivity of a lockdown has provided a chance for self-evaluation. Especially for an ageing mind to be re-assured that obvious physical decline, has not been accompanied by a corresponding loss of mental acuity – or indeed a compensatory improvement! The current debate on the ongoing crisis has been precipitated by the surprise order, that all imports of Agrochemicals should be banned forthwith. This is shocking from a Leadership who should be aware of the consequences of a similar hasty “Sinhala Only in 24 Hours” adventure. This led to a nearly three decade conflict, which possibly caused many hundreds of unnecessary deaths and permanent disabilities. It seems that since its end twelve years ago, we crave for another round! But we need to be careful. Earlier, the issues were political, now they could be existential.
It may be useful to start by looking at a few basic issues and proven facts. Most processes in Nature are cyclic and therefore stable. The product of one process becomes the raw material for the next. This proceeds to an end, which is the starting product for the next step (chain). The link could be linear (seeking to progress step-wise) or cyclic (when it fits into an ongoing process, as a link). Living processes go on in a number of cycles (Nitrogen, Carbon, Hydrologic or Energy). To proceed further, in the realm of Biochemistry, one sees the Krebs Cycle, and in the realm of Philosophy, The Patichcha Samuppada. These truths are self-perpetuating and thus sustainable. Buddhist Philosophy teaches that all compounded things (Sankhara) are Impermanent (Anicca). But within this truth, a cycle is merely a momentary relief.
The process awaiting all compounded things is disintegration. This could be by decay (aerobic, in the presence of air or oxygen) or putrefaction (anaerobic, in the absence of air). The aerobically decomposed product is generally referred to as Compost or Humus, the two words are for practical purposes, interchangeable. The nutritional value of humus is only a small fraction of that in mineral fertilizer (eg Urea has 46% N while humus is around 2%), so what nitrogen a 100 kilos of Urea supplies, will require about 2.5 Tons of compost. But the true value of compost is that it improves soil texture immensely. It improves water retention, allows roots to grow and penetrate more easily, reduces leaching of nutrients, reduces erosion, provides a congenial environment for microflora and fauna, and thus improves the overall biotic balance and amelioration. A loamy, friable soil at near neutral pH (Around 7.0 pH units), is in general a good medium for most crops. Thus obviously, the wisest approach should be to combine the textural value of compost with the nutritional value of inorganic fertilizer. Incidentally, only phosphorus (Eppawala Apatite) and Magnesium and Calcium (Dolomite) are available to us locally. A urea plant allied to a Petroleum refinery is logical. One need not worry about micronutrients, as they come in as trace impurities in mined fertilizer (eg. Muriate of potash, kieserite, Copper from Fungicides for Blister Blight of Tea etc.) In any case, even when required, they are very small quantities that are needed.
Best field practices include the lightly working in of the compost into the top layers of soil, as close as possible to the root zone. This is clearly an impossibility for tea, with its closed canopy and often steep gradients. It is common practice for tea prunings to be forked- in, just after pruning.
Within the soil, the minutest particles, the submicroscopic, nanometer-sized soil colloids, are functionally the most vital. They carry surface electric charges – mostly (but not totally) negative. Thus they attract the oppositely charged cations. A measure of soil fertility is the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) which increases with composting. Degraded soils (of poor Tea lands) have low CEC values.
It is suggested and suspected, that this issue of organic farming has overpowering fiscal and political under-currents, that have little to do with Agronomy, Science, or farming. I will not be tracked into such a discourse. Even if that were so, the introduction of this matter at this time, when the people face a tragedy is unwise and unfair. This is not a time for political games or inflated egos.
Panic reactions must yield to reason and respect hard evidence-supported facts. Even in fiscal terms, a probable failure would be drastic. In terms of Public Health it would be tragic. In terms of disturbed livelihoods, the impact will probably be no less than catastrophic.
Even now, the people who could influence events, must realize and make it plain to all, that the benefits of an agricultural system, should mean food security for all. A successful system would ensure that the Consumer gets an assured access to wholesome and affordable quality food. That the producer receives just reward. This will most likely be achievable through the optimum application of resources. This, in the present instance, will mean a judicious mix of the “organic” (locally produced compost) and “inorganic” (Mineral/ Chemical/ Synthetic).
As far as pest and disease management, good husbandry methods must be adopted to minimize the need for strong chemical pesticide interventions, the demand for which will progressively reduce when good (often Compassionate/ symbiotic/ traditional) practices, take hold. True poverty is when a people do not know to make full use of the resources that they have.
In the current context, the haste, inflexibility to the extent of ignoring solid, evidence-supported cautions is deplorable. It almost seems that the severity of our present crisis has not impacted on our collective minds.
False moves at this time would spell fiscal disaster. In terms of the agricultural populace and the lives and welfare of the millions of families dependent on paddy and field crops for their sustenance, the impact will probably be no less than catastrophic.
To develop a truly thriving and environmentally benign, land use system will be a process of evolution and will take time, devotion and commitment of all. It has to be cautious, measured, monitored, focused and purpose-oriented. It cannot be ordained by electoral or political or similarly ordained time tables.
[Since I composed this, I believe that I heard a news Item on some TV program that “Stocks of “Karbonika Pohora danatamath ratin genella”. I hope that I (or Somebody else) has got it wrong. Goodness me! If this is so, it is “Kaput” for our agriculture. When I first heard this emanating from a political goof, I dismissed it as just common or garden idiocy. But if this is true, the enormity of this Plant Quarantine Crime is unimaginable. This should be stopped – with “not merely immediate effect, but w.e.f Yesterday”.]