25 November, 2020

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Restoring Sustainability To Sri Lankan Agriculture

By Ranil Senanayake

Ranil Senanayake

Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka maintained a massive highland soil ecosystem that was untouched until the advent of the colonial experience. The rice farming soils as well as the agroecosystem was a co-evolved system that maintained its production potential for literally thousands of years. History demonstrates that the great soil capital of this nation was lost with the advent of colonial plantation agriculture and the advent of ‘modern agriculture’ destroyed the remaining productive potential of our farming soils.

To appreciate this loss and the consequent dependency on chemicals to farm, the action of the soil ecosystem should be appreciated. Farming and forest soils are very energetic ecosystems. It has been estimated that a gram of good farmyard soils can contain about 1 billion individual bacteria, over 100 million individual actinomyctes and over 1 kilometer of fungal hyphae, notwithstanding plants like algae and animals like collembolids, nematodes or worms. In total these microorganisms add up to about 7-11 tons of living matter per hectare in the top 15 cm of soil. It is this living matter providing about 6-10 horsepower of free energy per day that maintained the fertility of our traditional agriculture. These soils did not require anything more than small additions of organic matter to maintain its productivity and the farmer was able to provide that through traditional practices without external inputs.

During the early part of the 1960’s when there was a great emphasis on developing our agriculture, it was noticed that the yields were lower than our neighboring countries. The reasons were, poor seed and heavy weed infestations. The School-weeding program instituted in the late 60’s was recorded by National Geographic to increase yield by 200 % by simply weeding the fields at the right time by hand. With the advent of the ‘Green Revolution’ that promoted chemical and high-energy input farming systems, our farmers lost their ability to independently manage their farms and over the years and generations, lost their indigenous farming knowledge and practices.

Paddy RiceThe farming community was not unaware of the dangers. In 1998, the Sri Lanka Farmer Forum comprising of over 320 delegates, in their statement to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR ) observed that the current trends in agricultural research were creating a “complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence” . This was an early indictment of this trend, and astutely observed by our “uneducated” traditional farmers.

It demonstrates an erosion of our traditions and of our humanity. Today, much of the traditional rice agroecosystem has disappeared to pave way for new varieties and management measures. With this new ‘vision’ the quantity of toxins sprayed into the environment begins to increase and the component of fossil energy used in agricultural production continues to rise.

The reason for this change stems from an ecological axiom that states “the flow of energy through an ecosystem tend to organize and simplify that system”. The more energy that is applied to any ecosystem the more simple it will become. Thus the application of fertilizers and agrotoxins into the soil will tend to reduce both the biodiversity and biomass of that soil. As this gets reduced so does the capacity of the soil to be productive, creating a vicious cycle that finally results in complete dependence of external inputs to maintain productivity. A process clearly demonstrated by U.S. agriculture that has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on a steadily increasing rate of energy input to produce a unit of output. In the United States the energy return from corn crops went from a +3.70 energy return for each unit invested in 1945 to -2.50 by the year 2000. This has led to the comment that in the US “all the energy one derives from eating comes from oil”.

The way forward to restore the soil and agricultural practices of Sri Lanka must have two features. One is the re-training of farmers on the management of their lands without a heavy energy and toxin input. The other is to build back the fertility of farming soils so that the natural productivity is re-established. Unfortunately there is no plan for transitioning towards optimal production with little or no external inputs, and the ignorance of that practice, has led to the guardians of our agriculture policy, planning and implementation to just rely on the distribution of more of the addictive fertilizer.

Further, when soil looses its tree cover and the inputs of organic matter to feed the living organisms within the soil, the fertility goes down, and the overall plant health of the soil looses its cohesive strength.  The loss of cohesive strength accelerates erosive processes which is brought about through the loss of soil binding agents. Both macroscopically and microscopically .

The macroscopic binding agents are the roots of plants and plant compounds.  The microscopic agents are the bacterial gums, polysaccharides and humates.  With an increase of chemical reliant intensive farming there is a corresponding loss of soil microorganisms that provide cohesive strength to soils. The result is, erosion in wet weather and an increase of dust during dry weather. The worst state results in landslides and heavy erosion of soils.

One critical aspect in the transitioning of the agricultural soils from energy dependent to sustainable, is building up the soil biota. Just stopping the application of artificial fertilizers along will not do. The soil organic matter and the soil biota have to be added to the soils in a sequential system that creates a robust soil ecosystem.

There are many approaches to this aspect. One is the addition of composts and deep rooted plants, another is by inoculating with cultured soil bacteria, and the third approach is by incorporating ‘green manure’ that is grown as a preparatory crop before tilling. In addition there are many commercial companies and farmers in Sri Lanka and abroad with a long experience of soil building and organic production.

Thus it seems useful to gather the existing experience in ‘organic’ or sustainable agriculture in South Asia and from around the world and develop a national program for the restoration of productivity to our agricultural fields and movement away form ‘fossil dependent agriculture’.

Further there are many examples of farms in Sri Lanka that have moved away from the chemical farming regimes to organic farming regimes with no loss of crop. There farms should be studied and a comparison between these and current farming practices be conducted.

Change we must, but it needs to be done in a judicious manner, incrementally, building our farmers to the goals espoused by the Hon. D.S.Senanayake in his book “Agriculture and Patriotism”.
“ Agriculture is not merely a way of making money by raising crops; it is not merely an industry or a business; it is essentially a public function or service performed by private individuals for the care and use of the land in the national interest; and farmers in the course of securing a living and a private profit are the custodians of the basis of the national life. Agriculture is therefore affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest and its status is a matter of national concern calling for deliberate and far-sighted national policies, not only to conserve the national and human resources involved in it, but to provide the national security, promote a well round prosperity and secure social and political stability.”

Thus one of the first recommended actions is to begin a national consciousness raising program. The real connection between food and health should be reinforced. Along with a national school wide education program and an adult education program via media.

The next will be to support the creation of models within each agroecosystem. Ideally this work should be done by a committee consisting of Agriculture Ministry, Department, NGOs and farmer groups.

In parallel there should be the encouragement of companies who provide biological inputs for Sustainable agriculture and for companies who market or export ‘organic products’.

There should be a liaison between the EDB, Sri Lankan Standards Institute, organic certifiers and SLAB in the matter of certification of toxin free products.

There should be an a program in the energy accounting of our food production, where the amount of external inputs required to raise a unit of product will be reported on.

We have caused much damage ourselves, by not only poisoning the soils and killing all life that depended on our rice ecosystem, but also selling poison filled foods and feeding our children and our parents toxins that make them sick and weak. Perhaps this is why the Buddha identified the ‘selling of poisons’ as a trade to be avoided.

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    Ranil – Hopefully someone in the new administration will (at least) be concerned enough about some of these environmentally-related subjects you are on about. However, I wonder if any of them read CT, and if so, if they will even be bothered about “sustainable agriculture”?

    First a radical change in the mindsets of those in charge will have to be made and then followed up with tangible steps to educate the ‘agriculture sector’ about what they are doing to degrade our soil and water – not to mention poisoning themselves and others.

    A ‘school’s programme’ should be implemented immediately so that the next generation will have a better chance of surviving what increasingly looks to be a ‘poisonous’ future, with soil, water and air qualities deteriorating at exponential rates.

    Paradise lost???

  • 1
    1

    LAst govt had about 10 agricultural ministers. So, it was Arndi hath denage Kenda heliya”.

    Those days, Kings had to prepare for the war. So, they focused on making the country self sufficient in foods.

    Now a days, Politicians are focused on Commissions and Political donations, and winning the elections. bureaucrats are following them and cheat, steal and ruin the system.

    So, we import even chillie and potatoes.

    Now, for a decade or so, since the CBK govt Sri lanka from time to time produce Rice more than what we can consume. But, they don’t have a strategy to store it, export it, to produce other foods from it and to encourage the farmer etc., etc.,

    Only thing they do is if something goes wrong for some reason, blame the previous govt.

    Even the appointment of the Agricultural minister or in that sense any minister is for political reasons and not because of what he can do.

    It is the same with newly introduced pests in agriculture, uncontrolled use of pesticides and the connection to kidney diseases, uncontrolled use of fertiliser and now they may be introducing new varieties and species which will destroy the existing genetic stock.

    Most of the time, Grade 10 failed politician makes the decision on these issues. So, we are here.

  • 1
    0

    An excellent example of how to cover up what the importers and distributors of seeds and pesticides carry out to destroy the the indigenous food production. What you have written is rubbish.
    Look at what works. And look at what makes profit for the companies which import GM seeds and fertilisers and pesticides. Tobacco cultivations destroyed our soil. And now the introduction of seeds with no self germination would do the same.
    Unless we come up with a way of counteracting the Agri-companies nothing will come out of your suggestions. And what about our suicide seeds act? What have we got to say about kidney disease and glyphosate? Your article distract us/ reader from the real issues and proposes sure failures as solutions. good luck!

  • 1
    0

    Bala, you seem to be thoroughly confused about what this post is about. Do read it again and let us know what you are basing your statement – quote:

    ” An excellent example of how to cover up what the importers and distributors of seeds and pesticides carry out to destroy the the indigenous food production. What you have written is rubbish”.

    As far as I am aware, Ranil Senanayake has been repeatedly ‘warning’ successive governments about all the matters you are questioning him in the final paragraph of your comment.

  • 0
    0

    Ranil Senanayake.

    What you say is so scientific and well researched. It gives such hope to Sri Lanka and mankind in general. The best place to collaborate with on this is Burma.

    But is the agriculture ministry actually into any of this? And we are supposed to liaison with India in this? Alas! India is with USA. If we don’t buy the USA GMO-agriculture technique (via India), everybody know what will happen to us. Too much of US agriculture is currently tied up in the NCY Wall-Street stock exchange.

    We have to get together a strong team of our agriculture scientists, and convince USA to bring the traditional organic agriculture to fore. The key towards the US is, to show strength, tenacity, candor, and conviction. They might listen, and gradually change their ways.

    Ps. we should donate our bodies towards the creation of organic soil.
    http://www.urbandeathproject.org/phone/index.html

  • 0
    1

    ” It has been estimated that a gram of good farmyard soils can contain about 1 billion individual bacteria, over 100 million individual actinomyctes and over 1 kilometer of fungal hyphae, notwithstanding plants like algae and animals like collembolids, nematodes or worms. In total these microorganisms add up to about 7-11 tons of living matter per hectare in the top 15 cm of soil. It is this living matter providing about 6-10 horsepower of free energy per day that maintained the fertility of our traditional agriculture. These soils did not require anything more than small additions of organic matter to maintain its productivity and the farmer was able to provide that through traditional practices without external inputs.”

    And yet, this living matter, so vital to the health of the soil, is only a small fraction of the total inorganic matter in the soil. If the inorganic matter disappears, as it does with time, the organic matter dies. The ancients knew this, and so they moved from Chena to Chena , burning the forest as they moved, creating inorganic ashes.

    That was fine when the whole of Lanka had at most 2 million people (usually much less). Even then famines were common, people had malnutrition. Even the Buddhist scriptures were translated into Pali at Aluvihara because the Monks feared that even the monks would die out with the prevailing famines. Mosquitoes and insects were plentiful. But only the dry zone was accessible in those days as they did not have many iron tools.

    But today we have not 2 million, but 22 million people in SL, and the numbers are increasing as we write. So don’t talk about the colonial legecy.
    Chena cultivation is not possible because there are no forests to burn and move on — because the forests have been cut down to make human habitations. Dr. Senanayake does surely notice that the earth is encrusted with a monoculture – humans, that has changed the whole game.

    Dr. Senanayake forgets that you cannot any longer make compost to replenish the soil, because that inevitably releases methane, nitrogen oxides and other green-house gases. The global warming is already a reality. Even if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough compost to go around to feed all the “organic” farms. You cannot use — should NOT use — traditional seeds or traditional farming methods as the ancient varieties may take twice the length of time to ripen, need much more water, and also fall down into the water as their stalks are weak, give poor yields being insensitive to even compost, etc. Such crops would need several times the arable land that we have for cultivation. His organic agriculture is a pipe-dream for feeding just the ultra-wealthy upper classes who want “organic food” while the odinary many would be thankful even for a cup full of canjee made out of boiled card-board.

    So, scientists have invented new varieties of rice, produced a green revolution, new technically advanced methods of agriculture, etc., etc., and are struggling to cope with the continuing human deluge.

    But dr. Senanayake and others of his ilk still thinks that old the Rachael-Carsonist ecology that he grew-up with in the 1970s is still the way to go, and criss-crosses the Island following an illusion based on half-truths that he takes to be whole truths.

  • 4
    0

    The comment by Mr.Dhanapala illustrates the ignorance that agriculture suffers from at the moment. It also demonstrates a simplistic appreciation of history and of agriculture. The rice fields are not chena, no one moved their rice fields from place to place, some have been used over and over for many centuries . Yes, In Chena creation people moved from from place to place and they destroyed the living soils by burning, that is how the large patnas that dotted our hills were created. Now that our population has increased we need to produce without moving and burning, thats what sustainable agriculture is all about.

    As a promoter of non -sustainable agriculture completely controlled by the multi nationals and oil companies, Mr.Dhanapala would like us to be dependent of the multinational corporations for our future. I doubt many share his zeal in this matter. In his ignorance he thinks that compost produces greenhouse gasses but he seems to have no idea of the volume of greenhouse gas production of his high fossil energy subsidized agriculture. Obviously he has missed the point that this trend of energy dependency is :

    “clearly demonstrated by U.S. agriculture that has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on a steadily increasing rate of energy input to produce a unit of output. In the United States the energy return from corn crops went from a +3.70 energy return for each unit invested in 1945 to -2.50 by the year 2000.”

    As for farmer awareness, consider the statement made to the CGIR by the Sri Lankan Farmer Forum in 1998. :

    “We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.”

    So perhaps he can drop the ‘Monsanto’ thinking that corporations will feed the world and begin to look seriously at ‘Sustainable Agriculture’ as a way forward for our agricultural independence.

    Forget the 70’s. Time to grow up into the new millennium with the new data available to us !

  • 2
    0

    So well researched and documented by Ranil!

    As unprofessional in these things, I can only say that Chena cultivation created secondary forests at least, to replenish the soil within a span of a decade or so. Nowadays, the tendency is to take, even that land, and convert it to light and heavy industrial land.

    After colonialism, many foreign people came to our shores and increased the population by a few more millions. They built European type dwellings and industry on our land, and that roused up the mosquito population (if there were mosquitos before, the Native people knew how to deal with them).

    As per the 22 million people, they are hardly due to newly born creations, but only have the virtue of being actually counted, compared to a time of a few decades or so and before, when it was impossible to count people scattered all over hills, farms, villages, and forests, and as beggars on the roads……..Sri Lankan might indeed have had that amount of people throughout. (European cities with plague were used as counting technique, rather than that, that existed for salubrious climes of Sri Lanka)

    If there were famines in previous times, it was a fact of nature throughout the world. It was never enough to have people migrate and colonize other places like the Europeans did.

    It can never be used as an excuse to promote the GMO industry for the sake of short-term monetary gains for the Elite, and in the absence of will, to maintain our traditional farmlands. Nowadays there is so much scientific technique and knowledge, and as Ranil says: “Time to grow up into the new millennium with the new data available to us.”

    We need to either open up more arable land and encouraging organic farming, or we’d be left to use the unfortunate GMO Monsanto system on the ever-diminishing farm-land, at the expense of our health, the health of our children, and their progeny to come, and general time-honored factors that promote natural earthly-civilization.

    The would-be arable land is to be used for manufacturing trinkets for the global markets, for the sustenance of the American dollar……American dollar that came about because they destroyed the Native Indian knowledge of the soil. There is very little that can be done for their soil, other than to grow high yields with petro-chemicals, in the remaining areas; also arable land is being used up for ethanol production.

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