1 June, 2023


The Great and Necessary Leap Backward

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody

Ruwan Jayakody

A Great and necessary Leap Forward: This is what the Government of Sri Lanka led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sought to do through its overambitious, ill conceived and even poorly executed ‘100% organic agriculture with immediate effect’ fiasco that is already having and will continue to have a gargantuan and catastrophic impact on the farmers and ultimately the people – the consumers, who are the ultimate funders of this well intentioned act of megalomaniacal lunacy. The President’s ‘fog of war’ blockbuster plan, ever since it was abruptly announced and put into effect has met with ever growing concern and outright criticism from the political front including the Government’s own main coalition partner that said that it would take around six years for such to be implemented, the Opposition, the scientific academia and technologists, and agronomists and farmers, to name just a few such groups. As the state of affairs stands now, a ship with a massive ‘lupine warrior diplomacy’ stock (in the five digits metric tonne range) of ‘made in China’ organic fertilizer, which by the manufacturing company’s own admission may contain microorganisms (thus confirming the local findings of the samples being unsterile), costing millions of United States Dollars (in the two digits range), sans a Lankan import license, stands ready near Lankan waters, to disgorge its pathogenic cargo, once the testing by a third party ‘accredited by China’ laboratory, rubber stamps the samples that were twice tested and twice rejected by the sole legal authority with the final word on matters related to such samples containing live organisms – the National Plant Quarantine Service, and concerning which the country’s only Commercial High Court prevented any letter of credit payments from being made, with one of the connected State banks now being blacklisted by China for abiding by a Court order (So much for respect for sovereign independence). The Government’s alternate response has been to import liquid organic nano nitrogen fertilizer from India, which according to the experts, cannot fulfill its intended objective, but would in fact, coupled with other factors, precipitate a host of other issues.

This status quo is fatal as far as the most vulnerable group thanks to this entirely Government engineered crisis is concerned – the farmers who are in dire need of long overdue, adequate and quality fertilizer in the backdrop of the Maha cultivation season having theoretically, if not technically, commenced.

Perhaps a history lesson is in order for the Government leaders who seek to emulate the late Chinese Communist Party Chair Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ – the collectivized human toll of which exceeded the Shoah – and have in the process of embracing the subjugation to China’s part ‘command economy’ based surrogate brand of colonization, transformed a purportedly sovereign nation (Sri Lanka) to a comfort station (in all its assorted euphemisms) of China. A science lesson too is in order for the Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage who has sought to, in his Mendeleevian nocturnal dreams, invert the periodic table and pull off an alchemical miracle (liquid organic nano nitrogen fertilizer) from the idiot’s guide to chemistry.

In Chapter Five of the President’s National Policy Framework titled Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, under a People-Centric Economy, with regard to the Sub-Sector of Agriculture, one of the strategies is to “Promote and popularize organic agriculture during the next 10 years” whilst other related strategies refer to doing so “after an in depth review of the present policies”, and “garnering” the “Energies and capacities of universities, research institutes and the private sector”. Activities related to Increasing Land Productivity, Agricultural Modernization and A Revolution in the use of Fertilizer proposed in this regard include among others the “Introduction of an integrated soil fertility management system’, “Providing inorganic and organic fertilizer, both free of charge, to the farmers”, “Initiating a programme to produce all essential fertilizers domestically”, and the “Production of bio fertilizer and organic fertilizer of high standard using the forests and wetlands”. This is all well and good, but where is the blueprint. Acting to activate these activities is clearly what is required.

The issue is also not just one of delusions of grandeur, bad science and choosing a policy of compulsion over dialogue, but also of the prevailing political culture. In a context where a culture of polite obsequiousness and vulgar bootlicking has come to be the de rigueur of administrative governance under a Leader whose thinking labours under the facile dichotomy of aligning patriotism with constantly blind and preferably unconditional support to whatever a Government of theirs is doing, with anything short of such mental slavishness being smeared as doing a Benedict Arnold or worse still, the imaginary offence of lese-majeste, what of, one may muse, the fading pitter patter of the funeral march of principled dissent and the fate of the few principled dissenters. With the majority of the public service suffering from recurrent bouts of la petite mort (not of the orgasmic kind) or being in a state of fugue, and in the case of the advisors to the President – individuals with vested interests of commercial gain and/or political agendas, such derring-dos including whistleblowers who have had the temerity to question the political zeitgeist or have refused to follow the serpentine tune of the pied piper or have uncompromisingly sought to do the right thing, have either been hounded out from their positions through political interference or have quit in equal measures of disgust or exasperation, with their integrity and sanity intact. This is a most unfortunate predicament as these dissenters and constructive critics seem to offer a plan, with sound agri-science based underpinnings, to bring to fruition the President’s vision of ‘100% organic agriculture with immediate effect’ and have even come forward to do so, to thereby salvage the plan from what is fast becoming a cautionary tale.

There is another matter. Our farmers and arable lands bear truth to Chinese philosopher Xun Kuang/Xunzi‘s parable of turning the unpredictable chaos of disparate natural phenomena into a harmonious system of processes.

However – the year-long growing of crops on a routine basis sans crop diversity and rotation upon the understanding of weather patterns, soil fertility conditions and the national land use and ownership policy; lacunas or shortcomings in price regulations and guidelines on agri trading systems, markets and agrochemical use; the non-availability of anti-dumping measures; insufficient micro-irrigation and the depletion of agriculture aquifer water sources; gender inequities among farmers; minimal support from the private sector, donor funders, the civil society, and non-Governmental organizations; the lack of access to services on cost effective, productive farming, pest control techniques and low interest micro loans and insurance; diminished rural investments; and uneven playing fields due to oligarchies, kleptocracies in trade and markets, and corruption in cooperatives – have all contributed to both food shortages and excesses.

What is the way out or the path to food security? The answer lies in a humanitarian experiment which has to balance the conflicting visions of Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug and environmentalist William Vogt. The former advocated innovation in the form of developing high value, high yielding, biotechnologically and genetically fortified, disease resistant, traditional and hybrid seed and crop varieties and the use of artificial fertilizer – a case of more is more – while the latter proposed austerity over the destructive form of consumerist prosperity – a case of less is more.

The Government is therefore advised that a little humility in admitting to a mea maxima culpa, coupled with the adoption of an approach of cutting its losses while it is still able to and allowing the re-import of inorganic chemical fertilizer (as it is not the evil that it is made out to be) and agrochemicals, all within scientific reason, per agricultural requirement and on a crop by crop basis, with proper guidance and strict supervision for use, instead of running the risk of having to eat political humble pie would go a long way in addressing the resultant fallout. But would the pint sized brains and outsized egos within the corridors of power, in their worldly arrogance, even consider entertaining such, simply because they do not wish to be known as the volte face regime and have no qualms with tying the people to the whipping post of enforced starvation in the future. To use a different metaphor, in the instant situation, a u-turn is better than hurtling towards a cul-de-sac.

The truth is simple in that, in the same way that “All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men, Couldn’t put Humpty together again”, ‘100% organic agriculture with immediate effect’ plan cannot be, both in terms of its substance and timing, cobbled together, as if it were a mere good that is to be repaired. Hence, the introduction of a completely organic agricultural practice, if such is practically possible, should be done in a phased out, staged out, staggered, measured and comprehensive manner that takes into account all conceivable pros and cons of such a paradigm shift.

In his Nobel acceptance lecture on “The Green Revolution, Peace and Humanity”, Borlaug emphasized thus: “there now are available materials and techniques of great potential value for expanding the green revolution into additional fields of agriculture. But to convert these potential values into actual values requires scientific and organizational leadership. Where are those leaders? Where are the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular?”

Let us be reminded then, of the task ahead.

A Great and necessary Leap Backward: Only this can prevent the Government’s deadly obsession with ‘100% organic agriculture with immediate effect’ from perpetrating an act of agricultural terrorism on domestic soil.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    President only knows how to Kill, not to grow!
    This is what 6.9 millions wanted him to do?

    • 4

      They all wanted a HITler and now they have got HIT.

  • 4

    I remember a few years back, a middle east returnee not being allowed take a few apples she had brought for her children by the customs. The rule of not permitting plants & even some cooked food into a country is universal due to the possibility of alien diseases entering the country & effecting the agriculture. In this context, how dumb it is to import organic ‘fertilizer’ without testing? Who is responsible? The country is bankrupt, even unable to import necessities but the govt. has wasted scarce forex reserves on possible harmful bacteria laden ‘fertilizer’ which could devastate our crops. Was it incompetence, ignorance or corruption? Whatever the reason, someone should be held responsible & the buck stops with the stupid Minister of Agriculture.

  • 3

    Dear Raj-UK,
    Yes, there are very great risks in importing harmful bacteria into our soil. This report of the return of the ship, after a name change, must give rise to serious misgivings:
    That’s a 4-minute video of Indian origin.

  • 1

    April 29 2021.
    Will this day be remembered for the announcement of a death knell for Sri Lanka?
    Or can the damage, already wrought by it, be reined in, even after six months?
    Six months of an outpouring of contrary opinions and warnings and desperate pleas by farmers, agriculturalists, scientists, etc.
    I am only able to access the English language press but that is more than enough to convince me that the abrupt, total jettisoning of artificial fertilizers, etc., is an enormous error, which will wreak havoc in our country, already beset by so many other problems.
    Most probably, GR does not read English newspapers or articles, but does he even read Sinhala ones? And if not those, either, don’t his advisors?
    Who has set him upon this course?
    Have any of them come forward, publicly, to present their arguments for this decision?
    Or challenged the opposing, scientific reasoning that we have been exposed to for months, and which demand answers from the organic fertilizer battalions? If, indeed, there are so many urging the President not to go back on his word.
    President Gotabaya!
    WAKE UP!

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