3 August, 2021

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The Organic Versus Inorganic Issue: Black, White, Or Shades Or Grey?

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

The issue of “Organic or Inorganic” is lingering on, the latest complication arising from the arrival in harbor of a load of “Prilled Urea” – not the most inexpensive form of nitrogenous fertilizer. Rumour has it that it was an authorized import, which had left the shores of Indonesia, well before the issue of the Gazette banning entry. If this implies that “organic” is permissible, and worse still, that some of it has already arrived, this would be attempted “agro-suicide” (econo-suicide as well). I have drawn attention to the need to thwart such a colossal error – the consequences of which will be beyond our imagination. The circumstances surrounding such a colossal breach of Quarantine Laws must be probed, and those even remotely responsible, must invite the most severe punishment possible under the Law and any legal gaps firmly sealed.

Most issues in life (and natural processes, decidedly), are not “Black or White”, but varying shades of Grey. This is apparent even in our vocabulary. Frequent appearance of words like “moderate, balanced, mean, average, appropriate, holistic, blend, mix, optimum, fair, alternative, compromise” and many such words, are indicative of the availability and attendant power of choice. One of the best instances of economic unleashing of power, is perhaps the computer whose magical versatility, is achieved through a binary code (just 0 & 1). Our entire genetic design is through the potential of a “four-base Code”, namely Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine. These code for a “Language” expressing millions of genetic traits. The entire wealth of expression of English Literature and stored information, uses an Alphabet of just 26 letters!. The thousands of structural proteins and enzymes that comprise our body chemistry, are spelt out by some 23 or so amino-acids. A few units can still provide a wealth of options.

Working out the ideal fertilizer mix, depending on crop and circumstance is relatively simpler. Therefore, a mixture of organic and inorganic components has to be the ideal, because the “Strengths” of the two forms supplement each other very well. What the “organic” lack in nutrients, it makes up in its capacity to “ameliorate” soil in desirable physical characteristics. What the “inorganic” lack in textural improvement, it makes up in “nutrient density”. Exclusive use of one or the other, is impractical, unnecessary, economically unsound and could be environmentally damaging. They are not and should not be, mutually exclusive.

Since the advent of farming, (said to have happened about 10,000 years ago, when humans ceased to be mere ‘hunter-gatherers, and domesticated their crops), participants were probably well aware of nutrient needs of their crops. Early farming practices, must have relied entirely on Wood Ash (rich in potassium), Animal Bones (for Calcium and Phosphorus), Animal Dung and Human Excrement and Urine (for Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Progress in industrial production of Superphosphate and Ammonium derivatives, (at the beginning of the last century) provided a great fillip. Further improvements ushered in by by mining of Muriate of Potash and Sulphur as welcome changes, which heralded great improvements of productivity.

Population growth and increased food demands, impelled the developments (such as the Green Revolution), which relied on heavy input practices, including inorganic fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Abuse of such conveniences have led to their own slew of problems.

Our Paddy farmers, up until the mid-nineteen- thirties, relied heavily on organics – not least because it was logistically and economically more sensible. All around paddy farming developed a culture that was essentially conservationist and pastoral. With a strong undercurrent of Buddhist tradition. Hence the ‘production-line practices of deep- litter, battery farming methods perhaps had low appeal to the traditional village paddy-farmer. Paddy straw (excess over thatching needs), weeds scraped off the ‘niyaras’, crop residues from the bunds, loppings including those from roadside shrubs, mainly from Wild Sunflower, Suriya Kantha, (Tithonia diversifolia), Weta hira (Glyricidia maculata), Andana hiriya-( Crotalaria sp.), Weta Endaru (Jatropha sp), Eramudu (Erythrina sp) and casual weeds, maintained as roadside shrubs etc. Their loppings were generally laid in the muddy field and worked in with the first ploughings. The droppings of the ploughing and threshing Buffaloes, were an appreciated bonus.

East Asian farmers (Chinese and Japanese) used raw human excrement extensively on rice and Farm Garden crops. The material was delicately referred to as “night soil”. This made very good sense, in that the sole legitimate removals from the field, should ideally be limited to only the crop component desired – all else (including undigestible parts), should return to the field. Processing of sewer waste has since progressed very far, even in Municipal settings. The product is now an odorless, inoffensive material of an agreeable crumbly texture. This is clearly a technology of very high merit, and worthy of wider application.

There is a great need to adapt from the traditional tendency for fertilizer trials, to focus solely on the ‘return to investment’, when evolving a “best fertilizer practice”. This is virtually to the exclusion of the equally revealing concern with the pathway and efficiency of utilization. Of the applied quantity, how much is actually used by the crop, how much is immovably fixed in soil minerals, how much is lost in erosion, how much is leached beyond root accessibility etc?. As an indicator of the usefulness of such an approach, I could mention that in preliminary analyses of silt drawn from surface drains in a tea plantation, the silt had virtually the same nitrogen content as of pure urea (circa 46%)! Incidentally, a “rule of thumb” computation of replacement of nitrogen by a tea crop (Replacement Ratio), employed by planters was 8 or 10 kilos “N” for every 100 kg of made tea harvested. This should mean that the tea should analyze at 8 to 10% N. It is nearer 2%!. What does that and the silt analysis say? Tea fields are notoriously low in organic matter, the soil acidity is close to being inhospitably low. Earthworms do not inhabit many tea soils.
If the sudden change from inorganic to organic fertilizers is intended to signal a desirable shift towards systems that are less violent to the environment and less wasteful, it is commendable. Yet undue haste might be self-defeating. A desire to act ‘with’, rather than ‘against’ nature, should be admirable. Such an objective should not generate reasoned objection. But a set of practices, methods and attitudes developed over centuries, are not likely to be amenable to useful change in one or two paddy-growing seasons. Change towards an optimal, stable set of practices, even under the most enthusiastic promotion, will take time. As a well planned programme continues, there will be a steady progress towards stability. Thus it is to be expected, that as the system (particularly the soil organisms, biosphere), stabilizes progressively, and adapts to the changed conditions, one can hope that the results would be so self-evident, that compulsion certainly, or even coercion perhaps, may not be necessary.

The livelihoods of millions of our citizens are at stake. Petty biases, prejudices, expediencies and ‘intelligence or information deficits’, simply cannot be unleashed. There are several ways in which an element of sensitivity towards Nature, and evolving more sensitive /merciful/ compassionate methods with less recourse to rough and extractive demands will emerge. Such will have ready appeal for our essentially conservative farming community. They will, by nature be more responsive to traditions that conserve, rather than waste, guide rather than force, harvest rather than grab. To me, progress of movements like “Gammedda” are of immense significance. They have much to teach – the value and power of self reliance, the strength of community co-operation and the validity of prioritization at local level. Above all, a realization that true poverty is largely an inability to use the resources you have (including knowledge, tradition and skills). If Sri Lanka can position itself in the vanguard of a move towards a “Compassionate Agriculture”, harmonizing and integrating Nature’s gifts and mankind’s ingenuity, we will have bestowed a priceless gift. Even Nature would be happier to respond to gentle handling than to brutish exploitation.

In the present instance, priorities might include:

1. The establishment of collectively-owned “Green Manure Lots” of low input requiring shrubs, like Tithonia, Crotalaria, Glyricidia and Jatropha.

2. “The Dry Pit Latrine”, for Dry Zone colonists. Bio-gas generators, Compost heaps, Domestic Waste Composters.

3. Coconut waste water as a source of potassium (rich source with hundreds of ppm of elemental potassium).

4. Water Weeds, Salvinia, Eichchornia, Pistia, Azolla and Aroids. Silt from tank desilting. Composted Municipal Waste. (Mattakkuliya?).

5. Blue Green Algae and N-fixing bacteria (Nitrosomonas, Nitrobacter). Nodule forming Rhizobia.

6. Crop Rotation as an organized practice.

7. Use of Biotechnology (including emphasis on such as the use of Bacillus thuringiensis against caterpillar pests).

Attractive (Self-recommending) options are infinitely more enticing and palatable than compulsions. Enthusiastic co-operation rather than sullen compliance.

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