Colombo Telegraph

The Presidential Polls – What About Agriculture And Health?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

The common candidate was a former minister of health, and also a former minister of agriculture. His election manifesto is remarkable in the absence of any statements regarding the crisis in agriculture, health and environmental degradation, resulting in kidney disease, dengue fever and malnutrition spreading in many parts of the country. A similar lacuna is notable in the manifestos of the ruling party, and other candidates. The election manifestos are influenced by city-based political ideologues concerned only about executive power and regime change. The campaign focuses on constitutional change and claims of good governance, but ignores the more important need to re-think in terms of long term sustainable development.

In the halcyon days of the Senanayakes, agriculture was a primary concern as D. S. Senanayake was inspired by the vision of the ancient hydaulic civilization of Anuradhapura and Pollonnnaruwa. This vision was extended and ably supported by engineering visionaries like Manaperi and M. S. M. Fernando. Even N. M. Perera shared this vision and consulted these engineers when needed. There was a vision to dam every river and conserve every drop of water”, as Parakramabahu is reported to have said. Rapid clearing of forests and re-plantation with crops to feed a fast-growing population were achieved using modern machinery. Hunger has been averted and a measure of self-sufficiency has been reached, thanks to high-yielding varieties of rice that require less water, less time to grow and respond even to very small amounts of fertilizers developed by our agricultural scientists who have remained unrecognized by a public unaware of the effort at the frontier of science.

However, this vision of extensive hydraulic schemes and agriculture based on it, enlarging on the nostalgic image of ancient times ignored dangerous ecological consequences. Inded, the fall of the rice bowl in Mannar (Yodha weva), the rise and fall of Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa may have been connected with their own inherent deep-seated ecological contradictions.

Unlike in ancient times when an irrigation project may take many long years to complete, even the mighty Mahaweli could be re-routed and dammed in a decade. But this kind of very rapid movement of earth, bringing deep-seated geological layers full of salts and minerals onto the surface layers can have serious consequences. Rapid clearing of land leads to irreparable erosion and degradation of the quality of drinking water.

The specter of “chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology” (CKDU) appeared in the Rajarata in the 1990s. Since then it has silently stalked Rajarata families causing tragedy. Meanwhile, the whole country is increasingly falling under the grip of the Dengu mosquito. In the old days, when tragedy happens, evil forces, “Vas” and “Kili” (curses and pollution) were blamed. In modern societies, such problems are rapidly dealt with by the medical and agricultural professionals. Sri Lanka, unlike many developing nations, has a record of effective action controlling malaria, smallpox, TB, mumps, typhoid, whooping cough, hookworm etc.

But then, that was before every thing became highly politicized or left to the private sector and the IMF. The Eelam wars had to end before politicians took notice of CKDU. The Dengu mosquito became important only when it became a threat to Colombo itself.

US-based “environmental” NGOs and their indigenous counterparts dictate how people deal with CKDU, Dengu or Malaria even in Sri Lanka. US bans prevent the domestic use of DDT in spite of the WHO ruling in 2006, giving DDT a clean slate. Ignoring the overall degradation in the environment, quick-fix solutions have become the favorite of politicians and self-styled environmentalists who are uninformed of even the basics of environmental chemistry. But they ride the wave of public approbation based on public fear.

In December 2014, in the middle of the presidential election campaign, the Rajapaksa government gazetted a limited ban on a key herbicide, glyphosate, restricting the ban to the Rajarata. It promised clean water to its residents at an election rally. Not to be outdone, his opponent Maithripala Sirisena, a former agriculture minister who sat impotent over these problems, has apparently declared that he will ban “all agrochemicals.”

Surely, banning all agrochemicals will have a more dire economic impact on the country than constitutional revisions discussed in election manifestos. Will they at least solve the CKDU problem? Why ban fertilizers and herbicides used safely (without CKDU) in other provinces and in other countries? How are they implicated in a health problem in the Rajarata.? A rational environmental and agricultural policy based on our current population, and our need to feed them and retain a sustainable soil and water system seem to be far from the minds of our legislators or political gurus of the Left or the Right.

The attempt to make political capital out of the Rajarata CKDU tragedy began at least five years ago. Marxist groups tried to use the farmers as their pawns in their struggles. Other groups interested in “colour revolutions” moved in; they did the same in “Rathupaswela” where the water became acidic for geological reasons. Individuals as disparate as Tamara Kunanayagam in Geneva, and Rev. Duleep de Chickera in Colombo viewed Rathpaswela as a justified uprising against industrial capitalism. Meanwhile, independent nationalist groups like the “Swarna-Hansa foundation” even talked of suing the World Health Organization (WHO) for “allowing” the use of inorganic fertilizers “knowing that it is a poison”!

A free market that had removed all rational controls (even on fertilizers and drugs), together with a fertilizer subsidy scheme had drenched the soil with an unnecessary excess of agro-chemicals, asphyxiating the the soil. A healthy soil is made up of of its microorganisms vital to its health. An over-arching belief that our food and water are “unhealthy” due to excessive use of ‘agrochemicals” became partly true. In over-reacting, some looked for a naïve ban on all agro-chemicals. Claims in newspapers that Sri Lankan rice and tea were “contaminated” with arsenic or cadmium were repeatedly made, and rebutted by scientists armed with analytical data.

A WHO study, as well as independent Peradeniya, and Japanese studies of the Rajarata water surprised many in showing that there were no significant amounts of metal toxins like arsenic or cadmium, and that pesticides like glyphosate and chlorohydrocarbons etc., were also absent. If arsenic, cadmium and glyphosate are NOT found in the Rajarata water, they cannot be the cause of CKDU.

In contrast, there is now evidence that most of the drinking wells in the Rajarata have excess amounts of salts (not just common salt, but many other salts), and this aggregated salinity (called ionicity) that is not easily detected by taste has been proposed by several scientists as the most probable cause of CKDU. The origin of this salinity may be from the wash-off of excess fertilizer during the rainy season of the hill country. This is shown in the rapid rise of phosphate levels in the Rajarata tanks during its dry zone, when it is raining in the tea growing hill country.

The free-market economics of J. R. Jayawardene was applied even to fertilizers. Farmers were exhorted to buy more and more fertilizers to get more yields. But the scientific reality is that two much of a good thing becomes bad. Instead of taking one vitamin pill a day, if you take five you get poisoned. But some farmers have been found to apply even five to ten times the needed amount of fertilizer, paying very little since the fertilizers are subsidized. The high sales volumes provide profits to the merchants.

The plants and the soil will optimally uptake only a given amount of nitrates and phosphates, and any excess will get simply washed off by the rains, to be carried away by irrigation works to the more fragile ecology of the dry zone to pollute the water table. Furthermore, the earth works of giant irrigation schemes of the last four decades have moved deep-lying layers to the surface, releasing salts and minerals that contribute to the ionicity, in addition to natural “redox” processes typical of areas like Maha-Illuppallama and Padaviya.

Fortunately, a country with torrential monsoons and floods can also benefit from flooding that washes out pollution, especially in the wet zone, and occasionally in the dry zone too. Floods are an important ecological correction mechanism in environments that have been badly managed. The election manifestos are high on constitutional change and issues of financial corruption, but ignore the more important need to re-think in terms of long term sustainable development where we prevent periodic flooding as well as land erosion.

Glyphosate is a well-known herbicide that acts on plants but non-toxic to animals and humans as seen from three decades of use in the West. It is also cardinal to the technology of genetically modified (GMO) crops commercialized by Monsanto. A California doctor linked to an NGO in “battle” with Monsanto, and his indigenous partners in Colombo argued that glyphosate was the cause of kidney disease in the Rajarata. Their strong political links enabled them to get the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to agree to ban this herbicide in September 2013.

However, even the politicians soon understood that this would destroy our plantations and hopes of food self-sufficiency. The impracticality of replacing fertilizers by compost, and herbicides by hand weeding in the internationally competitive tea and rubber industries was self-evident. Switching to traditional rice giving 1/3 the harvest, and costing five times even in normal times, would shoot the price some 15-20 times, not to mention the effect on vegetables, fruits etc. The idea, if implemented, would have dire effects. The proposed ban was shelved.

The opposition to Glyphosate is purely a side-skrimish in the anti-GMO battle. A GMO technology, if controlled by a giant agrochemical company should be absolutely opposed.

Glyphosate is not the only case where the Global NGOs have influenced our policies to our detriment. We fog our environment with poisonous insecticides hoping to eradicate Dengu but fail to do so. DDT is the safe answer to get rid of the Dengu mosquito, but this goes against US policy regarding DDT (we are NOT advocating the use of DDT for agricultural use).

Elections are when promises are made. Rajapaksa offered to give clean water to the Rajarata. This has been a regular recommendation for fighting CKDU given by scientists and medical men, but eclipsed by fear-mongering calls for banning “poisonous agro-chemicals”. Such bans will crush the already imperiled Rajarata farmers, possibly leading to the end of agriculture there. Sirisena’s proposal to TOTALLY ban agrochemicals to fight CKDU is mere hypocritical pandering to public fears to gain votes.

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