Sri Lanka has now woken up to the fact that the armyworm caterpillar, known locally as the Senaa caterpillar, has arrived in Sri Lanka and begun its march of devastation. This is what is known as a “Grey Rhino” event – that is, an event whose coming is obvious but totally ignored because the attention is directed elsewhere. The armyworm arrived in Africa by 2015-16 and landed in India in 2016-17. It was obvious that other neighbouring countries will follow suite.
However, in Sri Lanka scientific agriculture had been hijacked out of the agricultural and environmental scientists, and taken into the hands of NGOs and political ideologues. They usually begin their Manthra by quoting what Rachel Carson wrote in the early 1970s in regard to the consequences of the overuse of DDT in USA. They push for “traditional agriculture” without any pesticides or even fertilizers. They want “traditional” gourmet seeds that yield only one tonne per hectare in six months, instead of the hybrid seeds popular with the common farmer that yield 5 tons per hectare in four months!
Cutting out pesticides is as naive as claiming that the nation does not need an army or police because we have “universal Compassion” to all being and this should protect us from all evil. In reality, such extremes do not work, and the practicable alternative is the “middle path”. Instead, an extreme position was thrust on the Sri Lankan Government. It adopted a “toxin-Free Nation” policy and banned the well-known herbicide, glyphoste in 2015. Even a few parts of it per billion parts of water (or soil) was claimed to cause chronic kidney disease – a claim with no scientific support. Today we know, thanks to the work of scientists in Peradeniya and the Kidney specialists in Kandy that the disease is cause by consuming hard (“kivul”) well water contaminated by fluoride of geological origin.
Once such a climate of opinion is created by powerful political monks and organs of the Presidential secretariat like the SEMA (“Strategic Enterprise Management Agency”) no agricultural scientists can have the courage to ask for stocking up the necessary pesticides and propose a program of anticipatory pest control. The political thrust is to get rid of all toxins (agrochemicals) and use traditional solutions. Those invoke “Kema”, “Manthra”, traditional herbs like “Madurutalaa”, plants like Kohomba (Azadirachta indica), and using “biodynamic and telluric forces” to fight pests. Rudof Steiner, the father of Western-style “organic Farming” was a great believer in “telluric forces”. Our Colombo elites have uncritically lapped it all up and become warriors of the local “Green movement”.
The attitude that prevails today, and the attempt to link all this with a moral imperative is seen in the propaganda put out by the SEMA project where toxin-free farming is attached to morality (the project has now been abandoned, after much damage). One may find in the social media (e.g.,facebook), a short film by Nalaka Wijerathne, and other similar clips. It may or may not be connected with SEMA, but it displays the level of public mis-information and naivety that drives the “vash-visha nathi ratak (toxin-free nation)” type of campaigns.
An elderly farmer is shown to go to a stream, where he encounters a little boy fishing. He condemns the boy as “a sinner”, and washes out a 5-litre container that may be used for spraying pesticides. The farmer returns to his home. A short while later the boy passes by the farmer’s house and gives him some fish. The farmer asks, “do you want some money for the fish”? The boy says, “No, it was you who killed them”.
The implications and messages conveyed here are multiple. (i) Farmers are uneducated and do not know how to handle agrochemicals. (ii) The small amount of agrochemical residues that were in the container when added to the river water were enough to kill the fish. (iii) So, if the fish are killed, you too will get sick by using this stuff in growing food. All three items are actually grossly incorrect. Another subtle put down is the suggestion that farmers, having to kill pests (be they Kapra Beetles or Army worms) are “adharmishta” sinners.
Farmers have a fair understanding of agrochemicals, but they may misuse them, just as people misuse medication The release of agrochemicals should be done as with pharmacy products, with an agricultural technician writing the “prescription” for each farm. Farmers do not wash their pesticide containers in streams. Even if they did, a small amount of glyphosate in the tank (say 10 millilitres), when added to the river, gets diluted extensively, and also rapidly react with the green plants and algae and get destroyed. To claim that fish would be killed within a short time, as depicted by the film is complete nonsense. Claims of increased deformed births, mutations etc., in the NCP made by Ven. Ratana in a TV interview (AdaDerana, April 2018) are totally unsubstantiated and agree with the level of mutations expected from cosmic and other radiation falling naturally on the earth. A truly large chemical spill is needed for killing the fish. However, small amounts added regularly over a long time need to be tightly controlled, and this is why the sale of agrochemicals should be monitored just as with pharmaceuticals. The precautionary principle consists in control and constraint, and not in banning and banishing.
Similarly, a recent press scare claimed that common herbs like “Gotukola”, “Mukunuwenna” are laced with traces of insecticides and are too dangerous to eat. This was entirely unfounded as the writer confused maximum allowed levels for good farming practice with thresholds for health risks. The amounts found are so small that you have to eat several kilograms of the herbs everyday, perhaps for a decade, for any type of chronic illness to set in.
Today, even DDT has been re-approved by the WHO (since 2006, after much research) for domestic use. Far more advanced knowledge of pesticides, sustainable agriculture, and biotechnology at the molecular level are in our hands. Minimal but optimal use of fertilizers and herbicides by using crop rotation, no-tillage farming to cut down erosion, and soil analysis to control agrochemical inputs etc ., are routine. Instead, in Sri Lanka we have wealthy Colombo-based groups who push for traditional agriculture devoid of any pesticides and even discourage the use of fertilizers. Their justification is multi-pronged: heroic opposition to “multinationals”, unfounded fear of toxins in the food , and grand claims of Sri Lanka being “the granary of the East” when it used traditional agriculture. So, we should revert back to traditional agriculture!. They are simple solution to a complex problem, like the five lessons of the JVP of the 1970s.
According to the Bible, Egypt was the granary of the world (Genesis 41), and most ancients have such claims. According to our Chronicles, Lanka exported rice on a number of occasions. But the Chronicles themselves, and the records of rings in old tree trunks reveal a series of famines, pestilences etc., that ravaged S-E Asia regularly. However, most people have only heard of the “Baeminitiyaa Saaya”, a historic famine so severe that even the upper classes and monks had no food, and began to perish. Hence the surviving monks decided to write down the Buddha’s word, held by oral tradition up till then, on ola leaves at the Alu Vihara temple (1st Century BCE)..
Prof. Siriweera of the Rajarata University has researched and written about the precarious nature of food availability in Sri Lanka in medieval and ancient times. Even if traditional agriculture sustained a small population (less than that of Colombo today), it cannot even marginally meet today’s needs. The world’s output of “organic” agriculture remains below 2% and increasing it even by 10-fold is a challenge and creates a two-tier food system.
We should remember that in recent times, the Soviet Union and also China tried out ideologically driven “Marxist” agriculture, and produced record famines and much human suffering. China exported rice to Sri Lanka in the middle of a famine in China, hoping to be noted when China was just an international underdog. So, the occasional export of grain does not make a country a granary of the region even for that period!