The President unveiled a three-year program put forward by the agriculture minister, promising a “toxin free nation” based on ”wholesome agriculture”. The minsters as well as Ven. Athuraliye Ratana are acting with what they believe are the best interests of the people. That “modern agriculture” is responsible for an alleged deterioration of public health is a common belief among the more affluent “concerned individuals” all over the world, and not just in Sri Lanka. This is often coupled with proposals to return to “traditional ways” of doing things, and opposing genetically modified foods “at all costs”!
What are the most important toxins consumed by the public? The very day that the “Toxin-free nation” was heralded, a newspaper reports that “Mountain-Dew” has been approved for Sri Lanka. We already have Coke, Pepsi, etc., and local carbonated drinks, all containing at least five table spoons of sugar per cup! They contain high amounts of phosphates and other additives. Sugar is a major toxin that causes innumerable illnesses like diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, cancer, allergies etc. But no one is ready to ban sugar. It is “traditional” to consume whole-fat buffalo curd and palm “treacle” and other “traditional” Sri Lankan deserts based on treacle. In ancient times, ordinary people lived at subsistence level and ate rich food rarely. Thus corpulence and a big belly, known as a “ping bandiya” were signs of aristocratic bearing and high status!
Another class of ubiquitous toxins is spewed all over the country by diesel and motor engines and even by kerosene cookers. These are class-I carcinogens in the World Health Organization list, i.e., they definitely cause cancer. These toxins accumulate in the fatty layers of the body and cause chronic diseases. But we use the largest fraction of the national income to import these toxins and vehicles, instead of using electric vehicles and trains. We are even going to use coal-fired power in this “toxin-free nation” and please the Indians who sell coal!
Having spent millions for petroleum and vehicles, we create huge traffic jams on highly polluted roads. The people in these vehicles and outside breath the fuel tainted-air while in traffic jams. They become impatient and generate adrenaline, an anger hormone that shuts off insulin and pumps up the blood sugar. Even those who only drink plain tea and Kola-Kaenda (leafy-broth) eventually get their diabetes from the traffic, even without sugar! The minister’s plan to create a “Toxin-free nation” ends right inside his super-luxury Mercedes Benz!
Even the tobacco industry accepts that tobacco and even second-hand smoke are class-I carcinogens. Shouldn’t one ban tobacco outright, and destroy the tobacco plantations? Instead we put horror-show pictures on cigarette cartons and sell them with ghoulish glee to collect big taxes! Some five trillion tobacco butts saturated with toxin are tossed out the world over annually,, and Sri Lanka’s contribution per head is outstanding!
It is not only cigarette butts that are thrown out with such little thought. What happens to the flash-light batteries (“torch” batteries), used batteries as well as old cell phones, computers, toys, watches, hearing aids, fluorescent bulbs, medical gadgets and a myriad other electronic devices? What about dead computers and monitors, TV sets printers etc? They are ultimately tossed into the garbage. But they contain Cadmium, lead, gallium, indium, antimony, arsenic, mercury, transformer oils, old paint cans, and a whole host of dangerous toxins. All used up batteries, dead computers and dead electronic equipment, unused paint etc should be returned to the seller who should arrange for the technically correct disposal at the wholesale ware house. Until then, you can forget about a “Toxin free nation”.
The English invader opened taverns in every village in the late 19th century to subdue the “natives”. The natives had observed temperance or consumed weak-alcoholic drinks like toddy. But today, taverns have been replaced by ubiquitous drinking holes and night clubs. They sell not just alcohol, but narcotics and mind-altering Crystal-meth, K2, Spice, Flakka etc. The country is awash with such toxins. So an “intoxicated nation” talks of getting rid of “agro-chemicals” while drunkenly hitting at an
imagined fly when it is already in the tiger’s mouth.
It is easy to blame “agro-chemicals”, and Big Business than cut off sugar, petroleum, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. However, do we have a case for cutting agro-chemicals? Agro-chemicals are most used in the mono-culture of the tea plantations where the soil has become acidic enough to have a pH of five! However, we are importing artificial fertilizer and exporting tea; and it makes some sense as long as it makes a clear profit, employs people, and makes no one sick. No one has found significant levels of toxins like Cadmium, Lead or Arsenic in tea, although tea uses the same fertilizers and herbicides (like glyphosate) as used for vegetables and paddy. But eventually nothing will grow in such abused soil.
Ven. Ratana’s campaign was triggered by the rise of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDU) in the Rajarata. The irresponsible “Naatha-Deiyyo myth”, put out by a so-called “Dean” of science who claims that science is in fact an unmitigated fraud, claimed that the Rajarata is poisoned by Arsenic from “imported fertilizers”. CKDU was identified around 1992 and the number of patients has steadily increased. Doctors and scientists have not been able to unequivocally link CKDU to known medical causes, or agro-chemicals, petrochemicals, geological or other contaminants. However, they have proved that there is no toxic arsenic in the Rajarata water, soil or food. It has also been tentatively identified that residents who consume house-hold well water (rather than flowing water in canals, rivers or water from reservoirs) contract the disease, and programs to provide clean water have been launched.
Chemical analyses of the soil, water and food have NOT revealed any relevant toxins from agrochemicals. An outcry against the herbicide glyphosate has been created, but the presence of green algae in tanks, rivers and even in shallow wells shows that even traces of the herbicide glyphosate are absent. Yet the herbicide has been banned by the Sirisena government, the only government in the world that has heeded such hysteria (first launched in California!).
The claim that “imported fertilizers” contain dangerous toxins like arsenic, cadmium, etc., has been rejected by the import controllers. The locally produced Eppawala phosphate has more arsenic ( 23-27 parts/million of arsenic) than the maximum allowed limits (MAL). If the final concentration of, say arsenic, in the soil AFTER the fertilizer is spread is less than the MAL, then the so-called “contaminated” fertilizer can be safely used. The public does not often realize that the environment naturally contains a certain amount of toxins and that is one reason why we have MALs.
Organic fertilizers made by repeated composting of leaves can have dangerous amounts of metal toxins like Cd and As as plants bio-accumulate them. The ancients solved this by “chena cultivation” where the plantation is moved from place to place and used large amounts of water for weed control. Such practices are no longer possible in a densely populated country.
The Dadabbha Jathaka tells of a hare hit by a falling fruit. The hare cries that the earth at its end, the sky is falling, and starts a stampede of animals. But a lion halts them, and investigates the cause of the panic. The Jathaka story teaches the need for rational investigation. The “Toxin-free Nation” policy directed at agro-chemicals under the “anusaashana” of Venerable Ratana is an effort that misses the major toxins affecting the public. It is not the traces of agro-chemicals that even chemists find hard to detect, but the tankers of petrochemicals burned in the country, the kilos of sugar burnt in the body, the alcohol, drugs tobacco and meat that are freely consumed that poison us.
*The author was instrumental in launching the first food chemistry programs in Sri Lanka,, four decades ago, at Vidyodaya University. Today it is known as the Sri Jayawardenapura University, and boasts of a full-fledged department of food science and food technology.