The Question of Fertilizers – The Island


by Dr. U. Pethiyagoda

It seems the “Going Organic” tale has lost its novelty and glamor and the deal has been “done and dusted”. Clumsy and ineffective efforts to “save face” are largely insufficient.

Obviously, the President cannot be expected to know the context to guide a correct decision on most matters within his jurisdiction. There are too many instances where a genuine mistake or misguided steps need to be quickly reversed. Square pegs in square holes cannot move! It is a pity that Our President has declared our intention to go totally organic. Apart from embarrassment, the so-called “chemical mafia” can react unpleasantly. We hope not.

But the president, under whose watch this extraordinarily short operation was launched, must expect to bear the brunt of any criticism. This coterie, (Viyath Maga) which is said to surround him and influence must be made to pay (financially too) for their sins, follies, (or crimes). I believe that caution should guide the president to review his confidence in such support. I leave it to the competence of the writers of a “New Constitution” to examine the means of preventing this type of colossal tragedy from happening again.

“Asewanatcha balanan……..” is the first injunction of the Mahamangala Sutra. In the case of the recent disastrous events in the field of fertilizers, I think it is fair to conclude that the opinion (including those who know the subject) is that it is desirable to increase the “organic content” fertilizers. Although the nutrient content is low relative to “artificial or mineral”, the mild effects on soil physical properties and soil biota are significant. But here too there are unresolved problems, such as the unintentional introduction of toxic elements.

As an aside, I was involved in a study long ago to examine the value of a two-year rejuvenation of tea fields slated for replanting, by planting Guatemala or Mana grass. (the duration varied depending on the situation), after which the new tea plants are introduced. It seemed that this rotation produced only a marginal increase in soil carbon and that too was only transient. It would have been magical if a hundred years of fertility abuse on tea could be offset by just two years on weed. I guess the ideal would be to alternate 25-year cycles. In this sense, the wise farmer would move his plot of chena.

In summary, abandon the simplistic vision of the “Vasa Visa” brigade for a dramatic and radical shift to “traditional, organic” agriculture, like an impossible, mythical and misguided enthusiasm. While the cry of 100% organic may get good press, it’s bad science.

Can the system sustain a dreaded possible loss of about a quarter drop in paddy production, with frustrated farmers vowing they would not grow next season’s paddy unless there is a reversal of this deadly and misguided overnight shift to organic? The claimed ready availability of suitable ‘compost’, both nationally and internationally, is more silly than a compost heap.

There is a much more serious implication that seems to have escaped notice. The Department of Agriculture is about a century old. As also the CRI, the RRI and the TRI and more recently, the minor export crops. Naturally, much of the experimentation was aimed at evolving best practices for maximum productivity. The main means were to evolve appropriate technologies and ensure a reliable supply of necessary inputs. Are we really serious about jettisoning the vast efforts, dedication and thousands of hours of labor and millions of rupees spent on trials to evolve the most rewarding use of agrochemicals – fertilizers, pesticides and weedkillers. Who should foot the bill for what is now becoming an astonishing act of idiocy?

The solutions proposed to overcome the acute lack of sufficient compost, and tried (at hellish cost), are silly to say the least. We are appalled by the abysmal ignorance of some in authority – (but not in service). Palliatives like “ministerial reshuffles” won’t help – they’ll just give those who failed, a chance to destroy another place! In this game, any redistribution of the same pack will not eliminate the “Jokers”.

It seems that a largely ignorant authority knows nothing but centuries-old agricultural wisdom and experience that paddy needs fertilizer at specific stages of growth, each of which is of a different composition. ‘Mada pohora’ before planting, another to encourage tillering and ‘Bundi pohora’ at heading and grain filling, etc. After much indecision, the farmers finally received the nitrogen-rich urea about four weeks too late! This too at an incredible cost! Will we ever again have ministers who, if they don’t know, are guided by these professionals who know?

The amazing methods suggested, for this self-created mess, are laughable, if they weren’t so serious. The hasty import of compost from China has led to unintended consequences, including diplomatic ones. Anyone who doesn’t realize the limitations of taking a tiny sample from a volume of several thousand tons can’t be serious. A single case of detection of a deleterious element is grounds for rejection. A needle stuck in a haystack is more likely to be detected. This is a case where a single positive out of many negatives is a reason to reject the whole thing.

We are told that several million dollars can be claimed by the supplier, whether the shipment is accepted or not. In true “Kekille Style”, a genius may decide to save money by going along with this stuff, and thus trigger a disaster for public and human health and the agricultural risk of introducing new pathogens, causing catastrophic damage. The circumstance of Chinese government involvement in the relevant supplier presents another concern.

Next, we’re going to import a huge shipment of “liquid nitrogen” (!) fertilizers (as far as I know, a material unknown to science) from India, at an undisclosed and probably huge cost. Many farmers have dismissed this foul-smelling material as containing human sewage! As a friend jokingly recalled, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to have built a massive number of latrines to meet a severe shortage. Perhaps India has solved a heartbreaking problem: finding a customer to receive the items and paying for them! Then there was an equally bizarre promise to compensate farmers who lost income by switching to organic farming. How can this be done precisely? Are we totally stupid?

All these problems created by the machinations of the evil “Multinationals”, (the British Colonials having lost their currency!).

Incidentally, anyone displaying doubts about such painful inanities is either a believer in “Pattapal Boru’s Western Science” or in the pay of evil multinational corporations. I’m a little pissed off. After more than five decades of service in the agricultural sector (in one way or another), no one, not even these terrible multinationals, showed the slightest inclination to offer me a single dollar or a rupee. Have I been wronged? But then all the colleagues I know are singularly uncorrupted and incorruptible people of irreproachable integrity. These accusations of corruption are therefore unfounded and most unjust.

This whole episode became a face-saving exercise with multiple faces to save. It’s OK if it’s free of potential damage. It is a matter of grave regret that the President (perhaps misinformed), told the UN General Assembly, (no less) that we aim to be the first in the world (or more cynically, the last ) country to go one hundred percent organic. Had such a statement been made by a more prominent head of state, he might never be safe from ridicule. We should be grateful to be just a small country whose leader’s gaffe goes (hopefully) unnoticed.

It is time for scientists to consider how best to develop a sensible strategy to achieve better integration of traditional and advanced scientific concepts. This would involve new thinking on crop rotation, biological pest and disease control, soil and water control, erosion and other undesirable but unavoidable negative environmental consequences, harmonization of responsibilities between agricultural departments and veterinary departments and the CRIs, RRIs and TRIs. There is much that could and should be done. There is no point in making donkeys bark and dogs bray. For the immediate future of rice cultivation, crop rotations, reserves for the production of good green manure crops (such as “Wal Surya Kantha – Tithonia diversifolia, Glyricidia, Ipil-Ipil and Crotolaria come to mind, the Niyaras could be more consistently used to provide vegetables, yams and “greens”.

Perhaps we can save ourselves from disaster, if it catalyzes a return to the virtues of crop rotation, fallowing, integration with animal science (grazing/forage) and fish farming. We remember with nostalgia, how during the Second World War, the rice fields were able to provide a cornucopia of fresh and appetizing vegetables.

Let’s seize this unexpected opportunity.


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