A brave, futuristic move that requires balancing science with tradition
By Sumudu Chamara
Sri Lanka is a country that is largely dependent on agriculture, and the country’s farming community is revered because of the contribution they give to provide food to the people. Even though that culture has changed greatly over the years, agriculture is still one of the leading sectors the country relies on, especially during the prevailing pandemic when importing food has to be limited as much as possible.
Sri Lanka’s decision to switch to organic fertilisers/farming was discussed this week on several online forums, and these discussions were joined by both local and foreign researchers and activists who shared the same opinion that organic farming is a timely need. However, they added that this is a huge step and needs to be implemented according to a proper plan which ensures a smooth transition for farmers, the environment, and the economy.
Many speakers admired Sri Lanka’s decision to become the first country to decide to go 100% organic and added that they would support Sri Lanka’s endeavours in this connection.
At an international webinar titled “The Commitment of the Sri Lankan Government to go Organic”, held on 9 June, Regeneration International Director and author of The Myths of Safe Pesticides André Leu, speaking of the Sri Lankan Government’s decision to go organic, expressed confidence that Sri Lanka will thrive, despite certain claims implying otherwise. He noted that the presidential directive regarding switching to organic fertilisers is achievable, and that it will increase Sri Lanka’s agricultural production, income, balance of trade, biodiversity, and climate change resilience.
Adding that it is important to employ an agro-ecological system, Leu said that new thinking is necessary to achieve tangible and sustainable changes.
“The presidential directive will not be achieved by using agronomists and professionals who are trained and practiced in only using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These professionals do not have the knowledge or skills needed to implement the new system as they use the same thinking. Instead, history shows us that they will actually undermine change. We need new thinking and using regenerative organic systems based on the science of agroecology to solve problems. We need to change (our) thinking to embrace the new agriculture. There are many systems using science and innovation, and we don’t need to throw away our traditional practices. There is a lot in traditional agriculture that we can build on using innovation and science,” he said.
Quoting a study done by the United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) done in Ethiopia, where the use of compost on various grounds was analysed based on the yield, he said that in every case, the use of compost achieved the highest yield compared to the use of chemical fertilisers.
During his speech, quoting researches, Leu added that regenerative and organic systems have higher yields than conventional farming systems in weather extremes such as heavy rains and droughts, and that organic matter increases infiltration and soil stability. Based on the findings of studies on the matter, he added that soil organic matter results in increased soil stability, higher yields in drought years, increased soil carbon and nitrogen, higher water infiltration, a higher water holding cap, and higher microbial activity.
Moreover, he noted that researchers have shown that organic systems use water more efficiently. He said that according to studies, the average corn yields during the drought years were 28% to 34% higher in the two organic systems, i.e. organic animal and organic legume systems, compared to the conventional system.
Some of the speakers stressed on soil management as an extremely important aspect that needs to be looked at when it comes to farming. They said taking into account the condition of soil in farming lands, which have sort of adapted to certain types of fertilisers including chemical fertilisers and farming methods, and taking measures to address this situation are crucial.
International Analog Forestry Network Founder Dr. Ranil Senanayake, who also spoke at the webinar, said that it is a challenge to change the course of a national endeavour, adding that change must be planned and supported. In his presentation, he said organic agriculture is described as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people.
“The soil is about 5% to 10% organic matter, but that is the engine that drives all of it, because the world of soil is generally being ignored by most people who drive agriculture, except people who have looked at it in detail, except people such as Nikolai Aleksandrovich Krasil’nikov of Russia who said that the principal property of soil fertility is determined by biological factors, mainly by microorganisms. Here we are talking about how much nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus come out of sand. I think we have lost our way,” he said.
Speaking of soil biodiversity, Dr. Senanayake said that 1 g of good soil may contain one to two billion individual bacterial cells, while in the same gram of soil, there are actinomycetes (a group of common soil microorganisms known for decomposing more resistant organic materials) with populations of 100 to 200 million individuals. He added that in addition, there are fungi that are present in similar numbers and often have a kilometre or more of hyphae (a long, branching filamentous structure of a fungus), hundreds of thousands of algal cells, as well as thousands of nematodes (multi cellular insects with smooth, un-segmented bodies) and microarthropods (small invertebrate animals with a exoskeleton and segmented body).
He noted that the mass of bacteria alone in the upper 15 cm of soil is about 5,000 to 11,000 kg/hectare, according to the available data, and that this accounts for a mass of about 7,000 to 14,000 kg of living organisms per hectare in the upper 15 cm of soil of forest or farmyard ecosystems.
Describing extensively the contribution of these microorganisms, Dr. Senanayake said that the daily operations of these organisms yield the power of about 20 horsepower per hectare, and that this energy goes into maintaining the productivity and sustainability of the soil ecosystem as well as its texture and stability. It is an active soil ecosystem that builds up organic matter such as humates (result of the process of humification, in which organic matter is formed from the remains of plant and animal life over a period of thousands of years) that helps hold water in the subsurface layer.
“Soil management through applied knowledge can build Sri Lanka’s soil and move to a point where the life of soil can return. But we must understand what we are doing with the soil, without just throwing compost,” he noted.
Adding that the evolution of living souls over time occurs in several stages, gradually, he said: “This is what Sri Lanka needs to do, with all the dead souls we have. We cannot expect the farmers to immediately transform; we have got to teach them how to build a soil. Also, we constantly pollute our groundwater, and our groundwater is kept reasonably clear if we have an active soil because the soil organism will help to do some of the cleaning up.”
Speaking of how the growth of roots work in a living soil, he noted that the hypha mycelium (in most fungi, hyphae are the main mode of vegetative growth and are collectively called a mycelium) network increases active root surface for nutrient acquisition up to 700 times. He added that if the soil is not alive, even if various nutrients are put into it, its response is fairly slow, but that if it is living soil, the roots can grow and acquire more nutrients.
“That is how and why organic agriculture helps move towards sustainability without losing any crop. However, we have to learn how to work with microorganisms of the soil to give us what we require (productivity). Just putting some compost or new varieties of crops is not going to make it. We have to think about redesigning the agricultural landscape to fit into the future and modern needs, and start to sensitise farmers urgently,” he added.
Chemical fertilisers industry and yield
Meanwhile, Navdanya Chair Dr. Vandana Shiva, during this webinar and another webinar organised by the National Institute of Plantation Management (NIPM), extensively described the adverse impacts of chemical fertilisers and how the fertilisers industry has affected the farming activities.
Admiring Sri Lanka’s decision to switch to organic fertilisers, Dr. Shiva said: “The reason I am glad about the approach of the Sri Lankan Government is because it connects three things, namely stopping dependency on imports, the ruination of the ecosystems and non-sustainability, and (ruination of) health. The minute we connect sustainability and health, organic becomes the only way we can move forward.”
Speaking of the importance of a collective endeavour to go organic, Dr. Shiva added that it will be extremely important as far as endangered species, climate change, health costs, and the disappearance of small farms are concerned.
Explaining the impacts of replacing organic farming methods with modern, more chemical fertiliser-based methods in the Indian context, she said that the overall yield has dropped. “Because the chemical fertilisers are killing the organisms that create soil fertility, they are in fact destroying the conditions for productivity,” she noted.
Speaking of India’s experiences, she noted that the fertilisers’ response in the last 30 years has dropped from 30.4 kg of grain per kg of nutrient to 3.7 kg. Quoting another study, she said that while only 55 kg was required to produce two tonnes of crop in the 1970s, now 218 kg is required.
“The measure of yield in any case is wrong, even when it was good enough, because yield only measures what leaves the farm or the commodity that leaves the farm. It does not measure the state of the farm or the farmer. Also, it does not measure the quality of chemically produced food, which is nutritionally empty. Not only our (Indian) data, but data from all over the world show that there is a 60% to 80% decline in the nutrients of chemically farmed food. Our studies have shown that organic matter enriches the soil with nutrients. Also, our work shows that the more biodiversity one intensifies, the more organic one can grow and the more one intensifies nutrients in food. We can grow enough nutrients to feed India two times, and I think Sri Lanka can do the same,” Dr. Shiva added.
Meanwhile, during the other webinar organised by the NIPM, titled “Regenerative Organic Farming for an Economy of Permanence and Prosperity for All”, held on 7 June, Dr. Shiva noted that organic farming is not in fact a modern method, and that it was a part of the traditional farming methods in certain countries including Sri Lanka.
She commended Sri Lanka’s decision to switch to organic farming in a context where the seed and fertiliser industries have trapped farming communities, adding: “When four companies control 60% of the seed and the same companies sell chemicals, are they going to sell us seeds that do not need chemicals or are they going to sell a seed that needs more chemicals. Of course, they are going to do genetic engineering of the seed for more pesticides and this is why going 100% organic is central to the future of Sri Lankan farmers and Sri Lanka as an amazing country has stood its ground. Nitrogen fertilisers do not stop the damage; instead, it continues the damage because nitrogen fertilisers use 10 times more water and they make the plants much more vulnerable to pests. Also, they make the cell walls weak so that more pests can attack. Chemical fertilisers actually create more pests.”
She noted that studies have been conducted on the correlation between chemical fertilisers and pests, and she claimed that the reduction of the genetic base from which new varieties are developed also contributes to pests’ vulnerability.
“Why do we always talk about Europeans eating chemical-free food? Every Sri Lankan, every Indian, and every child has a right for chemical-free healthy nutritious food,” she stressed.
“When you are shifting to a 100% organic Sri Lanka, you are turning to an economy of permanence and you are turning to an economy of prosperity for all beings, because a prosperity for all beings means we should not be driving species towards extinction. We should not be destabilising the climate and causing climate change,” Dr. Shiva said.
During the same webinar, NIPM Director and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr. Prasad Dharmasena said that after the Green Revolution, Sri Lanka’s use of chemical fertilisers has increased.
Speaking more of this change, he said: “Once Sri Lanka was a leading producer of environmentally friendly healthy food to the world via maintaining a rich and fabulous farming culture. Then in the middle of the last Century, Sri Lanka adapted the Green Revolution in favour of high-yielding farms. As part of the Green Revolution, scientists developed new seed varieties and plants which changed the way agriculture was carried out by Sri Lankan farmers for centuries in order to produce a good yield and to prevent pest attacks. Today, Sri Lanka is claimed as one of top chemical fertiliser consuming countries.”
As some of those who spoke at these webinars opined, even though Sri Lanka is taking an extremely crucial step in switching to organic fertilisers and farming from the prevailing chemical fertiliser-based agriculture, it has to be carried out according to a proper plan that takes into consideration all aspects it involves.
Even though there are various claims and doubts about the Sri Lankan Government’s plans in this connection, a majority of those who have been vocal about the matter have observed that this is a commendable move. Earlier, farmers’ groups too said that even though farmers do not necessarily oppose this move, they wanted to discuss with the Government the other practical matters the implementation of this plan involves, which includes some of the matters such as soil management raised during these webinars.
Any plan can be a success when all related matters are taken into account and when all stakeholders understand their role.