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When haste makes waste

a year ago

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  • Missteps amidst Sri Lanka’s rush to go organic
By Sumudu Chamara The Government’s plan to go organic and rid Sri Lanka of chemical fertilisers seemed to be a progressive idea that could put an end to a large number of health and environmental issues caused by the use of chemical fertilisers and at the same time save foreign reserves spent for the importation of chemical fertilisers. However, as time passes by, the country sees more failures in this regard in comparison to successes. As the farmers’ struggle to get fertiliser for their farms keeps intensifying, the controversy regarding the Government’s plan took a new turn recently, after the Government imported 30,000 metric tonnes (MT) of potassium chloride fertiliser claiming that it was in fact organic fertiliser. However, a number of experts have openly claimed that it cannot be considered an organic fertiliser.  These issues, and also the practicality of going 100% organic, were extensively discussed at a webinar held on Saturday (16). The discussion, organised by the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), Renaissance Sri Lanka, and Greenfem, was titled “Organic vs. Inorganic Agriculture”, and was the second instalment of a series of webinars titled “Building a Sri Lankan Organic Farming Model”. It was attended by MONLAR President M.K. Jayatissa, Greenfem President, Farming Consultant and Professional Farmer H.M. Premarathne, Uva Wellassa Women’s Organisation Co-ordinator K.P. Somalatha and EcoAEPCoop Board Member Ranjith Senarathne, and was moderated by Ishara Danasekara. Going organic: Government’s role With regard to the Government’s attempts to establish an organic farming culture, Jayatissa claimed that since the Government commenced this programme, a huge crisis has been created, which has now developed into an unmanageable situation. He added that considering the damage humans have caused to the earth (soil) during the past six decades, a transition period is necessary in order to change the prevailing situation, and that the Government should intervene and assist farmers. “The authorities change their stance,” he said, adding that the way the authorities deal with the situation sometimes raise a question as to whether they support organic agriculture or chemical agriculture, and that farmers have been compelled to hold protests, demanding fertilisers and toxic substances which have caused health issues for a long time.  He added: “The Government is taking decisions in a very confusing manner, and the fertilisers that are said to have been imported from Lithuania are not really organic, and are clearly more of chemical fertilisers. The Government might soon decide to allow 50% use of chemical fertilisers and 50% organic fertilisers.” Jayatissa pointed out that farmers have become so desperate that they have begun to fight for chemical fertilisers, despite the knowledge that they are harmful, in order to save farming lands, noting: “The situation is such that farmers are about to give up. When looking at the instances where farmers struggled for their rights, some of those struggles resulted in farmers digging their own grave. Sri Lanka has South Asia’s biggest kidney diseases hospital and there are many health issues (relating to chemical fertilisers). Farmers are aware of this, but they are now taking to the streets demanding the same (chemical fertilisers), which I think is not very advisable. Human history is about 150,000 years, and plants have a much older history. We have to understand that even if plants could survive chemical fertilisers, humans are likely to get affected.” Organic vs. chemical fertilisers? During the discussion, while emphasising the necessity of raising awareness among the people, especially farmers, Premarathne noted that it is through understanding the advantages and disadvantages of using chemical and organic fertilisers that Sri Lanka can embrace organic farming methods which truly benefit the country.   He added: “Understanding why organic agriculture is necessary and why we must get rid of chemical fertilisers is the key. This is where some people come up with the idea of employing a farming method that is neither completely organic nor completely chemical. There is no issue with regard to such a step, and there is no argument that it can increase the amount of harvest. However, it affects the aim of getting harvest in a sustainable manner. Ecological agriculture, or organic farming depends on the liveliness and longevity of the soil. Also, one might argue that more food is necessary in order to ensure food security. But, at the same time, we must ask the question as to whether what we need is more food or getting quality food adequately.” He stressed that the most decisive factor is not food security, but food sovereignty, and that what ensures food sovereignty is not uninterrupted services or fast access to markets, but how healthy the food is and how it contributes to consumers’ wellbeing.  He added: “In the discussion about going organic, it is important to understand how and at what point different farming methods such as organic and chemical were created. The need for organic agriculture rose after World War ll, after the world started using extreme amounts of chemicals for agricultural activities. This is tantamount to depriving future generations of their right to utilise lands and resources properly. That is why we need to put an end to chemical agricultural methods. But, that is an arduous task, and in order to create a proper environment to do that, first we need to understand what organic agriculture is.” An article by Michael Pollan, published in the Smithsonian Magazine titled “What is Eating America”, describes what Premarathne said.  “After World War II, the (US) Government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea; spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertiliser. The chemical fertiliser industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases developed for war) is the product of the Government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches: ‘We are still eating the leftovers of World War II’.” Premarathne further said that English Botanist Sir Albert Howard (known as the father of modern composting) developed organic agriculture to a certain level, and that in parallel with organic farming methods, other concepts such as farming aimed at biodiversity conservation, biodynamic farming, and agroforestry were also introduced to the world. He added: “We have to look into the core of the main differences between organic and chemical agriculture. We have to think about land sustainably, as land resources are limited and land for agricultural purposes are even more limited. The ability to use lands again and again should be sustainable. Environmental sustainability should also be taken into account, as global warming and climate change, among other issues, is also a result of industrial and agricultural activities. What is more, we have to be conscious about our values. Nowadays, in most cases, there are certifications, documents, or mere trust regarding most of the goods we purchase from the market, and they claim that these goods do not contain any harmful substances. However, if we can create a country free of goods that contain harmful substances without depending on a certification, and instead based on trust and policy decisions, that would be ideal.” Speaking on the benefits of organic farming, he added that the people, the environment, and the country are the three major beneficiaries of such a change. He discussed the issues faced by farmers, noting: “Currently, only a handful of farmers have the ability to produce food through organic agriculture, and that is due to poor management of their knowledge and entrepreneurship, not due to issues associated with these farming methods. In the Sri Lankan context, the necessary infrastructure not being designed to support such programmes, and official and relevant development activities not being aimed at achieving such, are some of the reasons. To benefit from organic farming, we have to learn about it properly. Also, we need to talk about the social benefits of organic agriculture.” Premarathna added: “In fact, to adopt organic farming methods, there are many options regardless of land size or climatic zones in which farming lands are located. Organic farming is not a challenge; however, finding solutions to the issues caused by the way we are trying to implement it is difficult.” Impacts on the environment Senarathne, who is experienced in agricultural activities in Sri Lanka’s wet zone, said that owing to the existing agricultural methods, which use astronomical amounts of chemical fertilisers, the agriculture sector in the said zone is facing a lot of challenges including a decline of harvest. Adding that there is a pressing need for attitudinal changes in farmers, as they remain sceptical about whether ecological agriculture is even possible, he explained: “However, most people who discuss the successful implementation of such farming methods express this opinion without actually doing it. Therefore, the practicality of this endeavour is extremely important. Among other crops in the wet zone, vegetables take a special place, and some say that it is not possible to grow vegetables properly without the use of chemical fertilisers. Also, some say that modern seeds cannot give good results when it comes to organic/ecological agriculture, and that it is only possible with seeds used in traditional agriculture. However, I believe that it is possible to use both types of seeds, under ecological agriculture.” According to Senarathne, among the large number of challenges faced by farmers in the wet zone, in addition to attitudinal changes, the most pressing ones are dealing with damaged soil and environmental issues. He explained: “One of the biggest challenges this zone is facing is the damaged soil which is unsuitable for organic farming methods. This is a result of the high use of chemical fertilisers, which also results in farmers having to increase the amount of chemical fertilisers they use gradually. In a context where the supply of fertilisers has been halted/limited, we are facing a challenge as to whether we can go organic. We have to understand that restoring the soil has to be done gradually. “If we look into environmental issues, we can see that soil or land degradation remains at a higher level, as the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides lead to more of a mechanical agricultural practice which damages the soil. The soil loses fertility and becomes barren, and consequently, farmers give up farming. To make matters worse, they sell these lands to various parties such as businessmen, and these businessmen fill these lands and carry out various development projects.  “Also, the high use of chemical fertilisers for a long time causes water pollution, and when people consume this water, the likelihood of diseases such as kidney diseases rises. Overall, environmental damage is a threat to biodiversity.”  A gradual, promising process Despite the unpromising situation regarding the Government’s plan to go organic, according to Somalatha, during the past few years, a considerable number of farmers and rural communities, especially women, have achieved good results through the employment of organic farming methods. She noted that this success was achieved with little to no support from the Government, and in the midst of many challenges. Adding that opposing chemical fertilisers is not enough, she added that the communities her organisation works with have proof and data, as well as a proper plan, to prove that organic agriculture is possible and is effective. Somalatha noted that the programmes they have initiated also looks into promoting several traditional agricultural technologies combined with non-chemical fertiliser farming methods/practices. She also said that going organic should not be considered something that is completely new, and that it is merely going back to the old ways of farming, which existed before the 1980s decade.  “In the 1980s decade, a lot of multinational companies introduced chemical fertilisers to the dry zone, where a majority of farming activities were done without the use of chemical fertilisers. With this introduction, the prevalence of various diseases such as kidney diseases rose, and slowly, we lost the seeds we used in traditional agriculture, which were suitable for organic agriculture. People did not want that, but the governments did that.” Somalatha described how the village-level plan to go organic started, noting: “With this, we needed to restore organic agriculture-friendly lands and farming methods. In the process of looking for answers, which included restoring the quality of farming lands, we thought about who can be selected as stakeholders for this plan, and among others, we thought women who understand the importance of this plan, are ideal. The priority was protecting the soil, saving seeds we used in traditional agriculture, and raising awareness among farmers and the public.  “However, when we tried to find a suitable market for our produce, there was no way to show that it was organic, which led us to obtaining certifications, even though the quality, i.e. organic-ness, was high. This plan is looking into creating around 300 groups that engage in organic farming from 2022 to 2025, and this could be implemented as a business.”  Describing her experiences so far, Somalatha also explained that the process of going organic has to be done gradually, while doing experiments and analysing and learning from the experiences of each stage, and that it cannot be done overnight.  “Expecting fast results would disappoint the people and lead them to give up on this endeavour,” she stressed. According to farmers’ groups, the adverse situation created by the poorly planned programme to go organic is still in a manageable state, and what is necessary is taking a step back and making concrete plans before it worsens further. If Sri Lanka fails to do that, the country may have to face much bigger crises than the adverse effects of the use of chemical fertilisers.