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The great and necessary leap backward

a year ago

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A great and necessary leap forward: This is what the Government of Sri Lanka led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sought to do through its overambitious, ill-conceived, and even poorly executed “100% organic agriculture with immediate effect” fiasco. Said fiasco is already having and will continue to have a gargantuan and catastrophic impact on the farmers and ultimately the people – the consumers, who are the eventual funders of this well-intentioned but terribly executed act. The President’s “fog of war” blockbuster plan, ever since it was abruptly announced and put into effect, has met with ever growing concern and outright criticism on the political front. Objections came in from the Government’s own main coalition partner that said that it would take around six years for such a plan to be implemented, the Opposition, the scientific academia and technologists, and agronomists and farmers, to name just a few such groups. The Government’s alternate response has been to import liquid organic nano nitrogen fertiliser from India, which according to the experts, cannot fulfill its intended objective, but would in fact, coupled with other factors, precipitate a host of other issues. This status quo is fatal as far as the most vulnerable group is concerned – the farmers who are in dire need of long overdue, adequate, and quality fertiliser in the backdrop of the Maha cultivation season having theoretically, if not technically, commenced. Perhaps a history lesson is in order for the Government leaders who seek to emulate the late Chinese Communist Party (CPP) Chair Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” – the collectivised human toll of which exceeded the Nazi Holocaust. A science lesson too is in order for the Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage who has sought to, in his Mendeleevian nocturnal dreams, invert the periodic table and pull off an alchemical miracle (liquid organic nano nitrogen fertiliser). In chapter five of the President’s National Policy Framework titled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, under a people-centric economy, with regard to the sub-sector of agriculture, one of the strategies is to “promote and popularise organic agriculture during the next 10 years” whilst other related strategies refer to doing so “after an in depth review of the present policies”, and “garnering” the “energies and capacities of universities, research institutes, and the private sector”. Activities related to increasing land productivity, agricultural modernisation, and a revolution in the use of fertiliser proposed in this regard include among others the “introduction of an integrated soil fertility management system”, “providing inorganic and organic fertiliser, both free-of-charge, to the farmers...initiating a programme to produce all essential fertilisers domestically”, and the “production of bio fertiliser and organic fertiliser of high standard using the forests and wetlands”. This is all well and good, but where is the blueprint? Acting to activate these activities is clearly what is required. The issue is also not just one of delusions of grandeur, bad science, and choosing a policy of compulsion over dialogue, but also of the prevailing political culture, where dissenters within the Government and constructive critics are branded unpatriotic or evil. This is a most unfortunate predicament as these dissenters and constructive critics seem to offer a plan, with sound agri-science based underpinnings, to bring to fruition the President’s vision of “100% organic agriculture with immediate effect” and have even come forward to do so, to thereby salvage the plan from what is fast becoming a cautionary tale. There is another matter. Our farmers and arable lands bear truth to Chinese philosopher Xun Kuang/Xunzi’s parable of turning the unpredictable chaos of disparate natural phenomena into a harmonious system of processes. However, the year-long growing of is crops on a routine basis sans crop diversity and rotation upon the understanding of weather patterns, soil fertility conditions, and the national land use and ownership policy. Lacunas or shortcomings in price regulations and guidelines on agri-trading systems, markets and agrochemical use, the non-availability of anti-dumping measures, insufficient micro-irrigation, and the depletion of agriculture aquifer water sources also hinder the farmers. Among other challenges are gender inequities, minimal support from the private sector donor funders such as the civil society and non-governmental organisations, the lack of access to services on cost effective, productive farming, pest control techniques, low interest micro loans and insurance, and diminished rural investments. The uneven playing fields due to oligarchies, kleptocracies in trade and markets, and corruption in cooperatives – have all contributed to both food shortages and excesses. What is the way out of this predicament and towards food security? The answer lies in a humanitarian experiment which has to balance the conflicting visions of Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug and environmentalist William Vogt. The former advocated innovation in the form of developing high value, high yielding, biotechnologically and genetically fortified, disease resistant, traditional, and hybrid seed and crop varieties and the use of artificial fertiliser – a case of more is more – while the latter proposed austerity over the destructive form of consumerist prosperity – a case of less is more. The Government is therefore advised that a little humility in admitting to a mea maxima culpa, coupled with the adoption of an approach of cutting its losses while it is still able to and allowing the re-import of inorganic chemical fertiliser and agrochemicals. All this should be done within scientific reason, per agricultural requirement and on a crop-by-crop basis, with proper guidance and strict supervision for use, so that instead of running the risk of having to eat political humble pie, it would go a long way in addressing the resultant fallout. But would those within the corridors of power even consider entertaining such, simply because they do not wish to be known as the volte face regime and have no qualms with tying the people to the whipping post of enforced starvation in the future. To use a different metaphor, in the instant situation, a u-turn is better than hurtling towards a cul-de-sac. The truth is simple in that in the same way that “All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men, Couldn’t put Humpty together again”, the “100% organic agriculture with immediate effect” plan cannot be, both in terms of its substance and timing, cobbled together, as if it were a mere good that is to be repaired. Hence, the introduction of a completely organic agricultural practice, if such is practically possible, should be done in a phased out, staged out, staggered, measured, and comprehensive manner that takes into account all conceivable pros and cons of such a paradigm shift. In his Nobel acceptance lecture on “The Green Revolution, Peace and Humanity”, Borlaug emphasised thus: “There now are available materials and techniques of great potential value for expanding the green revolution into additional fields of agriculture. But to convert these potential values into actual values requires scientific and organisational leadership. Where are those leaders? Where are the leaders who have the necessary scientific competence, the vision, the common sense, the social consciousness, the qualities of leadership, and the persistent determination to convert the potential benefactions into real benefactions for mankind in general and for the hungry in particular?” Let us be reminded then, of the task ahead. A great but necessary leap backward: Only this can prevent the Government’s deadly obsession with “100% organic agriculture with immediate effect” from perpetrating an act of agricultural terrorism on domestic soil.

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