The harvest of the six-month chemical fertiliser import ban

By Sumudu Chamara

Bringing to an end months-long disputes, uncertainty and protests, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage yesterday (24) announced that the Government has decided to renege on its plan to establish a 100% organic farming culture, and make chemical fertiliser available as before. He also said that the gazette notification issued in this regard in April will be revoked. 

However, Aluthgamage stressed that despite this decision reversal, the Government’s policy with regard to creating a green agriculture will remain unchanged.

In fact, the Government’s policy to go organic was never the main issue, and it received the support of a significant segment of activists and farmers who have spoken about the matter. What has begotten a number of issues after the Government’s plan was announced, was the lack of a proper plan to make that policy the reality.

Adopting sustainable and flora and fauna-friendly agricultural practices is becoming a more pressing need every year, as world hunger, exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on agriculture sector-related industries, keeps intensifying. To end hunger, the world needs more food, but to ensure good health, what the world needs is healthy food, and the world is facing a challenge to meet and balance these two needs.

How the food we eat, and the way that food is grown, affects our health has been an interesting but never-ending discussion, and in a context where what scientists have found and what people say in this regard bear vast differences, these discussions will continue to remain the same. However, modern science has presented credible findings based on decades of studies about plants, humans, and fertilisers which can shed some light on what aspects of the food-growing process can affect our health.

When the decision to stop the importation of chemical fertiliser was announced in April this year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that the health sector has pointed out that the effects of chemical fertilisers have led to a number of non-communicable diseases, including kidney diseases, and that the expenses to treat those patients and the negative impact on human lives caused by chemical fertilisers was high.

That is also the notion most people hold about chemical fertiliser, which inevitably leads the people to believe that chemical fertiliser is always detrimental and harmful to one’s health, and that non-chemical fertiliser, or organic fertiliser, is a better option as far as health is concerned. The purported basis of the Government’s decision to go organic was also the above-mentioned notion, and when discussing the adverse effects, mainly diseases, and the use of chemical fertiliser in the Sri Lankan context, chronic kidney disease (CKD) of unknown aetiology (CKDu), plays a key role. However, in a context where certain prominent experts – including local expert; some of whom have called the notion that chemical fertiliser is poison a myth – have strongly opposed the widespread idea that chemical fertiliser is responsible for a wide variety of diseases including the controversial CKDu, understanding the true nature of the relationship between chemical fertiliser and diseases, and what benefits replacing chemical fertilisers with organic fertilisers can bring about is vital.

Chemical and organic fertilisers and health: Popular opinion vs. facts

While the term chemical fertiliser (also referred to as inorganic, synthetic, artificial, or artificially manufactured fertiliser) refers to fertiliser refined to obtain the necessary nutrients, with the latter mixed in specific ratios (sometimes mixed with other substances or fillers as well), organic fertiliser (also referred to as natural fertiliser) refers to fertiliser that has been obtained from natural sources in almost all cases and has been processed minimally with little to no added substances or fillers, which keeps the necessary nutrients in their natural form as much as possible.

International farmers’ groups claim that the processes of manufacturing chemical and organic fertiliser have a great deal to do with the notion that chemical fertiliser harms human health and that organic fertiliser does not. The misconception that anything artificial is bad and anything natural is good, according to them, has led people to believe that the outcome of fertiliser is dependent on the process of manufacturing fertiliser.     

As far as the expected health benefits of organic fertiliser are concerned – i.e. not leading to the health complications chemical fertiliser is said to cause – experts say that sometimes, more than chemical fertilisers, the amount of chemical fertilisers used is the pressing concern, even though there is an erroneous idea that irrespective of the amount, chemical fertilisers can affect soil, plants, and humans (when food produced using chemical fertiliser is consumed) negatively. 

This has been noted by certain local farmers rights activists who have spoken with The Morning, and they allege that farmers putting more fertiliser than the approved amount, and in some cases, putting fertiliser more frequently than the approved number of times, thereby expecting a yield of high quality or quantity, is also a major issue that needs to be addressed.

Moreover, fertiliser overuse has been identified as a cause of soil pollution, and also, depending on the excessive amount used, it may lead to groundwater contamination. However, according to them, whether the consumption of such water can lead to health issues, and the severity of such health issues, have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. According to some, nitrogen, a nutrient commonly found in chemical fertilisers, is an example of this. They claim that most nitrogen applied to plants runs off into waterways, and according to Dr. Bill Schlesinger at the Duke Nicholas School of Environment (quoted by Leaf and Limb, a US-based tree care firm), nitrogen runoff can “render drinking wells unusable in some farming communities, and it can also encourage excessive plant growth, known as algae blooms, in streams and rivers”. 

With regard to consuming food items grown using chemical fertiliser, health and agriculture experts noted that there is a plethora of misconceptions about this; the most prominent one being that such food items can be poisonous in the long run. They noted that this is a vague statement, because the extent to which the composition or nutrients of food items can be affected by the type of fertiliser used to grow it can vary, and also depends on a number of other factors such as how much fertiliser (nutrients) the plant can absorb and how many nutrients and other substances remain in or enter the produce. 

In addition, repeated applications or overuse may sometimes result in a toxic buildup of chemicals such as arsenic, uranium, and cadmium (in the soil), and these toxic chemicals can enter fruits and vegetables.

Chemical fertiliser-health issues relationship

Even though CKDu is the most discussed disease attributed to the use of chemical fertilisers in Sri Lanka, international researchers suggest a large number of diseases, some of which may even lead to health complications more severe than those caused by CKDu, and overall, it is accepted that chemical fertiliser poses a risk to human health and contributes to the development of chronic diseases, in addition to its harmful effects on animals and plants.

The health effects of chemical fertilisers are diverse and serious; some researchers have found that their direct toxic effect (experienced by farmers, plants, and animals), and also indirect effects (through food or water contaminated with such fertiliser) have been found to cause a large number of health issues. However, since the circumstances under which people, plants, or animals are exposed to these fertilisers can vary, assessing their impact on health is a complex matter, according to them.

A study conducted at the Warren Alpert Medical School of the Brown University in the US, suggests the substantial role of nitrosamine exposure in Alzheimer’s disease (a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills), diabetes mellitus (a disorder in which the body does not produce adequate amounts of or respond normally to insulin), and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) (liver inflammation and damage caused by a buildup of fat in the liver), and that this exposure comes from a chemical reaction which occurs between nitrites and secondary amines or proteins and causes deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) damage, oxidative stress (a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between the production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species), and also lipid peroxidation (a process under which oxidants attack lipids containing carbon-carbon double bond/s), especially polyunsaturated fatty acids [PUFAs]). These, according to the studies, lead to increased cellular degeneration and also death.

Other studies, namely, “Nitrite in Soils: Accumulation and Role in the Formation of the Gaseous N Compound” by O.V. Cleemput and A.H. Samater, and “Nitrosamines and Pesticides: A Special Report on the Occurrence of Nitrosamines as Terminal Residues Resulting from the Agricultural Use of Certain Pesticides” by P.C. Kearney, note that while nitrite is used in all processed and preserved foods, it is used heavily in fertilisers as well and is a major component of contaminated water. In this context, researchers suggest that steps should be taken to eliminate the use of nitrites in food, and to reduce the nitrate levels in fertiliser and water used to irrigate crops. In addition, employing safe and effective measures to detoxify food and water prior to human consumption is also recommended.

These findings have been corroborated through a number of other studies that paid attention to the role of chemical fertilisers in Alzheimer’s disease.

Toxic concentrations of cadmium and aluminium in the soil due to the use of chemical fertilisers, according to some researchers, also play a considerable role in Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, chemical fertiliser can also increase the risk of developing cancer, and can affect brain development negatively. Findings of a 1994 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin in the US, suggest that typical concentrations of nitrate, which is a common fertiliser as well as a pesticide, in groundwater, can affect the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems of young children and developing fetuses. 

Moreover, a study by W.P. Porter, W. Jaeger, and I.H. Carlson, attributes high levels of sodium nitrate in groundwater with the prevalence of gastric cancer, and another study by P. Kristensen, A. Andersen, L.M. Irgens, A.S. Bye, and N. Vagstad attributes the same to testicular cancer.

In addition, the consumption of food produced using chemical fertilisers can affect humans in other ways as well. For example, the excessive or long term use of chemical fertiliser, according to researchers, can change the soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) scale, which can then disturb beneficial microbial ecosystems and even cause the release of greenhouse gases.

When it comes to organic fertiliser, there is very little research about how or whether it can affect human’s health in ways that chemical fertiliser does. However, there are a large number of studies that suggest that the use of organic fertiliser, especially the use of substandard fertiliser and overuse, may affect soil fertility and may even poison the soil, which in turn affects the quality of food. However, they are less likely to cause any health issues in humans.

According to researchers, even though contaminated (chemical fertiliser mixed) water and food grown using chemical fertilisers cause direct, short-term, or long-term health issues in humans, it can also result in similar issues through physical contact or inhalation. They may range from mere skin irritation to severe health issues caused by poisoning. Health experts also say that among other chemicals, nitrates, which can be extremely dangerous when in high levels in humans, cause poisoning, and that nitrates lower the ability of red blood cells to deliver oxygen in the human body.

In such events, being aware of which fertiliser the affected person was exposed to, how it happened (through inhalation, ingestion, or physical contact), the amount of fertiliser the affected person was exposed to, and when and at what time the contact took place, are of grave importance for medical professionals in order to treat the affected person promptly. Most importantly, being aware of and informing medical professionals of any health conditions or diseases the affected person may have, is crucial for treatments.

According to the health and wellness knowledge portal Healthline, in such cases, recovery depends on several factors including what type of fertiliser the affected person came into contact with; how much of fertiliser was inhaled, ingested, or touched; and how much time had passed since the exposure before medical assistance was sought.

In order to minimise the adverse impacts of pesticides and fertilisers, the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, in its summary for policymakers titled “Environmental and Health Impacts of Pesticides and Fertilisers and the Ways of Minimising Them: Envisioning a Chemical Safe World” recommends incentivising healthy and sustainable consumer choices and consumption, fundamentally changing crop management and adopting ecosystem-based approaches, promoting nutrient circularity, using economic instruments to create a level playing field for greener products and approaches, promoting the use of direct finance to encourage sustainable agriculture, adopting integrated and lifecycle approaches for sound pesticide and fertiliser management, strengthening standards and adopting corporate policies for sustainable supply chain management, enacting comprehensive national policies for fertilisers, filing information and knowledge gaps for effective fertiliser and nutrient management, strengthening global policies on the sustainable and safe use of fertilisers, scaling up the training of all relevant stakeholders in fertiliser and nutrient management, and ensuring that suitable and affordable fertilisers are accessible.

With regard to the discourse on fertiliser and produce, in addition to the above-mentioned recommendations, Sri Lanka needs to pay more attention to sharing information and knowledge about what people eat and how they are grown. Most of the time, what people get to hear are blank and vague statements about how food, whether it was grown using chemical fertilisers or organic fertilisers, can be good or bad, and very little is said about exactly how it can be good or bad. The result is, people having to follow what the authorities say with or without adequate knowledge about what they were and are told.

Such steps are extremely important when it comes to taking informed decisions pertaining to chemical fertilisers and organic fertilisers, and also food items, because the healthiness of using fertilisers is connected to a large number of other factors, some of which have nothing to do with its chemical or organic nature.