Two types of champions coming
forward to save our farmers


I read the exchange between Dr. U. Waidyanatha (UW) and Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe in the Island regarding the so-called plight of our farmers. What is "the plight of farmers" that is being discussed?

Nearly two dozen eminent doctors, agriculturist, chemists etc., appealed to the President against the ban on Glyphosate, a popular weed killer. Today, the farmer's herbicide has been banned, and his fertilizer has been cut by legislators who follow a vociferous majoritarian public opinion (MPO) with a fear of agrochemicals; alternative "organic" fertilizers or herbicides are not available; the farmer cannot sell his paddy because the MPO says that the rice is "full of toxins" like arsenic, cadmium and glyphosate while the mainstream scientists say, "no, your rice is good and safe"; (the weed killer said to cause kidney disease is banned, but the farmers are still falling ill; the weeds grow and the farmer has no extra manual labour; he is broke and his health is failing and he cannot sell his land and go to a healthy place because of colonization rules!

This is the plight of the farmer, also eloquently reported by Victor Ivan (7 Aug. 2016, Ravaya).

Dr. U.W is a veteran agriculturist who lives in Kandy and has served the coconut, rubber, and paddy growers for decades, dedicating his life to agricultural science. Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe (KW) is a socio-political columnist living in Canberra, Australia. As far as I know, KW is not an agriculturist. He is an articulate majoritarian public opinion (MPO) holder, while Dr. UW represents main-stream agricultural science. I am a science writer for the popular press, and lecturer in a technical college. So I stand between the two mindsets and present my observations on the controversy.

A recent Sirara-Pethikade interview (23-12-2016) of Professor Dharmawardana (a past Professor at Sri Jayawardenapura and a pioneer in food science in Sri Lanka) is also very germane to the discussion. Prof. D points out that main-stream scientists (MSS) and the MPO are often at loggerheads on matters in science policy. MSS opposed tobacco and pointed out that already in late 19th century that it was injurious to health. But the public adored the cigarette until recently, with film stars and politicians giving an image of glamour to smoking. Mainstream academics like Prof. John Yudkin pointed out six decades ago that sugar was a deadly substance. It is only now that the public is giving faint support for reducing the sugar levels in soft drinks. Mainstream scientific opinion has argued against eating meat since at least 1970. Red meat has also been classified as a class-II carcinogen by the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC). The IARC is mandated to signal a health Hazard, and not a health Risk. All open flames are fire hazards, but not necessarily a fire risk – for example, a flame in a safety lantern is not a fire risk. A health HAZARD becomes a health RISK only if people are exposed to the hazard above a threshold. Eating "too much" red meat becomes a health risk. Petroleum and diesel fumes are a class-I hazard AND a health risk. Strangely, no one has demanded their ban citing a "precautionary principle"

Thus mainstream academics have led the warning against tobacco, sugar, consumption of fat and meat. However, agrochemicals are both good and bad. The green movement began in the 1970s, heralded by Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring". It created a public mindset that is ever suspicious of all agrochemicals, and even pasteurization of milk, fluoridation of municipal water or vaccinations. That the environment is "polluted" is a common MPO. Health-food & back-to-nature websites, and the internet blogs of self-styled "alternative" medical-gurus like Dr. Mercola are very popular and extremely lucrative to the Mercola types. Some of the public are so frightened that they drink only bottled water even in modern municipalities, or install reverse-osmosis machines in their homes. They want agrochemicals banned claiming "precautionary principles". Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe's line of thinking fits this majoritarian public mindset which is not only militant, accuses main-stream scientists of being agents of agro-business. Dr. KW's accusations against UW and other scientists are sweepingly general and similar to Donald Trump's branding all Mexicans as rapists, rogues and drug dealers. KW refers to Alastair Macintosh's silly article of 1996 to take "arms against the mercenaries".

KW generalizes the discussion about mercenaries and glyphosate to cover the alleged "loss of traditional rice varieties", and in the same breath declares that the Green revolution is a fraud. Such extreme positions are standard beliefs of the lunatic fringe of the green movement, and prevent anyone from mo.unting a meaningful dialogue. Neither Macintoch nor KW is probably aware that it was the mainstream scientists at Bathalaoda who preserved the germ lines of the traditional rice varieties. Furthermore, if not for the work of the Bathalagoda and Kundasle scientists from 1920 onwards, providing food for this nation, it would have lost not just its traditional rice varieties, but a good part of its people. But that is a long story. The erroneous information probably went to Dr. KW in Canberra from Alastair Macintosh in Scotland, who got it from the Indian activist Shiva Vandana via her Sri Lankan acolytes. It is a pity that KW did not visit Bathalagoda to get the facts from the source.

It is NOT true that main-stream academics are in the pay of the agro-business. In fact, university scientists have been zealous watch dogs of environmental incursions, and participate extensively in international regulatory bodies like the WHO. Furthermore, ignoring the fact that columnists like KW will accuse scientists of being mercenaries, main-stream scientists have fearlessly come forward to defend the use of the very simplest mineral fertilizers (rock phosphate, Urea, Nitrate) and a well-known popular herbicide known as Glyphosate whose use is inextricably linked with genetically modified (GMO) foods that are now common in North America. Some 117 Nobel laureates, writing to the Washington Post on 4th July 2016 rebuked advocacy-organizations like Greenpeace for false propaganda and for funding skewed experiments designed to support their preconceived positions. Interestingly, Dr. KW comes up with references falling into the category of skewed experiments? All the available data were evaluated by the Joint Committee on Pesticide Residues (JCPR) of the WHO and the FAO when they issued their risk assessment on May 16th, 2016. Owing to the misunderstandings created by the IARC classification of Glyphosate as a Class-II carcinogen, many governments including Australia and New Zealand (NZ) reviewed Glyphosate once again. The report issued by NZ should interest Dr. KW living in Australia. NZ evaluated all the research available by 2016 and the judgment was that Glyphosate posed absolutely no health risk.

1. Report of the JCPR, May, 2016:

2. Report of the NZ-government, August 2016:

3. Review of the Glyphosate debate by Canadian Scientists:

The majority of scientists are agreed that the consumption of water from a class of shallow household wells is the cause of kidney disease and presented empirical evidence for it, and that agrochemicals have nothing to do with it. But Dr. KW is persuaded that it is glyphosate and arsenic, because a "new breed of intellectuals" (led by a psychic lady and some politicians) have said so, although so far without evidence. Dr. KW even senses a battle between "Peradeniya elites" and others! That is enough for him to invoke the precautionary principle and declare those who hold the opposite opinion to be mercenaries!

Bodhi Dhanapal

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