Whither ‘toxin –free nation’?


By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

The Toxin –Free Nation Project implemented by the Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA) is an excellent example of ‘how not to do it’! It, commenced with great fanfare soon after the ‘Yahapalana’ government secured power in 2015, but is now being disbanded, following a cabinet decision in July this year. The Secretary to the President by his letter dated 14th Sept. 2018 has instructed Chairman of EMA for disbandment. Failure both in strategy and institutional performance was clearly the cause, but then who is accountable for the colossal loss of billions of public funds?

‘Toxin –free agriculture’ simply means ‘organic farming’ and is conceptually permissible, if the farmer and the country are both benefitting. Organic food is a popular fad among the rich, though far more expensive than conventionally –grown food. There is no guarantee, however, that organic food is toxin free: some organic pesticides are as toxic as the conventional and heavy metal contents are sometimes reported to be higher in organically grown crops! Organic agriculture cannot, however, feed the world or our nation, even in the distant future, in that there are no organic technologies to match the conventional agricultural ones. The whole world has yet only 1% of cropland in organic farming of which the bulk (66%) is in pasture (for the ‘filthy’ rich to eat organic stakes!), and the balance in food and horticultural crops. In this scenario, why did the government give so much prominence and resources to this project, when agriculture, at large, is highly under-funded?

Although the project was run under the guidance of the President, there were fundamental errors in design, strategy and activities from the inception. Firstly, the project was established under a separate agency, totally overlooking the Ministry and the Department of Agriculture (DOA). A Buddhist monk, without a formal training in science or agriculture, was the chief project implementing strategist. So committed was he, however, to the project, that in his brief presentation at its inaugural ceremony, he had remarked that the toxin free concept is " my meditation, my religion and my mother"! The chairman of the organization was no better for the job! Though a highly qualified engineer, he too was a misfit being ignorant of basic agricultural principles often displayed in his writings to the newspapers and in the publication on ‘Toxin-Free Nation’ of which he was apparently the chief author! Clearly enthusiasm and commitment are two vital attributes for success of any endeavour but knowledge is the key.

Blunders were committed throughout its implementation. The ‘Toxin- Free Nation Agriculture Policy’ document that was widely distributed was full of erroneous statements, and it was obvious that specialists in the disciplines had not been consulted in its preparation or at least for editing prior to publication. The three following examples tell it all: firstly, it states that "both Sri Lankan experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) have found the cause of this illness (CKDu) to be the mixing of brackish waters with sub-standard fertilizers and agrochemicals". This is a totally false statement in that there is yet no evidence to implicate any agrochemical in the causation of CKDu . Secondly, it states that " legumes such as urid, mung, gingelly, millet, maize, chickpea, cowpea etc. should be planted to replenish the nitrogen in the soil." Surely, gingelly, millet and maize are not legumes! Thirdly, it is argued that farmers respond to conventional agriculture to "obtain bigger yields and greater profits; to obtain yields quickly and easily; to reduce labor costs and to feed his addiction to agrochemicals" Surely, is there anything wrong in getting quick and higher yields, and reducing costs? There are many more howlers in that document! The point is that it had not been done by competent professionals, and apparently, large stocks of it remain undistributed.

Billions of public funds were poured on ‘the ducks back’ and according to the grapevine much was also misappropriated. For example, as per the grapevine, three salaries were drawn by the chief on three fictitious senior cadres amounting to over Rs 2 lakhs per month! It is reported, for example, that in 2016, Rs 80 million were allocated for the project, in addition to which Rs 5million were spent as salaries and recurrent expenditure and Rs 4 million for the Toxin –Free food Exhibition held at the BMICH.

A major activity of the project was production of organic matter for which it was planned to grow one billion Gliricidia plants. On 21st October, 2016 the first few Gliricidia sticks were reported to be planted ceremonially by the President and key players of the project at Trincomalee. The joke is that to date 999, 999,996 sticks yet remain to be planted!

Three fertilizer concoctions labelled ‘Pivithuru Pora’ 1, 2 and 3 were manufactured from rotten vegetables from Dambulla and other places also with other unrevealed additions, probably microbes, at a factory in Jayanthipura. It was sold to farmers at Mahaweli System B and tested in their fields. The writer and several retired Directors of the Department of Agriculture under the guidance of some Mahaweli officials of the area visited it in Maha 2016 and met a large group of farmers who keenly showed us their fields. The paddy growth was satisfactory about 6 weeks after sowing. However, one smart farmer whispered to us that at the 4th week, despite the application of Pivithuru Pohora as recommended, the crop turned yellow, a clear indication of nitrogen deficiency; and they surreptitiously applied urea! When questioned why they were so secretive about it, they remarked that they were promised a much higher price (Rs 48/kg ) as organic paddy by the daughter of a leading politician from Polonnaruwa and her lorries collected paddy last season too! That much for organic farming! Subsequently, this fertilizer had failed again and farmers were paid millions in compensation.

The Pivithuru Pohora was also tested in statistically designed field trials by the DOA at Aralaganvila Research Station during two consecutive seasons but in none was there any response to the fertilizer! A further microbial fertilizer (Biofilm Biofertilizer) claimed by the producers to be effective, and even highly promoted by SEMA at its website, too had failed in trials at the Rice Research and Development Institute, Batalagoda; and it was reported that even an unsuccessful attempt had been made by the experimenters to surreptitiously apply chemical fertilizer in the night when it became evident that there was no visible response to the microbial fertilizer! The night watchers had detected it! Was the related investigation hushed up?

One of the reasons for deterioration of the institution was the removal of six key officials from time to time by the chief apparently, merely to keep his personal secretary happy! The writer knows at least two of them as good performers in their previous engagements!

In conclusion, the government has blundered by overlooking the views of experts and the main stream scientists in vital decision making. Apart from this programme, the banning of glyphosate is another blunder committed without consulting the Pesticide Technical Advisory Committee comprising a comprehensive representation of scientists from all agricultural research organizations, apart from other professionals. This blunder too has cost billions to agriculture of this country. It was reported that when the glyphosate issue was discussed before the final ban in 2015 a highly reputed senior professor of chemistry from Peradeniya University, was shouted down in front of the President by the above –mentioned priest, when the professor attempted to argue against the ban!

Technological decisions should be made by technocrats, and this government has made costly mistakes in not doing so. It should be wise for the government, even at this late stage, apart from the Economic Council, to establish a technology commission along the lines of the Indian one to make vital decisions in technology, rather than leaving it to Buddhist priests and politicians!

At least learning from mistakes is good, but who will bear the colossal cost of the mistake?

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