Pesticides then, now and ‘toxin free’ nation


Siri Pathirana, a "Farmer from Malsiripura" has responded (1st February, Island") to my article (Island, 24 January). Mr. Pathirana recounts his memories about the poisoning of fish in a paddy field after the application of pesticides some 60 years ago (note that the word "pesticide" includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides etc., as used by the WHO).

Mr. Pathirana states that:

"This pathetic, inhuman scenario was created by multi-national pesticide companies almost sixty years ago. Most of the fauna gradually disappeared from the immediate vicinity of the paddy fields. If we use an alternative method instead of chemical pesticides, we would feel much healthier and happier as humans".

It is possible that young Mr. Pathirana had observed the consequences of DDT that was enthusiastically introduced to Sri Lanka (and the rest of the world). It was successfully used to combat a Malaria epidemic that had brought the country to its knees. It was not a case of multinationals malevolently baiting the public. The government, the agricultural and health scientists, and the public welcomed these new pesticides as they were effective, cheap and virtually non-toxic to humans. Their long-term consequences were NOT known in the 1950s. For instance, three parts per trillion of DDT in the water can accumulate in higher organisms to, e.g., 0.5 parts per million in minnows, 2 ppm in cows, and even more in mother's milk at the top of the food chain.

Mother's milk had 10-20 times more DDT than cow's milk, resulting in the 1970s push for baby formulas instead of breast feeding. DDT was banned in 1974, but the WHO now regards it safe for domestic use against mosquitoes and other pests, but NOT for agriculture. In the 1960s, 2-3 kg of DDT per hectare was applied, compared to modern pesticides using only a mere 10g/hectare. Modern pesticides are designed to quickly degrade and become harmless.

However, DDT was in many ways BETTER and SAFER than the pesticides used prior to DDT. Salts of arsenic, fluorine or plant products such as nicotine, pyrethrum and rotenone were used in the plantation sector; fungicides used mercury, copper or sulphur; herbicides used petroleum oils, tar, sulphuric acid, and some arsenites. These are truly dangerous to the environment, and toxic to humans. Dead fish were found even those days, after the application of such pre-War pesticides. But most small farmers did not use them as labour was cheap and land was available in plenty. Site rotation (e.g., in Chena cultivation) was available as an alternative for pest and soil fertility management. Farmers were happy with even a yield of one metric tonne of paddy per hectare. Some of these pesticides are still used in "organic farming", in the mistaken belief that they are "safer".

During Mr. Pathirana's childhood, and well into the 1980s, extremely toxic red lead ("rathu kudu") was used in Sri Lanka in paints, added to cement for flooring, and used as an anti-rusting on railway bridges. Creosote was used on logs and railway sleepers. Ceylon Tobacco managers, who sold a well-recognized cancer product, were held in high esteem instead of being thrown in jail. Buses and cars belching fumes full of particulate matter, from partially burnt fuel adulterated with Kerosene engulfed the road system and houses. These toxins, present in abundance are ignored, and the part per billion glyphosate is targeted by the "Toxin-Free" claimants. The bio-accumulation effect of glyphosate is negligible in comparison to DDT. Meanwhile politicians are planning to set up more and more coal plants (notorious for emitting pollutants) for power generation; Venerable Ratana has not voiced opposition to it.

When Mr. Pathirana finds dead fish in the water from pesticide applications, we see a case of "ACUTE toxicity" due to misuse of excessive application of pesticides, or due to a "chemical spill". However, what is relevant for the environment is CHRONIC toxicity. That is, toxicity arising from the ingestion of very small amounts of toxins for a long period, leading to "Chronic diseases". Previously no globally accepted standards on the "daily admissible intake (DAI) of various pesticides existed.

Today, the DAI values are well established. The WHO-FAO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) regularly updates the DAI for approved pesticides. The claim that multinational agricultural companies work hard to sell their products is true, but the regulatory agencies have been more than vigilant. Even stricter maximum allowed limits (MALs) of pesticides are enforced as good farming practice. A recent scary news item in Sri Lankan newspapers claimed (falsely) that common herbs like "Gotukola" and "Mukunuwenna" are full of pesticide residues. The reporter had confused the MALs with the DAI values. An article that appeared in the Sri Lanka Medical Association Journal (August 2018) by Dr. Gunatilleke, shows that even medical doctors may confuse MALs with DAIs and "cry wolf", claiming that parts per billion amounts of glyphosate are dangerous. The toxin levels in Sri Lankan farm produce are well below danger levels. Eating several kilos of `Gotukola' daily, for tens of years is needed to cause chronic toxicity on eating local vegetables (see Daily News. 11-Nov-2018,

Long-term studies are needed to establish ADIs, to assess the cumulative effect of ingesting small amounts of the pesticides daily. Glyphosate inclusive of adjuvants was tested continuously for 23 years on a 90,000 sample of farmers, and the results were released in November 2017. This expensive giant health study was conducted by the US Health department and found no increase in the health risks of the sample compared to the health of non-farmers.

Nevertheless, Mr. Pathirana says that "farmers need to be saved:

(a) From the 'Scientists' and 'Professors' who are paid by the pesticide companies".

The US government conducted and funded the 23-year study for transparency. There are some corrupt scientists and corrupt professors, just as in every walk of life. In Sri Lanka, politically ambitious scientists claimed that the Kidney Disease known as CKDu found in the Rajarata is caused by glyphosate and arsenic from agrochemicals. Having no evidence, they claimed that God Natha had revealed all this. Meanwhile, a team of scientists and professors, sponsored by the WHO and the government, showed that the water, soil and the food in the Rajarata had NO significant amounts of glyphosate or arsenic. This was independently confirmed by other teams of scientists.

The scientists who claimed that CKDu was caused by agrochemicals had their own agrochemicals to sell. They had their own companies, underwritten by SEMA, an organ created by politicians. Their agrochemicals had NOT been tested and proven safe. So, Mr. Pathirana's concern (a) applies to the SEMA scientists and politicians, and not to the scientists who upheld the agriculture industry with a proven record of safety, as well as delivering the food to a population that has tripled since Pathirana's boyhood.

(b) From the corrupt politicians who promote the use of pesticides despite the adverse effects visible in rural farming.

Mr. Pathirana alluded to his memories from 60 years ago as the adverse effect visible in rural farming. Is that the ONLY evidence he has? We know that over use of phosphate fertilizers leads to algal blooms and such effects. But these pale in comparison with the diesel and petroleum toxins belched out on the roads every day, compounded with plastic garbage burnt on every roadside.

Mr. Pathirana thinks that our paddy fields are full of toxins. Large numbers of egrets ('kokku') and other birds collect to eat the earthworms and other bugs that get turned up by the farmer's plough. If the soil is toxic, these organisms should be dead. In fact, the soil is rich in worms and micro-organisms, fertile, and yields bountiful harvests.

We would all be happier if the tea plantations were pristine forest, even taking an economic loss. However, tea is our last defense against the conversion of the hills into housing and hotels enmeshed in asphalt and concrete, if tea planting were made uneconomical by SEMA's maverick agriculture.

The banning of glyphosate destroyed the Maize plantations. Farmer resorted to smuggled glyphosate of Indian origin containing the worm. Now Ven. Ratana wants to kill the Senaa caterpillar using an untested Neem (Kohomba) pesticide. Such products will also kill the caterpillars of beneficial butterflies, moths, earthworms, and destroy bees essential to pollination.

Mr. Pathirana as an individual is privileged to reject the Professors and Scientists. He may embrace the monks he trusts, SEMA, and occult Natha Media as his guides. But neither he, nor the government, should impose this on other farmers who have the right to be guided by the professionals of the Department of Agriculture and the crop research institutes.



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