Difficulties in reverting to traditional Agriculture, or adopting organic farming


Anti-science zealots have called for an immediate return to "traditional agriculture", and the "banning of fertilizers" etc.,  without realizing the implications of such actions. The zealotry has been fueled by the fear that our rice is unfit for consumption because of the alleged presence of parts per billion Cadmium or Arsenic. Encouraged by all this, pro-LTTE groups are ready to claim that even our renowned Ceylon tea is polluted! We need to stand by our farmers without abandoning them in their hour of need.

I pointed out in previous articles (e.g., 10 th September) that "traditional" agriculture (or the more promising "organic agriculture"), is unlikely to feed 22 million people unless a land area 4 to 5 times larger, and five times more irrigated water are used. As pointed out to me by a Lankan-Canadian scientist, the harvest data from the  Ministry of Agriculture, Ceylon, for the years 1920-1935 reflect the yields from traditional agriculture, when no special seeds or agro-chemicals were used. 

 A more promising approach than reverting  to ‘traditional’ methods is to develop `organic’ farming. These involve multi-cropping where the different plants support each other against insects, and even supply some fertilizer by nitrogen fixation. However, actual field demonstrations have shown the complexity of this laudable approach (it is especially difficult to apply for rice which that grows in inundated fields as a mono-crop, unless very special rice varieties are used, as in Japan). Hence, after many decades of effort, especially in advanced countries like the USA, less than 0.3% of the produce comes from organic farms. They focus on organic meat, selected grains (excluding rice), selected fruits, vegetables and vine. Such ‘health food’ is usually much more  expensive and will take many years, if ever, to become mainstream.

Nevertheless, it seemed that Mr. Ranil Senanayke was confidently claiming that the rice needed in Lanka can be produced organically with NO increase in acreage, NO extra water, and NO agro-chemicals.  It  seemed a done deal. I asked him to just give the yield per hectare from his organic rice plots, or those known to him. His response suggests that he actually has  NO trial plots. He has NO optimized lists of co-supporting plants  cultivated with the rice paddies which are presumably mono-cropped in water. He has no cost figures as he may not have grown even one grain of organic rice.

Instead, he produces a reference to a mathematical-model (a mere prediction) by some American scientists who use globally-averaged numbers! Even the reference is wrongly given (wrong year), and accessing it is beyond most readers of the Newspaper. If they accessed it (paying about ten pounds sterling), they would find that some 300 case studies from the 0.3% farming output is extrapolated to 100% using two mathematical models. The authors admit of numerous highly optimistic assumptions. There are passing references to rice, including the reference to some previous exaggerated unrealistic claims for SRI (system-rice intensification) that was shown to be genetically and energetically untenable. Most SRI-yield figures (e.g., in India) are about 1/2 the standard rice yields.

So Mr. Senanayke  seems to follow the Kandyan saying "Kathaava Dolaaven. Numuth  Gamana Paiying" (i.e.,  talk as if  traveling in a Palanquin,  in regal style, while dragging on foot like a wretch).

We do not reject organic farming methods. They require perhaps half a century more of research effort, as was with the agro-chemical approaches. Until then,  to present organic farming as being available right now is like Marie Antoinette asking people "to eat cake if there is no bread". 

Finally, I wish to revisit the issue of contamination in our food. It is often stated that the WHO-sponsored study of Kidney disease in the Rajarata

was "inconclusive". In reality, it has several very clear conclusions. Namely, (i) The nails and hair of CKDU patients showed accumulation of Cadmium and Arsenic. (ii) However, some 250 samples of water tested showed that the water was clean to within a few parts per billion, and hence the soil and sediments of the water streams and wells must be clean. (iii) Male farmers were more prone to CKDU, while the vegetable farmers were the most prone, being 26% more susceptible than rice farmers.

Clearly, we need to train our farmers, especially the vegetable farmers,  in the use of agro-chemicals. That should be much easier than training them in the complexities of "organic farming". Those who fear the Cd or As contamination in rice should  cook their rice in a large volume of water, then throwing away the water half-way through, and finally adding the needed amount of water to finish the cooking.


Bodhi Dhanapala

Quebec, Canada.

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