Subsidizing Addiction?

‘Ware the mesmerizer he gives you flowers with his right hand and steals your gold with his left’

It was with this that I opened my article on ‘wildlife conservation’ in 1979. I was being confronted to a national extinction of the in-situ wildlife populations within anthropogenic ecosystems. In other words,  the huge diversity of our native wildlife that shared our gardens, ranging from the large Papilionid butterflies to the flycatchers, from the Osbekia bushes to the Vanda clumps, were doomed to extinction from our gardens by the indiscriminate use of agro-toxins promoted by companies, whose leaders were advising the nation on wildlife conservation. The result lies before us; our gardens are bereft of the biodiversity that they once contained.

At that time sodium arsenate was the preferred weedicide, DDT was the preferred insecticide; not only did they it destroy the biodiversity in the areas applied, but over time grew to become toxic to humans. The danger of biological magnification was clearly pointed out. This means that for a substance like DDT, if its concentration in water is one, it increases to a concentration of 800 in the microscopic plankton that live in the water. The minnows and small fish that eat the plankton have a concentration of 11,600, the big fish that eat the little fish, have concentrations to 34,600 and fish eating birds have 92,000. This phenomenon is called bioconcentration and it works slowly, affecting humans long after the time of application.  The consequences of the environmental poisoning episodes, which began in the 1960’s, it was pointed out, will be felt fifty years later. The public apathy of the increase of toxins in their living environment has compounded this trend, until we are sitting on a sea of toxins applied on our land over the last fifty years.

The claim of conservation falls on stony ground if the conservationist is also destroying biodiversity, it is much like a person who professes ‘ahimsa’ but directs a slaughterhouse.

We have approached the problem by many conceptual routes, by many disciplines, so that we have wildlife conservation, genetic conservation, soil conservation and so on. All these perspectives suggest that something is endangering the subject of their concern. For example, the wildlife conservationists will agree that there is an increase in the rates of genetic erosion with the trends worsening.  The soil conservationists will agree that there is an increase in the rates of soil erosion with the trends worsening, and the genetic conservationists will agree that there is an increase in the rates of genetic erosion with the trends worsening. What we seem not to have done is to have identified a central or fundamental set of actions, amenable to human control and, by failing to do so, have allowed the existence and even proliferation of these trends. In other words, the effect of these actions is the demise of whatever aspect of life we choose to study.

The problems that we outlined in 1978, have now come to haunt us. Today we have a population, exposed to a huge cocktail of agro toxins for over fifty years. Heavy metals such Mercury, Cadmium and Arsenic have become common in our agroecosystems, biological magnification, like the interest in the loans taken, is like a ticking clock, increasesing the risk of yet another Sri Lankan being poisoned.

As if that was not enough, now there is an assault on the soil. Soil is not just dirt. It is a complex living ecosystem, which, if abused and neglected will indeed degrade to lifeless dirt. Soil, is one of the most important components of terrestrial ecosystems, yet its value has been overlooked by most modern approaches to land development, agriculture and forestry.  To most of us soil is the stuff that holds trees up.  We see it as a solid surface for us to walk, ride or construct upon.  Our perception of its usefulness in our daily lives does not exceed much beyond providing a medium to grow our crops.  In fact modern agriculture has discounted the value of soil in providing nutrients for plants by enhancing the role of artificial fertilizer to the detriment of good soil management.

The world of soil is bizarre to us who live on the surface.  It is opaque to light and mostly solid.  Communication is by chemicals, e.g. with Pheromones or physical, e.g. with vibrations.  Movement is slow; the faster organisms like the worms are the giants of this world, tunneling through at a fairly rapid rate measured in centimeters per minute.  More common are the fungi that move by growing through the soil at rates measured in centimeters per month, or the bacteria, which have rates, measured in centimeters per year.

It is a busy world, one gram of ordinary farmyard soil can contain over 1 billion individual bacteria, over 100 million individual actinomycetes and over 1 kilometer of fungal hyphpae, notwithstanding plants like algae and animals like collembolans, nematodes or worms. The weight these organisms combined, present in the top 15cms of good topsoil can reach 10 tones per hectare.  It is this biomass, providing about 7-8 horsepower per day it is this energy that kept traditional agriculture sustainable. The entry of massive quantities of external energy (artificial fertilizers) into the soil ecosystem destroys the soil ecosystem and reduces its biomass. As biomass gets reduced the natural productivity of the soil decreases, as the natural productivity of the soil decreases, the farmer is forced to rely more and more on artificial fertilizers. A process that makes good, rich farm soil, poor.

The fertilizer subsidy program in Sri Lanka is scheduled to exceed 50 Billion rupees this year (2011), It will become higher next year and so on into the future, as we have not given any thought to agricultural sustainability. No thought to the loss of soil fertility. We are caught in a trap. We have to rely on high fertilizer demanding seed for our food production, but fertilizer is expensive, therefore to feed people we have to subsidize fertilizer.

The current subsidy in fertilizer is essentially an aid to the fertilizer industry. Applying fertilizer on an agricultural field destroys the natural soil ecosystem on which we have relied for generations. It also makes the farmer reliant on inputs of fertilizer forever, as the soil will loose its fertility. Added to this the distribution of high fertilizer demanding varieties, just to increase crop weight is another shortsighted move. As the Hon. D.S.Senanayake was fond of quoting:

“ Agriculture is not merely a way of making money by raising crops; it is not merely an industry or a business; it is essentially a public function or service performed by private individuals for the care and use of the land in the national interest: and the farmers in the course of securing a living and a private profit are custodians of the basis of national life. Agriculture is therefore affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest ….”

Does the new vision see agriculture merely an industry or a business or does it share the vision of the ‘Father’ of this nation, that is it an essential public function?  If it is a public function, it must work with the component biodiversity of farms to further the aims of providing humanity with clean, healthy food while at the same time contributing to the goals set out in international conventions such as the CBD, CSD and Kyoto protocol. Subsiding fertilizer will always make food production dependent on external inputs. How can ever become independent in food production if we have to seek money from abroad to purchase and subsidize fertilizer every year?  We will just become slaves to the fertilizer salesmen. There will never be agricultural independence on this road.

The posters, claims, advertisements of the fertilizer business mesmerize us, but commonsense tells us that this is not a sustainable path. If we destroy our living soils today by the abuse of fertilizer, at least three years are needed to build them back. If there comes a time when we cannot afford external energy, the nation will face great difficulties to produce food. To paraphrase Hon. D.S.Senanayake once again, he said : “The performance of  a Government must be measured by the larder of the poorest of its homes”

A new vision of agriculture is desperately needed, one where agriculture is affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest and moves towards goals of sustainability, self sufficiency and good public health.