Groundviews

Agricultural Madness

(Photo credit: Claude Dupuis, IDRC-CRDI)

The current  ‘development’ madness that affects agriculture also prevails over agricultural research and does not bode well for this nation.  It begins with the fact that, young agricultural scientists have to find support for the projects that will ensure their career from the only available source, the ‘chemical agriculture’ companies. Thus they are forced to carve out their futures supporting the only system that they have been trained in. In this way agricultural science in Sri Lanka has largely ignored the knowledge and wisdom that had guided our agricultural traditions for the last three thousand years or more.  Although politicians and bureaucrats, in search of money or foreign jobs, have been insensitive to this destructive process, farmers have regularly questioned this approach to agriculture:

For instance, in 1998 a meeting of farmers convened by the CGIAR (Consultative Group in Agricultural Research) to ascertain the farmers viewpoint of agricultural development, submitted the following statement.

“We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us.  We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security.  In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence.  We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world.  We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input.  We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed.  The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia.  The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence.  In addition we farmers, producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings.  The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide related death toll on the planet.  Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us?  We think not.  We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.”

The statement was listened attentively by the top agricultural scientists from the around the world.  Hopefully some were sensitized to these realities and are addressing the stated problems internationally. But for us in Sri Lanka, what has transpired?  From 1998 to 2012 have any of the stated problems eased? Has the rate of pesticide poisoning gone down? Do we have a national campaign to sensitize our rural population on the dangers of pesticides? Have we reduced the huge volumes of toxins being applied on the country? Have we instituted a monitoring system for pesticide residues vegetables to protect the citizen’s health? The answer to all these questions is a resounding no!  We need to ask why?  Could it be a result of a lack of interest in creating a healthy and sustainable agriculture for this nation?

It is patently clear that agriculture must begin to look at the long-term health of the consumer, the energy cost of production and maintenance of biodiversity as three clear goals of the production system. In a fossil fuel energy deficient country like Sri Lanka, a national composting program and a reduction of external inputs should be instituted, but this cannot be done without a planned, phasing exercise. Just giving a farmer a bag of compost without the requisite seed and knowledge’ is a recipe for disaster,

The other major concern as stated by the farmers is the rush to get our farming systems addicted to fossil energy.  The statement that current trends in agricultural research were creating a “complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence” is an indictment of this trend.  ‘  It demonstrates an erosion of our traditions and of our humanity.   Today, much of the traditional rice agroecosystem has disappeared to pave way for new varieties and management measures.  With this new ‘vision’ the quantity of toxins sprayed into the environment begins to increase and the component of fossil energy used in agricultural production continues to rise.

In today’s world, energy accounting must accompany economic accounting or dealing with the relative value of goods and services.  It allows for predictions of change in state of ecosystems as well as trends in cultural changes.  For instance, the ecological impact of increasing energy input into any ecosystem has been well documented.  In any ecosystem, an increase in the flow of energy tends to disrupt that ecosystem. Field studies on identified agricultural systems at various levels of organization have confirmed the loss of original stability following a large influx of fossil energy. Studies of insect communities have shown that pest outbreaks are characteristic of systems with lowered species diversity, requiring the application of ever increasing quantities of agrotoxins to obtain a good crop

Thus an increase in the input of energy to an ecosystem does provide a measure by the model of agriculture can be evaluated.  In heavily energy dependent industrial agricultural systems, the natural or biological system has been dispensed with and an artificial environment has been created to allow production.  While it can be argued that such systems of production is sustainable as long as the inputs are provided, it raises biological questions, for this system is clearly not sustainable in a biological sense.  It also raises economic questions, especially in regard to input costs and subsidies.  Further, this process has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on a steadily increasing rate of energy input to produce a unit of output. In the United States the energy return from corn went from a +3.70 energy return for each unit invested in 1945 to -2.50 by the year 2000.  This has led to the comment that in the US  “all the energy one derives from eating comes from oil”. Is this where we are heading towards  ?

While sunlight provides the primary source of energy for agriculture, the present levels of productivity are biased on a technology, which is totally reliant on fossil fuels. In Australia for example, by1988 two billion liters of fuel oil were being used every year for agricultural production.  This is not accounting for the other inputs such as fertilizer etc.

In Sri Lanka getting farmers addicted to fossil energy seems to be regarded as a good thing. There is no plan for transitioning towards optimal production with little or no external inputs, just the distribution of more of the addictive fertilizer. Concomitantly, no subsidy given to farmers who opt to generate their own fertilizer, however there is great interest in maintaining the massive fertilizer subsidy of Rs.50 Billion and increasing it. 50 billion is a lot of money, there is no questions raised as to who receives it, nor what commissions are paid to keep us addicted

Change we must, but it needs to be done in a judicious manner, incrementally, building our farmers to the goals espoused by the Hon. D.S.Senanayake in his book “Agriculture and Patriotism”.

“ 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 farmers in the course of securing a living and a private profit are the custodians of the basis of the national life. Agriculture is therefore affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest and its status is a matter of national concern calling for deliberate and far-sighted nati0onal policies, not only to conserve the national and human resources involved in it, but to provide the national security, promote a well round prosperity and secure social and political stability.”

The farmer statement to the CGIAR would seem to signify that we have wandered far from these goals. Our farmers are amongst the most poorly looked after, their traditions are being broken and their contribution to society ignored. Their economy is in ruins; Farmer suicides have become commonplace, one consequence that effects everyone is the poisoning of the nation. It is time to become more aware that the old saying “you are what you eat” and begin to look after our children and ourselves

If the increasing rates of cancer, diabetes and organ failure, are not seen as a sign of the quality of the food and air that we ingest and we choose not to act on this knowledge, we will have no-one else to blame but ourselves when we ourselves become afflicted. With the statistic that 78% of us will die from such non-communicable diseases our individual chances are high indeed !!