Facing an Uncertain Future: A ‘non-suba anagathayak’

Photo courtesy Bindaas Madhavi

While the so-called ‘rulers’ prance about in their hubris, ignoring the global events that will also affect us, there is very serious concern that ‘We Are ‘Entering A Long-Term And Politically Dangerous Food Crisis’ . The author of the study suggests that, ‘we are five years into a severe global food crisis that is very unlikely to go away. It will threaten poor countries with increased malnutrition and starvation and even collapse. Resource squabbles and waves of food-induced migration will threaten global stability and global growth. This threat is badly underestimated by almost everybody and all institutions with the possible exception of some military establishments.’

Many reasons are given as to why such a crisis will occur, but two factors identified by this study must be considered in all ‘development’ projects that are being touted as ‘progress’ in Sri Lanka. To do less will tantamount to a betrayal of the nation.

(1) There will be increased weather instability, notably floods and droughts, but also steadily increasing heat.  The climate is changing.

(2) The costs of fertilizer and fuel will rise rapidly

All this points to the need for immediate action. We cannot plan to conduct business as usual and keep treating the land as we have done for the past two hundred years. During this time, we have changed our landscapes, from forested to agricultural and then from agricultural to industrial. As the landscapes change, we forget that it is the condition of the landscape that provides sustainability for those living in it and that landscapes are slow to respond to rapid changes. We know that rapid changes are going to become the norm in the future, and planning must be done with this reality in mind.   The failure of the last monsoon is only a foretaste of things to come. By now we should have had some national response and adaptation strategies in place, but sadly we have none.

Yes, there has been a plethora of conferences around the subject, but what do I do if my drinking water runs out? What do I do if there is salt intrusion into my field? How do I deal with sudden windstorms? If the years spent on discussing adaptation had borne any fruit, we would now be seeing public education programs on climate change preparedness by now.

In the parched North East there is no organized program to consider the sustainability of drinking water. The reality that the climate is changing has not registered as yet. The failure of this monsoon may be repeated soon. The probability of floods also increases. How can we respond?

The link between land degradation and desertification has been made abundantly clear in studies conducted in Africa and Australia. A loss of natural vegetation, a loss in soil organic matter and a loss of soil stability contribute greatly to the process.  These processes are often interlinked.  Vegetation encourages soil stability by providing cover, the binding action of roots, providing root exudates and finally by the contribution of its biomass to the soil.  A loss of vegetation results in a corresponding loss of soil organic matter and stability.

Soil organic matter and soil stability are often linked.  A soil that becomes denuded of its content of organic matter looses the glue that holds soil particles together and becomes easily erodible.  The more a soil erodes the more difficult it becomes for the soil microorganisms to glue the particles together.  The process is analogous to a spider’s web in the wind.  A whole web can withstand the pressure.  If one of the threads that anchor it is broken the spider can repair it, but if the rate of damage is slowly increased, there will come a time when the spider cannot repair the damage and the web will be destroyed by the wind.

As if that was not enough, now there is an assault on affectivity of 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.

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

Unfortunately, ‘modern’ agriculture has discounted the value of soil in providing nutrients for plants and cleansing toxins,  by enhancing and promoting artificial fertiliser to the detriment of good soil management.

The soil is a product of the ecosystem above it. Thus when we had vast forests we had vast reserves of living soil, now with the removal of the forests the soil bank is gone.

Further, The loss of forests also reduces greatly,  the water cleaning functions of any nation. The quantities of water released annually by forests are like aerial rivers cycling about 6250 billion tons of water into the atmosphere per annum globally. This quantity of evaporative water not only greatly influences local cooling events, it also contributes to the distribution of heat in the atmosphere. One of the most significant consequences of evapotranspiration by terrestrial vegetation is the cleaning of  groundwater, releasing water freed of the chemical pollutants that it was once burdened with. This cleaning function is hardly recognised nor evaluated.

Could the massive rates of deforestation and the removal of the earth’s cooling factor be an initiator of the warming trends that were amplified by the increases in carbon dioxide as a consequence of the industrial revolution?

Could the destruction of sustainable agriculture on the altar of fossil fuel dependent agriculture is responsible for the loss of our living soils?  The answer seems to be yes, in both cases. One way to address the problem is by reducing reliance on fossil carbon as an index of human development, but there may be other ways as well.  Today, we need to respond to the consequences of ‘Climate Change’ brought about by human activity. One interesting possibility requires us to go back to the forests.

Forests produce vast quantities of Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) that enable the condensation of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds occur in many states, from the thin haze clouds precipitated by pollution and dust to the thick cumulus clouds precipitated by forests and oceans. Each type provides a certain degree of shading from solar radiation, by a phenomenon termed albedo or, “the amount of incoming solar radiation reflected back into space”. The albedo of the planet determines the amount of sunlight reaching the surface, the amount of sunlight reaching the surface in turn determines the heat of the atmosphere. The mean value for reflecting solar radiation back into space by cloud albedo is about 30%.  The cooling effect of this action is so great that a 1-2 % increase in the albedo of the planet would be enough to reduce the warming effect of  CO2 levels back to early-industrial levels. Creating a 1% cooling by albedo can help definitely stabilize the climate.

Restoration of the cloud creating potential of terrestrial ecosystems has to be seen as a critically important activity and the financial instruments designed to mitigate the effect of global warming must recognize this potential. This means designing and implementing long maturing, multi age, and multi species systems that mimics or is analogous to the natural mature ecosystem.

Thus, in response to the concern that the climate variability is increasing, we must develop resilient agro-ecosystems, deep rooted, soil forming, high in biomass and biodiversity. The dependence on fossil inputs to sustain food production and distribution should diminish. There are many tried and tested approaches of this type of agricultural development Such as Permaculture, or Analog Forestry.

The second   factor, that the costs of fertilizer and fuel will raise rapidly, also needs urgent address in Sri Lanka.

The ecological impact of increasing energy input into a system has been well documented.  In any ecosystem an increase in the flow of energy tends to organize and simplify that ecosystem, with the destruction of many homeostatic mechanisms of the original system.  The loss of the traditional, rice production systems with a simplification of its processes, being an example.  Further, diversity is now being realized as being important to sustainability.  In agriculture, studies of insect communities have shown that pest outbreaks are characteristic of systems with lowered species diversity.

An increase in the input of energy to an ecosystem often provides a useful measure by which ecosystem modification can be addressed.  Thus in a heavily energy dependent agricultural system, the natural or biological system has been dispensed with and an artificial environment has been created to allow high levels of production.  These systems of production is clearly unsustainable. It can yield only 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.

The price of energy will never recede, so as we move into a resource expensive future, we may need other varieties of seed, seed that can produce well without having to depend on heavy external inputs. The native resilience and low input needs of the traditional varieties, makes them tremendously valuable in this context, but unfortunately they have disappeared from the farmers’ fields and homegardens.  Most now survive only in international collections, inaccessible to the traditional farmers who originally developed them.

The quantum  of energy required to sustain productivity in agroecosystems  provides a measure by which that system 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 enhanced production.  While it can be argued that such systems of production is sustainable as long as the inputs are provided. The reality of rising energy prices indicates non-sustainability .  It raises economic questions, especially in regard to input costs and subsidies.  Further, this process has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on steadily increasing rates of energy input to mai8ntain production. 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?

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 and more 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.60 Billion and increasing it. 60 billion is a lot of money, there are no questions raised as to who receives it, nor what commissions are paid to keep us addicted.

Addiction to fossil energy is a consequence of a failed political vision for Sri Lanka. It also reflects a massive collapse of our educational and research institutions that should have warned us of the consequences of fossil addiction. It has allowed the unscrupulous traders working with corrupt officials to act in getting Sri Lankan farmers addicted to fossil energy and have succeeded in destroying the sustainability of our agricultural fields, sustained for over two thousand years. The amount of money collected by this cartel amounts to about half a billion US dollars annually, who profits from this trade?

So, we face a possible global food crisis by investing in energy and resource guzzling infrastructure as ‘development’ ! We are protecting and promoting toxic, energy addicted agriculture while ignoring sustainable, organic models of food production. We are promoting tourism while producing poisoned food to feed the tourists with.  The rate of cancer is increasing at a horrendous rate, the intoxication of the agricultural community, is dismissed through surreal advertising….. And we have a population mesmerized into awaiting the fruits of ‘Economic Development” or the making of money as THE national priority.  As the Cree saying goes “Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten”.