Photo courtesy of Newsfirst

About a decade ago, a statement by a medical doctor in the United States made overnight headlines. He was a popular television personality too. When he learned about the presence of arsenic in commercially available apple juice, he warned the public through his television show that they were better off squeezing their own juice rather than buying the readymade. The truth, however, is that the juice inherits arsenic from fresh apples. This is because apples naturally contain trace amounts of arsenic mainly absorbed from soils but in levels not harmful to us. But the doctor had forgotten to do his homework before reacting frantically. What’s interesting to witness was the reaction from scientists, government officials and media outlets who acted swiftly to neutralize his false claims. The damage was contained by sharing the science based truth with the public quickly and efficiently.

In Sri Lanka there was a television debate titled in Sinhala as “soil and poison” sparked by the new fertilizer policy. During the debate, a medical doctor claimed that there had been no arsenic in soils before chemical fertilizers were introduced to the country. Like the doctor from the United States, the Sri Lankan doctor had forgotten to do his homework. If he had he wouldn’t have missed the facts on natural occurrence of arsenic in soils. Rice, even including the organically grown varieties, absorbs some arsenic from soil and water. Sri Lankan rice is no exception. In fact, the arsenic content in rice is a little more than in apples but still in levels not harmful to the consumer.

The two stories had similarities in the beginning but their endings were different. The apple story ended when qualified people intervened and refuted the false claim to stop the public from being misled. But in Sri Lanka, there was no strong voice or effort to correct the false claim. Although a few academics who were on the panel tried to explain the geological phenomena behind the natural presence of arsenic in soils, the doctor stood his guard and said it is not acceptable to have any arsenic in soils. There were no subsequent efforts by the country’s agricultural authorities to correct this false claim. It was a lost opportunity that could have been used to educate many people.

It’s easy for a misconception or a false statement to have a long life when the subject experts or the government authorities fail to do their part in raising public awareness in a manner in which people could easily grasp the facts. Lack of awareness gives rise to the propagation of myths. There are multiple posts on social media that make a mockery of scientific facts related to the ongoing fertilizer issue. Myths are being circulated by both the proponents and the opponents of the new organic fertilizer policy. One of the sarcastically popular questions on social media is “so it’s ok to eat just a little bit of poison, right?” This question is posed to imply that chemical fertilizer based agriculture is feeding us poison. This is not true.

The literal answer to the question is that it is alright to eat a little bit of poison. Even the chemical substances that are usually labeled as poison do not become poisonous until the amounts consumed exceed certain thresholds, which vary from one substance to another. Concentration matters and some chemicals that we fear when we see them in a laboratory in high concentrations are already present in our natural environment (air, water, soils and food) but usually in very low concentrations. This is why the arsenic intake through apples or rice in a daily meal usually does not pose a threat. But if consumed in large quantities, arsenic can be lethal. Mercury is another example. Mercury is known to be toxic if consumed in large quantities. But some varieties of fish have some mercury in them including the skipjack tuna, which is popular in Sri Lanka. However sometimes nature becomes cruel by going off balance. That’s why we avoid eating the mushrooms that are the toxic ones. Another example is the high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater that has caused severe dental fluorosis issues in some parts of Sri Lanka, especially in the North Central Province.

If our agricultural soils contain harmful substance in high concentrations, we must be concerned regardless of its origin (naturally occurring or fertilizer induced). The real question is how do we understand our limits. How much is too much? This is where the science comes in with the concept of Maximum Permissible Limits (MPL). Based on the scientific evidence MPL defines the maximum safe concentration any potentially harmful substance can have in soils. If a country lacks locally defined thresholds, it can refer to the ones published by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The presence of harmful substances should be periodically tested and checked against the MPLs. This concept is not limited to the soils; the same principle is applied to food, air, water and treated wastewater, although the terminology can be different from one field to another.

Sometimes myths are born when incorrect terms are used to explain issues. Those who are overly enthusiastic about organic fertilizer sometimes mix it up with organic agriculture. The result is that those who follow such news begin to believe that the country will become a nation of organic agriculture by simply replacing chemical fertilizer with organic fertilizer. These two are not the same. We can achieve organic agriculture only when all forms of agricultural practices are strictly based on ecological and biological methods. If agriculture is a university, fertilizer is only one of its departments. A single department embracing an organic concept does not necessarily mean that the whole university culture is going to be organic overnight. There are many other departments that are responsible for the other aspects of agriculture, which are far from being organic as of yet. Pesticides, herbicides and animal farming are a few to name. Those who are overjoyed to see chemical fertilizer being replaced by organic fertilizer forget the amount of chemicals used in pesticides and herbicides. Popularizing organic fertilizer as far as practically feasible is certainly a positive step but it is still only one step in a long journey if the destination is organic agriculture.

Whether it is for or against organic fertilizer, myth based propaganda is not helping anyone. The bottom line is that there is no point in demonizing or whitewashing either chemical fertilizer or organic fertilizer. Each comes with its own merits and demerits. What is important is to find a way to benefit from either or both. If the use of chemical based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides is unavoidable, the focus should be on making a sustainable culture to use them wisely, apply them where necessary and in a least destructive way. If there is an interest in organic agriculture, then the focus should be on finding innovative home-grown solutions to make the organic applications practical and affordable and minimizing economic damage resulting from low yield.  The country may benefit the most from a hybrid solution, where chemical applications coexist with organic applications as it may ease the dependence on a monopoly of a single solution.

Intentionally or not, when myths are spread they gain ground quickly if not busted sooner. Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Hitler’s cabinet, once said that when you repeat the same lie over and over, people will buy it as the truth. Television channels and newspapers are not the only outlets; now many people look for news on social media that has the power to show the same content over and over thanks to sharing and reposting options. The freedom of information sharing is great, but only if we are sharing the truth. Otherwise we just become examples of the Goebbels theory.