When Worlds Collide #30: Watch out! Everybody Lives Downstream…

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 26 August 2012

High inputs to make high yields – at a heavy price

My column last week, on large scale chronic kidney failure (scientifically abbreviated as CKDu) that has become a major public health crisis in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone, inspired some discussion online — both on my blog and at Groundviews.org

Of course, scientists and environmentalists have been debating its causes for years without conclusive evidence or targeted action. Even then, the current silence of the state health bureaucracy frustrates many. A million US Dollar research study, initiated in 2008 with World Health Organisation (WHO) support, has been completed but its findings not released. Why?

As I noted, delays in releasing such studies will allow speculation and conspiracy theories to gain momentum. That helps no one.

At least two theories (among several competing ones) suggest a link between CKDu and agricultural runoff.

One implicates cadmium, a metallic element that researchers have found in low-grade phosphate, an imported fertiliser widely used in paddy and vegetable farming. High cadmium levels have been detected in Mahaweli reservoir waters, as well as in freshwater fish like tilapia.

The other speculation is that arsenic in some imported pesticides and chemical fertilisers, when combined with naturally occurring calcium in the affected areas’ hard water, causes gradual kidney failure.

Neither is proven as yet. They are being assessed alongside other possibilities using rigorous scientific methods. But given the humanitarian emergency that CKDu has now become – with 15,000 kept alive with regular kidney dialysis and 2.5 million living in affected areas – remedial and preventive measures cannot await full scientific understanding.

Legacy of Green Revolution

Meanwhile, CKDu has brought into sharp focus some serious environmental concerns that ecologists have long highlighted. These stem from our farmers’ high reliance on inorganic (chemical) fertilisers.

For sure, some fertiliser needs to be added to sustain soil fertility when growing crops repeatedly on the same land. Starting in the 1960s, however, the ‘Green Revolution’ urged farmers to use higher volumes of fertiliser. That, in turn, led to indiscriminate use and waste — and higher runoffs.

Farmers aren’t thrifty because they get fertiliser at a fraction of the market price. The state absorbs the rest through a massive subsidy.

Sri Lanka’s Fertiliser subsidies go back half a century. Introduced in 1962 to encourage farmers to switch to high-yielding rice varieties, it was originally meant offset the effects of low crop prices and rising costs of production. Over time, it has become a national addiction and political hot potato.

The subsidy has been through some variations. It was withdrawn in 1989, but re-instated in 1994. Since 2005, the price of 50 kg bags of urea, muriate of potash (MOP) and triple superphosphate (TSP) has been fixed at LKR 350 (USD 2.65 at current exchange rate) regardless of the world market price. With each bag actually costing 10 times or more, the subsidy exceeds 90%.

This is a huge drain on public funds. As Manoj Tibbotuwawa, a researcher with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), wrote in 2010: “In 2009, the fertiliser subsidy accounted for 3% of total government expenditure and 0.6% of GDP. At present, the subsidy is given out without any targeting mechanism and a large proportion of the benefits are captured by relatively wealthy farmers, whilst creating a burden on the public purse.”

Most researchers agree on the need to manage the fertiliser subsidy more effectively and efficiently. Ideally, it should benefit only the poor farmers who can’t buy at market prices and get into debt if they tried.

But then, farm subsidies are contentious all over the world – and few governments have the courage to rationalize them.

On top of that, fertiliser is big business. Journalist Aditya Batra, writing in India’s Down to Earth magazine (31 May 2011), noted how Sri Lanka imports almost all its fertiliser needs – some 650,000 tonnes a year. Over 80% came from China, and the rest from Turkey and Egypt.

“Fertiliser application needs to be on some basis,” says Dr C S Weeraratna, a former professor of agronomy and a senior analyst of agricultural policies. “Right now even those fields which don’t need fertilisers are provided with it at subsidised price. Ideally, soil tests should be done (to determine the nutrient level in the soil).”

Why Bother?

Such discernment is unlikely to be achieved anytime soon. For now, most Lankan farmers have no incentive to consider efficiency improvements — or any alternatives like organic fertiliser.

Agricultural runoff causes downstream environmental and health problems for everyone. Some compelling evidence is already in, and the rest is being probed (impacts are not limited to CKDu). But who can tighten the fertiliser subsidy to reduce the contamination of our water, soil and bodies?

Promoters of organic fertiliser find themselves swimming against the current (pun intended). I interviewed one last month on my TV show on innovation, Malima (Rupavahini, Thursdays at 5.30 pm).

K M Wijepala, proprietor of Wijaya Agro Products in Nuwara Eliya, is not our stereotype agro researcher who studies farming from a distance. A former field officer of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), Wijepala has been trying out organic substitutes for two decades. He has now developed a range of organic substitutes for inorganic agrochemicals.

His organic liquid fertiliser – marketed as Gold Organic Lanka Fertiliser (GOLF) — provides all the nutrient elements that plants need. Its ingredients include ghee, honey, beer, cod liver oil and Neem (kohomba) oil; without exception, all can be sourced locally. Wijepala’s recipe — already patented – stipulates the right proportions to be mixed in water. He is giving it away for free as his ‘gift to all farmers of Sri Lanka’.

GOLF’s efficacy has been tested and confirmed by the Tea Research Institute (TRI) and Industrial Technology Institute (ITI). A small quantity of this organic fertiliser produces comparable or higher yields in paddy and other crops. Even DoA is doing field demonstrations.

Malima: Episode 10 presented by Nalaka Gunawardene from Nalaka Gunawardene on Vimeo.

Subsidy distorts market

So what stands in the way of rolling this out? This gutsy small entrepreneur says he can compete with multinational companies (“Let farmers decide who offers them best value for money!”). But his market is completely undercut…by the subsidised fertiliser.

Let’s take a few steps back to grasp the dilemma involved. Systems ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake has been ‘connecting the dots’ and sounding the alarm for decades.

He told me in a long interview last June: “Today, Sri Lanka has to pay LKR 50 BILLION annually (around USD 380 million) just on the subsidy for fertiliser alone! If we take that off, our food prices will shoot up. If we put it in, our soils are destroyed.”

Ranil says the entire Green Revolution has involved a clear shift towards higher use of fossil energy in farming – through tractors, fertilisers and insecticides among others.

Such addiction to fossil energy is a result of a failed political vision, he argues. “It also reflects a massive collapse of our educational and research institutions who should have warned us of the consequences… It has allowed unscrupulous traders working with corrupt officials to get Lankan farmers addicted to fossil energy and have succeeded in destroying the sustainability of our agricultural fields.”

So the mass kidney failure is far more than a public health emergency and an environmental crisis. It’s a symptom of policy failures in our land care, water management and farming. Looking for simple explanations or quick fixes can make matters worse.

Remember: we ALL live downstream.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Communicating Development, Conspiracy Theories, Disaster, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Innovation, Public health, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Water and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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