Restoring sustainability to Sri Lankan agriculture (Ranil Senanayake)
Sri Lanka maintained a massive highland soil ecosystem that was untouched until the advent of the colonial experience. The rice farming soils as well as the agroecosystem was a co-evolved system that maintained its production potential for literally thousands of years. History demonstrates that the great soil capital of this nation was lost with the advent of colonial plantation agriculture and the advent of ‘modern agriculture’ destroyed the productive potential of the all farming soils.
To appreciate this loss and the consequent dependency on chemicals to farm, the action of the soil ecosystem should be appreciated. Farming and Forest soils are very energetic ecosystems. It has been estimated that a gram of good farmyard soils can contain about 1 billion individual bacteria, over 100 million individual actinomyctes and over 1 Km of fungal hyphae, notwithstanding plants like algae and animals like collembolids, nematodes or worms. In total these microorganisms add up to about 7-11 tons of living matter per hectare in the top 15 cm of soil. It is this living matter providing about 6-10 horsepower of free energy per day that maintained the fertility of our traditional agriculture. These soils did not require anything more than small additions of organic matter to maintain its productivity and the farmer was able to provide that through traditional practices without external inputs.
During the early part of the 1960s when there was a great emphasis on developing our agriculture, it was noticed that the yields were lower than in our neighboring countries. The reasons were, poor seed and heavy weed infestations. The School-weeding program instituted in the late 60’s was recorded by National Geographic to increase yield by 200 % by simply weeding the fields at the right time by hand. With the advent of the ‘Green Revolution’ that promoted chemical and high-energy input farming systems, our farmers lost their ability to independently manage their farms and over the years and generations, lost their indigenous farming knowledge and practices.
The farming community was not unaware of the dangers. In 1998, the Sri Lanka Farmer Forum comprising over 320 delegates, in their statement to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR ) observed that the current trends in agricultural research were creating a “complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence” . This was an early indictment of this trend, and astutely observed by our “uneducated” traditional farmers.
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.
The reason for this change stems from an ecological axiom that states “the flow of energy through an ecosystem tend to organize and simplify that system”. The more energy that is applied to any ecosystem the more simple it will become. Thus the application of fertilizers and agrotoxins into the soil will tend to reduce both the biodiversity and biomass of that soil. As this gets reduced so does the capacity of the soil to be productive, creating a vicious cycle that finally results in complete dependence of external inputs to maintain productivity. A process clearly demonstrated by U.S. agriculture that has been found 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 crops 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”.
The way forward to restore the soil and agricultural practices of Sri Lanka must have two features. One is the re-training of farmers on the management of their lands without a heavy energy and toxin input. The other is to build back the fertility of farming soils so that the natural productivity is re-established. Unfortunately there is no plan for transitioning towards optimal production with little or no external inputs, and the ignorance of that practice, has led to the guardians of our agriculture policy, planning and implementation to just rely on the distribution of more of the addictive fertilizer.
Further, when soil loses its tree cover and the inputs of organic matter to feed the living organisms within the soil, the fertility goes down, and the overall plant health of the soil looses its cohesive strength. The loss of cohesive strength accelerates erosive processes which is brought about through the loss of soil binding agents, both macroscopically and microscopically.
The macroscopic binding agents are the roots of plants and plant compounds. The microscopic agents are the bacterial gums, polysaccharides and humates. With an increase of chemical reliant intensive farming there is a corresponding loss of soil microorganisms that provide cohesive strength to soils. The result is erosion in wet weather and an increase of dust during dry weather. The worst state results in landslides and heavy erosion of soils.
One critical aspect in the transitioning of the agricultural soils from energy dependent to sustainable, is building up the soil biota. Just stopping the application of artificial fertilizers along will not do. The soil organic matter and the soil biota have to be added to the soils in a sequential system that creates a robust soil ecosystem.
There are many approaches to this aspect. One is the addition of composts and deep rooted plants, another is by inoculating with cultured soil bacteria, and the third approach is by incorporating ‘green manure’ that is grown as a preparatory crop before tilling. In addition there are many commercial companies and farmers in Sri Lanka and abroad with a long experience of soil building and organic production.
Thus it seems useful to gather the existing experience in ‘organic’ or sustainable agriculture in South Asia and from around the world and develop a national programme for the restoration of productivity to our agricultural fields and movement away form ‘fossil dependent agriculture’.
Further there are many examples of farms in Sri Lanka that have moved away from the chemical farming regimes to organic farming regimes with no loss of crop. There farms should be studied and a comparison between these and current farming practices conducted.
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 national 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.”
Thus one of the first recommended actions is to begin a national consciousness raising programme. The real connection between food and health should be reinforced. Along with a national school wide education programme and an adult education programme via media.
The next will be to support the creation of models within each agroecosystem. Ideally this work should be done by a committee consisting of Agriculture Ministry, Department, NGOs and farmer groups.
In parallel there should be the encouragement of companies who provide biological inputs for Sustainable agriculture and for companies who market or export ‘organic products’.
There should be a liaison between the EDB, Sri Lankan Standards Institute, organic certifiers and SLAB in the matter of certification of toxin free products.
There should be an a programme in the energy accounting of our food production, where the amount of external inputs required to raise a unit of product will be reported on.
We have caused negative karma upon ourselves, by not only poisoning the soils and killing all life that depended on our rice ecosystem, but also selling poison filled foods and feeding our children and our parents toxins that make them sick and weak.