07 May 2021

Detox: political economy and practicalities

Vegetables grown at Mihimandala in Welikandagama are free of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals [see Dr Prasanna Cooray's article 'Overcoming the challenges of organic farming'

The final challenge, so it is said, faced by the Ascetic Siddhartha prior to Enlightenment was an encounter with Mara. Mara confronted Siddhartha in his, Siddartha’s own image. Bernado Bertolucci offers an excellent visual rendition in his 1993 movie ‘Little Buddha.’ If it is taken as a metaphor, then the true ‘enemy’ however you want to define ‘enemy’ is within. True enemy, or ultimate enemy, if you will. It’s a parable with innumerable application, spiritual and otherwise.

We are talking about contamination. About poisons and poisoning. About extirpation. About agriculture. There’s a problem within, an enemy if you will. As in the case of the Ascetic Siddhartha, there is a ‘without’ in addition to ‘within.’ After all the senses are bombarded from outside; it’s the shards that cut into flesh, take up residence and send the poisons along blood streams.

Let me mention two statements which say something about the ‘without.’ An FAO representative, way back when, once infamously said ‘we will not rest until the last buffalo in Sri Lanka is sent to the Dehiwala Zoo.’ He was applauded by an audience that had more or less bought the modernization mantra. Then, almost thirty years ago, the then US Ambassador Teresita Schaffer said ‘your food security lies in the wheat fields of North America.’ Applauded again, this time by those who had memorized the market mantra.

Of course there is a political economic context in which policies are made/pushed. Officially, it is accepted and the blame can then be pinned on those accepting, never mind the arm-twisting, not forgetting of course that much of it is embraced enthusiastically simply because certain mantras are adequately internalized.

All this is relevant when it comes to a re-greening, if you will, of Sri Lanka. We are a poisoned land and it’s not only in the soil that the toxins have taken up residence. This is why we hear many people scream ‘cannot be done!’ They will ask lots of questions such as the following.

‘When yields drop, how will we feed the people? How will we compensate the farmer for drop in income? Do we have enough organic fertilizers, pesticides (or pest-control methods)? How about weeds? Has enough research been done? Do we have adequate seeds? What about export crops? How much of it is organic? Is there a mechanism to certify organic crops if we go for chemical-free production, even if we assume that we can get a premium price to off-set yield-loss? Do we have the extension mechanism to offer training to the cultivators? How about the existing food culture?

Legitimate questions. The good thing is that today we have a discussion on the subject. And so, we can talk of the doable. We can talk of what we had, what we embraced (uncritically or perniciously), what we have etc. Then we can talk of destinations, how to reach them and when.  

It requires of course a serious and deep exercise in self-reflection, as individuals (producers, consumers, policy-makers, academics, traders etc) and as a national collective. What we eat says a lot about who we are or rather who we have become. What we say reflects the ideological predilections we’ve cultivated as individuals and as a nation, knowingly or unknowingly.

Some ‘experts’ may say ‘no can do.’  Perhaps this is because they know no better. We have many universities and many courses related to agriculture, for example, but how many are framed by received ‘wisdom’ about what’s best? Didn’t we, after all, swallow hook, line and sinker the Green Revolution lies? Didn’t we buy the lie about coconut oil being harmful to health? We are taught classical (sic) economics in our Economics Departments. We are told there’s a think called Marxist economics, but that’s about it. There are dominant paradigms of development. There are dominant theories. They are not ideology free.

For example, isn’t it true that our experts are fixated with the yield-mantra? They know there’s something called nutritional-density but their focus is on yield-density. Has anyone asked why?  Those who talk of food culture don’t ask how it came about.

On the flip side there are those who talk as though things can be done overnight. They believe we can shift to traditional food plants, produce adequate quantities which the consumers will immediately delight in.

What’s missing is the fact that the doable is somewhere between the extremes. What’s important to understand is that it is not just the soils that are contaminated. It’s the minds, the mind-sets, the institutional arrangements too.

That said, it’s a place we can and should get to. The road may be long, but it’s got to be taken. However, if we are to walk through a mine-field we better be prepared for accidents. We better have mine-detectors. And talking of mines, we could recall how the war against terrorism was won. It took planning. It took preparation. Hardware and software were lacking. Political will was lacking. Human Resources were lacking. We got those pieces in place. This was a non-negotiable. Those who fought the war know this. Those who studied how things unfolded over thirty years, know what went wrong, what could go wrong and what needed to be done to get things right.

Policy-making is quite a distance from sloganeering. There’s nothing wrong in the vision here. The mission is clear. We can build a splendid agricultural palace but we need a solid foundation. That foundation involves solid research that covers a wide range of disciplines related to all aspects cultivation, preservation, transportation and consumerism.

The good thing is that all relevant agencies have had to wake up. Everyone has been challenged, the people included. The choice is simple: do we remain toxic or do we detox our bodies, minds and our nation? If we have to live with chemicals (as the case very well could be) just like we have to, according to some, live with Covid19, we have to figure out what the safe levels are. Living with Covid19 is not about letting the virus do its worst and us doing nothing. It’s the same with chemicals related to Agriculture. Bottom line: emotion should not trump reason. Another bottom line: research must trump rhetoric. And here’s a non-negotiable: we have to fight this war. War has been declared now. It is best to go about it with eyes wide open.  In the battle against terrorism, much work was done to get the people on the side of that particular policy option. It made a difference. It could make a difference here too. It will obviously take time. Haste will not just make waste but could wreck things so much that the toxic enemy will move in with renewed vigor. That could set us back by many years. Vision is good. Drive is imperative. Knowledge is the best cartographer and without a good map-maker, it goes without saying, we could get lost.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views]


Vasabha said...

Interesting the CEO of the “Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Institute,” whatever that is, decides to propagate the myth of chemical fertilizer being soul destroying- despite hardly any evidence to support this long outlandish claim. In his constant efforts to lick the backside of this fast crumbling Rajapaksa empire he is willing to stoop to new lows.

Malinda Words said...

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