Ajit Kanagasundram

Farming in a Finite world

“A human being is an animal, a part of nature. But we single ourselves out from the rest of nature. We classify other animals and living beings as nature, as if we ourselves are not part of it. Then we pose the question, “How should I deal with Nature?” We should deal with nature the way we deal with ourselves. . . ! Harming nature is harming ourselves, and vice versa.”

Thich Nhat Hanh – The eminent Buddhist monk and philosopher from Vietnam.

Our Current Predicament

As in many other areas we continue to disregard the wisdom and tenets of the Dhamma in our life, while professing loudly to be a Buddhist country, and as sure as night follows day there are consequences – whether it is in our health, our environment or whatever. In this article I will confine myself to describing the consequences of our present farming methods which disregards the traditional approach that made agriculture a holistic endeavor and a way of life, and substituted brute force methods with chemicals which were purely profit motivated and which disregarded the harm to Nature (and ourselves). Both the practitioners of this type of farming and the consumer of its products will eventually and inevitably pay the price.

I have titled my article “Farming in a Finite World” lest we forget, at our peril, that we are part of the world (Gaia) and cannot treat the land and the oceans as an infinite sink for our chemical farming residue, our plastic bottles and bags and carbon emissions and… I could go on ad nauseam. The world has taken over a hundred years of this and its regenerative capacity is being exhausted and we are increasingly seeing the results. 

After steadily improving for 200 years because of better nutrition, sanitation and medical knowledge, life expectancy has stopped getting better, even in the developed world, and in some areas is becoming actually worse. This is because of chemical pollution of our food and environment- consequently cancer, obesity, diabetes and other diseases are becoming more prevalent. Birds, bees and other wildlife have disappeared in many areas – both an ecological and aesthetic disaster. For example there areas near Hambantota, given over to large tracts of alien banana stock cultivation, where the fruit are so laced with carbides and other chemical that even the wild elephants from the adjacent jungle won’t eat them – what they will due to humans in the long run who consume them is anybody’s guess.

 Bio-diversity is disappearing- some of it as a byproduct of agro-chemical use, and some through deliberate actions of our farming practices- recently it was alleged in India that a multinational agro-chemical company’s agents in  India were buying up and destroying native rice seed stock that were lower yielding but did not require high doses chemical fertilizer, weedicides and pesticides. As a consequence, half of over the original four hundred native varieties have become extinct. This was brought to light by an NGO, which has filed a case on this issue which is still pending.

 Most of the problems I will describe are caused by industrial farming – in other words high yielding hybrids and agro-chemical and synthetic fertilizer use– especially its increasing use in recent times by ignorant third world farmers misled by agro-chemical multinationals like Bayer, Dow and Monsanto and their local agents. They want to control farming methods for profit regardless of the long term impact on human health and the environment – especially the soil.

The answer is partly to go back to more traditional, if less profitable, organic and traditional methods of farming and also explore the use of modern fertilizer and agro-chemicals in a more selective and efficient way – and I will give an example of the latter below. This will not be easy as it requires a much higher level of skill and requires more use of labour by the farmer. I am not a fanatic for organic farming – to practice it effectively is difficult and needs a great deal of knowledge and skill and patience on the part of the farmer and the sustainable yields will initially be lower. I am also aware that the “green revolution” with its hybrid wheat and rice, which were bred for high yields with the use of chemical fertilizer and agro-chemicals, saved much of the developing world, especially India, from the famine that was so confidently predicted by economists in the 1960s- just as 200 years ago Malthus was proved wrong in predicting famine by agricultural improvements in Europe and the opening up of new farmland in North America and Australia. But now we have reached what is known as a tipping point – a point at which the environment will irreversibly start getting worse and now unlike earlier we have the means to rectify matters because these new methods, which I am criticizing, have bought us the time to slowly start with more sustainable methods without the looming threat of famine. The world today is not short of food – the problems in sub saharan Africa is caused by wars, and problems of distribution from the surplus nations in America and Europe. Even India is self sufficient despite 30% of its food going to waste through spoilage due to poor storage.


Let us first take the case of the use of glyphosate that was explained in an excellent article in our papers recently by Amal Wimalasena. This chemical from Monsanto is used to control weeds in tea plantations. The effects of its use became apparent both in the impact on the health of its applicators (they suffered from non-Hodgekins lymphoma) and downstream the impact was pervasive. Glyphosate was washed down by the rivers to the plains and contaminated the paddy fields – the  impractical answer to this by one  planter was to require that our “goviyas” give up the “amude” and wear rubberized plastic protective clothing when ploughing or harvesting ! The use of Glyphosate vastly improves the problem of controlling weeds but at a cost in human health and potential litigation in the West that will be increasingly unsustainable. I checked this with a friend of mine Ken Murray, a very experienced and respected planter of the old school, who confirmed that glyphosate made the job of controlling weeds much easier. He also said that there were other methods that were labour intensive and would cost more. Available substitutes like MCOP are equally toxic so I accept that finding alternatives will not be easy. Other respected scientists, like my friend Professor Chandre Dharmawardane, advocate its use but my analysis below shows why I think it should be phased out in a gradual process. While the experts remain divided on the impact to human health of the small traces of glyphosate in our blood stream, what no one has yet done is a study of what this will do over a long period in combination with all the other pollutants in our environment. No one denies that the people who apply it in the fields are at risk if they do not take strict precautions – the only argument is its impact on the health of others in small dosages over time.

However when I describe the impact of glyphosate ( under its trade name Roundup in the West) we will realise why we need to start looking for alternatives now. First glyphosate will lead to the evolution of super weeds that are resistant to it at current dosage levels (currently 70 million acres in the US have been abandoned for this reason), and so we will have to continue to increase dosages. I also quote from a study conducted in Sri Lanka – “Findings of one study carried out on the “Affectivity of chemical weed control in commercial tea plantations” in the Hapugastenne Estate in Maskeliya by H.M.P. Peiris of the Postgraduate Institute of Science and S.P. Nissanka from the Department of Crop Science Faculty of Agriculture of the Peradeniya University states that over 20 weed species out of 23 acutely problematic weeds which cause great damage to tea crop, are entirely tolerant to Diurone, Paraquat and Glyphosate and cannot be controlled by using these herbicides.

This research was carried out to prove that there was an intense emergence of herbicide tolerant weed species on treated areas and that this crucial factor had remained unnoticed as a result of frequent manual weeding undertaken by the tea estates under various other accounts such as plucking fertilizer application, mossing and ferning green manure.”

 Applicators who have worked with it for a number of years develop a form of cancer called non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and as I write this there many cases pending in the US against Monsanto. Traces of it has been found in the EU in foodstuffs as diverse as breakfast cereal and German beer (which was known for its purity and mandated by law for 500 years to contain only barley, hops and water!). Further the International Agency for Research on cancer ICRC has linked it to 7 forms of cancer and Parkinson’s disease and the WHO also has stated that continuous exposure to high levels can lead to cancer. The public is now reacting to a never ending stream of news primarily from court cases against chemical companies. A survey of its readers by Natural News (admittedly not an impartial source) stated that “Monsanto was the world’s most evil company.”  Monsanto denies any link between Roundup and cancer but this is contradicted by its internal communications revealed in court papers, particularly an email from one of its scientists – Donna Farmer – who stated flatly that “we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement” – all this is now part of the public record.

 Let me give some examples closer to home in Sri Lanka. 3 decades ago Dr Jeyaraj Jeyeratnam, an occupational health expert who was a Professor at both at our medical college and in Singapore, did some seminal research and published a paper on the effects of using pesticides. His conclusions were startling- while 90% of agrochemicals were used in developed countries (the proportion may have changed today), 90% of the deaths attributable to pesticides were in the developing world. His study was initially done in Sri Lanka but was replicated in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and at a later date in Sub-Saharan Africa. This was due to the ready availability of pesticides, the pervasive advertisement and  sales to semi-literate farmers by the agents of multi-nationals without sufficient guidance on its usage or risks, and lack of controls the  authorities on its use in developing countries. The WHO estimated that this was a leading cause of death in developing countries – exceeding that of deaths from malaria. For this work, and other contributions to public health research, Dr Jeyeratnam  was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Commission on Occupational Health.

The 2nd example is the case of chronic kidney disease in the agricultural areas of the North Western province. While there is still research going on to determine exact causality and there is no scientific consensus among the experts, one study found a higher prevalence of CKD amongst those using water from wells fed by seepage from irrigation canals, than from those fed by natural springs. The study was titled “Drinking well water and occupational exposure to Herbicides is associated with chronic kidney disease, in Padavi-Sripura, Sri Lanka” by Channa Jayasumana et al in the journal Environmental Health in 2015. The study’s conclusions are – and I quote “ In the multivariable analysis the highest risk for CKD was observed among participants who drank well water (OR 2.52, 95% CI 1.12-5.70) and had history of drinking water from an abandoned well (OR 5.43, 95% CI 2.88-10.26) and spray glyphosate (OR 5.12, 95% CI 2.33-11.26) as a pesticide.” The water in irrigation canals is contaminated from the liberal use of agro-chemicals in our farming and is also washed down by rivers with the residue of fertilizer and glyphosate from our tea estates. For me this is sufficient evidence of another unintended consequence of our agricultural methods.

 We, in export dependent Sri Lanka, should realize that with increasing awareness by consumers in the West and for the health of our own people, the days of unrestricted chemical faming is over. There are traces of glyphosate in our tea and it is a question of time before consumer organizations in the west bring this up in court cases, via import bans or consumer boycotts. What do we lose by investigating and practicing alternatives now with a view to eventually saving the brand image and reputation of our major export earner – tea?

Examples of alternate farming

I have already stated that the green revolution of high yielding hybrids and “industrial/chemical farming” saved the world from famine in the 1960s, and I am not advocating that we abandon it immediately – what we should do is start exploring and experimenting with new methods combining traditional organic methods and highly restricted and selectively targeted use of chemicals and fertilizers industrial (or chemical) farming. This is not easy for a quick solution but I will briefly give two examples where it has eventually succeeded. This is admittedly anecdotal but in my opinion it points to the future.

The first is from Brazil, where a highly educated and wealthy sugar farmer named Leontino Balbo decided to turn 16,000 hectares of his sugar farm to organic methods. He did this because he became tired of using increasing amounts of chemicals which – to use his words -”starved the land of its vitality”- and move to “ecosystem revitalizing agriculture.” It was a long difficult struggle against falling yields and after 10 years when the soil was restored to its original vitality (his model was the rain forest, where as a youth he would go fishing), yields have now risen to its previous levels and the surrounding ecotoxity of the environment has improved by 2 orders of magnitude. His product receives a premium price as it is classified as organic, his costs have also come down and the venture is now profitable –  so this is a living example that this approach works on a large commercial scale. For Leontino the core belief and ambition was to restore the soil to its original health and bio-diversity – to quote him “soil is not just a container but the content of the ecosystem. It holds the biodiversity, both organic and mineral, that is essential for life.

A handful of forest soil contains a billion organisms and 15,000 different bacteria. The same amount of soil from a “industrial/chemical” farm contains barely 100 varieties.”

The next example the Marsden farm in the US is different – a hybrid approach where traditional techniques are combined with highly restricted and selective use of agro chemicals. In a study published in the Public Library of Science describes a case where the University of Davis Agriculture school on a 22 acre plot. They are planted crops in rotation between corn, soya and oats and red clover in winter. The clover, which absorbs nitrogen from the atmosphere was planted between crop rows and ploughed under as soil replenishing “green manure.” On this field the researchers still used pesticides and herbicides but not in the normal way of spraying them over large areas but selectively only in places where it was required. After 8 years of experimentation, Marsden Farm now uses 8 times less herbicide and, thanks to the clover 86% less synthetic fertilizer. Most important in this experimental plot was just as productive as conventional farm and produced the same biomass. The ecotoxity of the surrounding environment was also improved considerably and as chemicals had been used very sparingly the farm was more profitable despite the fact that it was more labour intensive. In a paper published last year in Science the results of the Marsden farm experiment were not only validated but it was determined that it could be scaled up to a national level.

The way forward

We need to start the process by following similar practices as it will be a long and sometimes difficult road to move away from the easy solutions of using agro-chemicals and synthetic fertilizer indiscriminately. I have shown that this is poisoning our bodies and the environment and living in a small island we cannot afford this – the results are too conclusive. We can double down on the use of chemicals and buy another decade of increasingly ineffective control or act now. We need our scientists and institutions like the TRI and rice research institutes to start experiments like the one at Marsden farm and disseminate the results – it is far more difficult to do research that is holistic and takes the impact to the environment into account, not just measure the changes in the inputs and output in a simple two dimensional static model  that passes for much of research today, and which will be deservedly forgotten in a few years.

This new approach to farming, in addition to requiring more knowledge, is also much more labor intensive and may offer a way out of a dilemma we will face in the medium term future. Today we are spending enormous effort and scarce capital to create the infrastructure for a “modern” economy where we hope that there will be thousands of well-paying jobs for our youth in bank back-office processing, computer program coding, call centers, garment factories etc.- like in Singapore. However these are precisely the jobs (which are also monotonous and soul destroying) that will be automated within the next fifteen years by the exponential progress now taking place in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics (this will be the subject of a future article). We cannot bet the welfare of the future generations on an uncertain foundation while ignoring this trend. The immensely successful Indian software industry is already facing a falling demand for routine system maintenance, which used to be its bread and butter till recently, as these functions are being automated.

 The type of farming I am advocating, however requires much more human involvement and will provide jobs in the thousands in family run farms. In an ideal scenario there will be work for the man in the field and for women and children in jobs like weeding and sorting the produce and in processing it in nearby factories. This will build on one of the inherent strengths of our society – the extended family system where the family can work as a unit and where the women do not have to go to work in the “satanic mills” of textile factories or (God forbid) in the Middle East as domestics, and the boys to the cities to work as security guards or similar dead-end jobs. The present disruption caused by this to the family and children growing up without the love of the mother will create long term psychological and emotional scars.  This type of farming will also allow for mixed farming – where dairy cattle and poultry can also be kept (you need a non-toxic environment for this) which will bring in an additional source of income and organic manure.

 I can vouch personally for this from my experience of running such a mixed farm- I had a 15 acre (inherited) property in Hokandara where I had coconut, paddy, mangoosteen, and rambutan, vegetables, 3000 poultry and my pride and joy was my dairy farm where I produced fresh milk and curd under the brand name Sarojini Dairy.As no chemicals or synthetic fertilizers  were used it can be considered to be an organic farm. The farm was both profitable and immensely more attractive than a mono-culture and my family and I spent many pleasurable week-ends there – unfortunately it was burnt down in the 83 riots and the cattle were slaughtered by a gang of thugs from the JSS (the UNP trade Union), who were bussed in from outside. The villagers of the area, many of whom had productive employment in my farm and worked for my family for 3 generations, were helpless and the Police deliberately absent – this was the reason for my leaving my country where I had been so happy and where most of my friends are.

This is a much more sustainable model than the one which we are currently pursuing in trying to compete or imitate Singapore or Dubai where they have a 20 year head start, and does not need billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and FDI.. This is however, not “low tech farming” – we will have to use the latest technology in satellite imagery, access via the web to the latest agricultural research and market prices for different types of produce to decide how and when and what to plant. However I will admit that the biggest obstacle we will face in achieving this is not just vested interests and government inertia but the fact that most of our youth want to flee the farms for jobs in cities – even dead end jobs like three wheeler drivers or working in hair salons. And given the economic and health state of our farmers, who can blame them? We need to change the incentives and make the youth believe that a living wage can be made in farming. In an earlier article I have shown that Thailand earns $3 billion a year just from the export of fruits and vegetables – 30% of our total foreign earnings and we have the land and water and human resources to achieve similar results, even while farming in a sustainable manner.

Since the days of the “Govi Rajah” campaign under the Duldley Senanayake government in the late 60s, we have neglected extolling the dignity of the farmer, his contribution to society and the fact that agriculture  was our traditional mainstay. We should now return to these core values in a world where we need to realize that the though the environment is finite and we cannot continue to abuse it indefinitely, the opportunities to use its resources  intelligently for our benefit is infinite.