Opinion: Consuming GMOs is least of our problems

vegetables sri lanka

Oct 04, 2015 (LBO) – For a sector so essential to Sri Lanka, it seems the public understanding of agriculture is rather poor. This may be why we have lagged behind other Asian countries in terms of crop productivity. One sign of this — almost all vegetable seeds are now imported.

Agriculture experts have watched in dismay as Sri Lanka slowly but surely fell behind countries such as Thailand, Korea, Japan and the Philippines.

These countries now export Asian vegetables seeds to Sri Lanka.

I spoke to a hands-on agriculturist from the private sector who did not wish to be named. For convenience, let’s call him Rupasinghe.

“Except for Patola (Snake Gourd), seeds of all other vegetable varieties are now imported,” Rupasinghe said.

“We have not invented a successful variety in the last 30 years, one that farmers will plant. We are only now starting to grow hybrids, a technology that has been around for 85 years.”

It could be confusion around the way we understand agriculture that influences Sri Lankan policymakers, as our innate view is a far cry from reality.

“None of the bananas we eat today come from nature. The ones we eat right now are varieties that have been selected by our ancestors over centuries,” he said.

Our ancestors have picked and regrown fruits and vegetables, with desired qualities such as succulence in red apples or fleshy bananas, that gave us precursors of the fruits and vegetables we have today.

The wild varieties are not as desirable as the ‘domesticated’ varieties. ‘Hybridization’ is the next logical step.

“If you take a high-yielding variety of tomato and cross it with a disease-resistant variety, you can select a line that has both qualities. This is called hybridization.”

This type of enhancement has led to a huge improvement in yields. Farmers quickly adopted it, internationally over the last 85 years, and in Sri Lanka it has grown in popularity over the last 15 years.

Self Sufficiency in Maize

Developing hybrids is a costly exercise. And there is a downside to it. Only a few of the first generation of plant ‘offspring’ have characteristics of the parent lines. This diversity in offspring is a matter of genetics, he said.

This means farmers must keep re-buying hybrid seeds from seed companies if they want to reproduce the high-yielding varieties. Or they can wade through the ‘offspring’ to figure out which seeds have the parent qualities — a process both expensive and impractical.

Sri Lanka became self sufficient in production of Maize three years ago because imported hybrids raised yields per acre by between 200 to 300 percent.

Hybrid rice paddy in China produces over 10 tonnes per hectare of rice. One Chinese farmer claims to have achieved 15 tonnes per hectare. In Sri Lanka the average is 3.5 tonnes per hectare. Importation of hybrid paddy is banned in Sri Lanka.

There are restrictions on introducing new varieties of fruits and vegetables as well. Some varieties now successfully grown were initially smuggled in, Rupasinghe said.

Given the higher yields, Sri Lankan farmers have been won over at the expense of traditional varieties, and it seems this is a matter of economics.

Seed cost is between one to five percent of total cost. Paying for more expensive ‘hybrid’ seeds is negligible to the farmer in the long run, according to him.

For instance, a seed of hybrid ‘Papaya’ may cost 12.50 rupees. A farmer typically plants 600 seeds per acre which would cost 7,500 rupees. With a yield of 150 kilos per plant over three years, the cost of a seed of 12.50 rupees has to be compared with a revenue of 7,500 rupees per Papaya plant, which is negligible he said.

It seems, the constant increase in population, tied to limited land, gives farmers no choice but to improve yields. With little or no public discussion about an optimal population size, the only other option is to improve yields.

“For India or China, the choice is clear. They can’t let people starve,” Rupasinghe said.

Part of the problem has been the confusion between hybrids and genetically modified (GM) crops.

“Seedless watermelons are immediately called GM in our country, when they are in fact hybrids.”

Genetic modification is the process of selecting genes in one species, for example a fish, and inserting it in another, such as a tomato, to enhance qualities such as disease or weather resistance.

The most common modification is herbicide-tolerance. This allows farmers to spray crops with weed killer without harming the crops.

Soybeans, corn and cotton, are the most widely planted types of GM crops especially in the United States and Brazil. Over 90 percent of soya and corn in the US is now produced from GM crops.

Bangladesh has begun trialing pesticide free GM Brinjals, and India has allowed GM cotton.

GMO Food in Sri Lanka?

“I am personally anti GMO, and I wouldn’t mind watching how this progresses. But the question of GM got hijacked because of Monsanto,” Rupasinghe said.

“We should not be under the control of one company. That is wrong,” he said.

Monsanto is a monopolistic controller of world seed and agrochemical markets. It recently made a an offer to buy Syngenta, the world’s top seller of pesticides. Monsanto is also the leading producer of GM seeds.

In Sri Lanka GMO crops are banned, so there is no issue there, Rupasinghe said.

“But we eat GMO. The wheat flour and soya products we eat are GMO,” he said. According to him, up to 90 percent of flour consumed in Sri Lanka is from GM crops.

Science hasn’t yet found evidence that GM is bad for you, although there could be repercussions for the ecology 100 years down the line, he said.

I spoke briefly to the director general of the Department of Agriculture who said some GMO products make their way to Sri Lanka and this is an issue that comes under the Food Department. GMO crops are not grown in the island, he added.

“GMO is, let’s say, the latest technology. But we have been anti hybrids, which is the silly part,” Rupasinghe said.

This explains why Sri Lanka has lagged behind counterpart Asian countries in developing high-yielding varieties.

The constant drive to increase yields has consequences. Farmers spray plants with agro chemicals above recommended limits in the belief that this will increase yields. This has health repercussions. And that does not include a discussion of intensive animal farming, which is on the rise.

Proper scientific tests are not being carried out to verify which chemicals are causing health issues, he said.

A huge amount of water is used to irrigate paddy land which poses questions about the efficient use of water and land. Flooding paddy land to kill weeds appears to be the norm amongst farmers, but this is inefficient when newer techniques such as drip irrigation could be explored.

Water also has an opportunity cost in terms of clean power generation, and some argue the Mahaweli program was not optimized for power generation.

Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture maintains lines of traditional crops from over 40 years ago, but farmers are not buying it. The department must now solve this conundrum.

One way to raise farmer productivity is to improve technology, methods and research. The other is to grapple with agriculture economics.

“Agriculture policy requires skills including knowledge of agriculture, finance, science and international market trends,” Rupasinghe said.

Following what Lee Kuan Yew did by hiring international experts, Sri Lanka could hire policymakers who are specialists in agriculture economics, he said.

It seems the key issues in agriculture are now a matter of economics.

 

(– Chamath Ariyadasa has a masters degree in the social sciences and was a former correspondent for Reuters in Sri Lanka –)

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sl
sl
6 years ago

Sri Lankas knowledge about agriculture is not poor.we were the “peradiga dhanyagara”. It’s western methods killed our values n knowledge. Even though the writer has a master degree he lacks knowledge.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  sl

Since u are so knowledgeable, please tell us what is exactly wrong with this article rather than insulting the author’s credentials.

lag behind
lag behind
6 years ago

This is completely rupasinghes ideas.seems he has sponsored LBO.. Good one.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  lag behind

Mr. Lag behind, please discuss ideas not people and their motivations. Surely they are Rupe’s ideas. But which part of it is wrong?

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago

Lankan farmer has to carry many unnecessary burdens on sholders.(Just like a racing car waiting for the race to start but hand brakes firmly applied & it cannot be fully released when the race starts).What is the effectiveness of the fertilizer they get,what is the information on best cost effective chemicals to apply,what is the quality of sedds they get?How does support schemes work?Moment local crop is harvested duty reduced stuff is fully stocked,or brakes are applied to support schemes may be with the support of those in charge of their administrations so covertly creating man made hurdles that cause delay of the vital support the right time so that some wheeler dealer is benefiting(support arrives may be 3 moths after. Very little will happen until these negatives are firmly dealt with so that ripple over effect shake all the systems back to normal.Establishing a special unit with multidisciplinary independent team that can looks in to these aspect across ministries/agencies may be a solution.First things first.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Agree on most of the problems you identified. But, the solution is not establishing more government red tape. We have too many government officials handling issues in Agriculture without anything much positive to show. What is needed to knowledge of fundamentals of economics. We need people who understand how other similar countries have succeeded over the last 30 years, when we have very little to show.

expat
expat
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

actually this is what OBAMA came to do but failed – minimize government.
one simple fact in economics is that government is a consumer of wealth but not a creator, so less people in government will help to make a better economy. their definition of government is all public sector, becoz the public sector is implementing the decisions of the senate and president.
issue with sri lanka is that the government is bloated so much and eats too much without ever providing anything tangible to the economy. for example what use is the provincial councils other than to make a few more uneducated thugs look like middle eastern princes?
australia is like 150 times bigger than srii lanka but has a cabinet of 20. it has a simillar population to sri lanka. and our people still cannot agree what is wrong with government!!! DUH

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  expat

Let me add a few more to your point. In Sri Lanka, in particular, NO Agriculture policymaker understands simple economic concepts such as the crowding-out effect, regulatory economics or even Keynesian economic principles. Yet, they are the top policymakers in the country.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

Team of course need not have 100% from public sector & they have to be experienced with top exposure & have relevant knowledge (Agriculture,Science,Economics,Accounting Auditing,Administration & should understand a lot when a little is given.The multidisciplinary team obviously need to have independent people.Secret little gardens,isolated tunnels are often mosquito breeding grounds that has to be tackled with openness a.s.p.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Accounting, auditing and admin experts will not have anything positive to contribute here. They are just there to run systems in organization. We need strategic thinking and direction. We need evidence based policies, and not let ANY politician get involved in this. This is an issue of public policy. The government should just develop the correct policies and follow it up. We just do NOT have people with the right skills and attitude right now who are capable. The ones that are there are all failures. Getting foreign experts is the best option we have now.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

Behind muck sold as fertiliser there is no straight business or systems.Behind rubish sold as seeds there is no straight busines so audit.Behind badly administered support schemes there could be mismanagement,inefficiant systems+ fraud ,so Management acounting + audit ,analyse this way to understand each professional in the team.What we need is group that do not sleep on a job but will understand a lot when a little is known & move foward so that problems are identified quickly & treated vigerosly.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

We already have an elaborate and comprehensive systems to test the quality of seeds, fertilizer and Agro chemicals and they are NOT administrators, accounts and auditors. You seem to supporting more regulation and control and that could only be done by the Government. More regulation causes more monopolies and less competition. That is the CAUSE of the current problem. That will only make things worse. What we need here is exactly the opposite. What we need is the introduction of better technology to the farmers. This could only be done by opening up our minds, learning from other more successful countries and accepting new more advanced methods.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

Why are you averse to seasoned people like top administrators,that top accountants or auditors who are exposed to the real world who could crash through those secret little gardens?.Those places where arguments about the costs of such caliber staff is given priority eventually recruit someone who bury their face under heaps & heaps of files whilst billions are lost.Age old outdated strategy of course known those seasoned professionals.What is the total cost of not doing the subject we are talking of?.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Tilak, first, because I myself am a qualified and experienced accountant and an administrator, so, know that that know very well how they think and work. They simply have no expertise in this kind of a subject. That is similar to having a lawyer doing surgery. Second, the current system has hundreds of such people and they have not contributed anything positive. What we need is people with knowledge of public policy, agricultural economics and we do NOT have them right now. Economics is a subject we are very weak at in general. As a result, we have biology graduates making economic decisions.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

My friend I have to state that I do not subscribe to your view & sadly reject it.Note in multinational firms people like U (accountants or science graduates)lead global personal departments showing man’s ability to to transform.
This is no excuse to lag behind.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

That’s fine Tilak you can disagree with anything as you have a right to express your opinion. Yes, I’m a business graduate working in the agriculture industry. Yes, people in business background have achieved wonders in multinational companies. But, please realize that we are talking about problems with the general agricultural system and culture in OUR COUNTRY and that needs a new strategic plan. Running a country needs different skills to that of an organization. Donald Trump is the current example. No matter which government and minister comes into power, our ineffective, incapable and corrupt policy makers have been doing the same thing over and over again. This is the reason why despite billions being allocated at every budget for various government programs, we have achieved nothing.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Tilak, you have the typical policing system of solving problems which is the cause of the current problem. Let’s accept, if we were a developed law abiding society like Singapore, it could be effective. But, you know very well how corrupt our country is. We can’t practically change Agriculture without changing the whole of society. The only way to give better quality products to the consumer is to increase the competition. Then the better ones will survive and bad ones will perish. Again, simple economics.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

My dear friend you are talking of the very long run desired status. About the long run.One economist said “that in the long run we all are dead”.Also note that in Singapore(our dream land) if one spit on the road or in a public place U had it at the police.When prior to your landing in Singapore Airport what did the in flight announcements stress again & again.If someone is caught with drugs penalty is death & no appeals.I do believe U are un aware of those container loads. Cheers & have fun..

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

One economist’s funny comment about the definition of the long run doesn’t mean we have to stop planning for the long run. Yes, strategy is about long run and administrators are generally not good strategists. Tactics are for the short run. We are playing tactical games without a strategy in Agriculture in Sri Lanka. I’m only talking about how disciplined Singapore is. People are extremely scared of the law. You look at any crime statistics and it proves the point. We are definitely NOT a Singapore and that is why we can’t expect legal and administration solutions to solve this problem.

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

In conclusion “to live the long run we have to sustain short & medium run”.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Yes, we have to match the short to medium term action to match the long term objective of increasing the productivity of our farmers. Only the correct introduction of modern technology can do that,

Tilak
Tilak
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

News article on old Sathasivam Murder case is food for thought – Public used to say those days the .”Molgha has murdered the lady of the house”.A solution/looking into without capable persons means may be technology + machines have sold muck to tea & other farmers(seeds,fertilizer ect ect),,support schemes for exports offered much belated support for farmers of export products because a computer played socks & not for the sake of importers & also due to lack of other resources,Revised pensions after rectifying anomalies after 12 years by the new govt for 70- over 90 year old,s are still being calculated for by few divisional secretarial offices(most have don this) in spite of govt providing resources is purely due to computer errors/& since god is playing tricks..Nothing to worry these issues will be self corrected within two generations. .

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Tilak

Nice funny story. This is of course the attitude we have right now. There are many funny stories we can relate to this topic. But, of course, there are many countries where there is less such jokes, but far ahead of us in Agriculture, like Taiwan. Those farmers are laughing at our waste, stupidity and incompetence. We should at least learn a few lessons from them.

Aravinda
Aravinda
6 years ago

Dear Sl,
People like you who give this “wanse kabal” stories like ” peradiga dhanyagara” becoming policy makers is the reason why our agriculture is so far behind. What can we show NOW to show our deeds in agriculture? We import about 90% of our sugar when we should be an exporter. The problem is with the policy makers, not politicians. How many capable agricultural economists are there in the Department and Monistry of Agriculture? None. All policy decisions are made by biology graduates. What knowledge do they have about agricultural economic policy? As the writer concedes, this is simply a matter of economics, and we need to look into this problem from that angle.

expat
expat
6 years ago
Reply to  Aravinda

just to add, people in the ashcharyaland have no regard for economics or economists. look what happened to the guy who got elected as an economist to the diyawanna hotel – made deputy on foreign relations LOL.
or as someone in the know explained – everyone in the powerful positions consider themselves well versed in economics , so much so that policies are changed as and when they please to suit the changes in economics : just check out the story about vehicle imports and changes that happened within one month. RUBBISH

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  expat

yes Mr. Expat. Even in yesterday’s Leader papers Dumi boy in charge of Agriculture is saying we need to produce all our seeds in Sri Lanka because it is costing lots of money. You know how much? $2 million per year and at least 50% of those varieties can NEVER be produced in our country anyway. That is the cost of about 55 permit BMWs, or the value of 2 day’s requirement of sugar import into this country. Silly idiots. Why, biology graduates making economic decisions. We do not have good economists in such places.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago

Just read the papers today and look at what the new government policy in Agriculture is. They want to plant fruit, vegetables etc. in vacant lands in Colombo as if lack of land is the biggest problem in our country. As if, Colombo living people have the best knowledge of agriculture. Really stupid policy makers. What we really need is to increase the productivity and efficiency of the EXISTING farmers and their farms. The professional ones who are making a living out of it. What are they doing about them? Nothing, except to give them some cheap subsidized rejected fertilizer. All that is imported by the Government too. Why? Corrupt Politicians, officers in the ministry and department of Agriculture are making lots of money doing that. The current corrupt system of giving subsidized fertilizer is one of the biggest causes of problems we have.

RanFerdi
RanFerdi
6 years ago

If we are to compete with international markets we need to adopt to GMO and hybrids.. If it is right to import GM wheat flour and feed the masses why are we not allowing hybrid nd GMO seeds.?

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  RanFerdi

RanFerdi, you are perfectly right. But, you will be considered a terrorist by our Government officials if you push this. They will find you, humiliate you and punish you as if you have committed rape. That is how strong this anti-modernization camp is in our country. I’m taking a lot of caution in hiding my identity in writing these comments too.

RanFerdi
RanFerdi
6 years ago
Reply to  Rupe

I think there should be some companies with business interests behind these so called anti-modernize politicos.. We need to expose these educate farmers and push this ahead for the betterment of agriculture. If not we will be isolated.

Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  RanFerdi

Maybe some big companies are behind this. Most of them are led by retired or ex Department and Ministry of Agriculture people. It is a kind of a mafia. The worse part is they are putting all kind of fear to the general public and that is causing the public to reject new technology. False GMO fear is the best example.

Kelegama
Kelegama
6 years ago
Rupe
Rupe
6 years ago
Reply to  Kelegama

Sorry Kelegama to say this, but there is nothing new in this article. This is the same attitude the previous Chintanaya had, with a different name. Don’t forget, this president was the Agriculture Minister some time ago, and could do nothing about these issues at that time thanks to those officers. (But, of course, he was still way better than all other incapable ones we have had in the recent past.)

The problem is the policy makers, who are the experts, not the politicians who are practically helpless. No matter who comes into power, it is the same old failed policymaker giving the same old advise in a slightly modified manner to match the Minister’s level of knowledge about the subject. They do things only to save their jobs. Just like what we have seen in “Yes Minister” TV series in the 1980s.

The current President has to get a new set of advisers in Agriculture. The currently available ones are totally corrupt and incapable. We need to get them from overseas.