Nutritionalising the soil | Sunday Observer

Nutritionalising the soil

12 June, 2021

This article is part of a new series by the Sunday Observer on nutritionalising (fertilising) the soil. The earth is a living being. The soil, is its main component and to it we all return. The soil of a country is considered sacred. To consume what is grown out of a nation’s soil is considered a pride. To preserve these plants and nurture them are considered sacred duties. This is what ancient Lanka excelled in.

The ancient inhabitants of this land knew that the wellbeing of the soil, and of plants, humans, animals and the maintenance of water resources, were not separate entities but interlinked factors that make up the whole. Thereby, they created strong policies for the safeguarding of all these components as part of sustaining life within a nation. They were well aware that if there is a breakdown in even one of the interwoven criteria that the cycle of abundance of a nation would collapse. They knew that such a situation would make us vulnerable as a nation.

Stringent rules

Thus, they created stringent rules in the preservation of plant life and the conservation of that mandatory resource; water, without which soil will not be fertile. They respected, revered and preserved forests which were a spiritual extension of our ancestors. In the process of agriculture, the creatures of this earth who also battle for survival just like us were not brutally massacred – but instead solutions to keep them from totally destroying crops were found from nature itself; different plant compositions were used to chase them away by repelling them. Our ancient documentations in ola leaves have some of this information.

With regard to paddy cultivation, the small bird, the wee kurulla, considered the patron of the paddy field which weeded out insects that attacked the harvest was rewarded with a small segment of the crop for its hard work. Today, we will be lucky to see even a single wee kurulla in our paddy fields. They have all been killed by the science of chemical agriculture along with the earthworms and other insects which enrich the soil. We have to understand that these creatures are unique to each variety of soil and thus make up that particular bio-diversity range unique to each nation. It is our duty to protect ours.

This nation did not have a history of having a hue and cry about fertiliser. Everything of this earth returned to this earth as fertiliser. These included the leaves and the twigs that dropped from the trees, the faeces of animals, the water base of the soil, the food waste that was returned to earth and earthworms and other creatures that lived within the soil; all these were part of the nutrition base of earth.

Pre- colonial past

We are speaking here of our pre-colonial past when we did not buy lock stock and barrel whatever that the West or any other nation came up with as a solution to any problem. We are talking of a reality that existed before we purchased the conclusion that we can no more cultivate without imported hybrid plant varieties developed overseas. Hence, much of what we eat in this country are not endemic to this land – the indigenous seeds or the deshiya beeja of the country that are nutrient powerhouses.

These indigenous seeds have been killed because we falsely learnt that we cannot protect our crops without weedicides and pesticides that not only kill off the soil and weeds and pests but also other plant species and above all humans. This carnage is because we changed our pattern of consumption – our food (from the earth following the most natural process) and became entrenched into an ‘industry’ (and thereby an artificial science led process).

Because we have become such addicts of Western knowledge and because we have not taken steps to preserve what was ours, many of our intellectuals, especially those who have studied abroad believed that we had no alternative.

Our intellectuals who study environmental and agrarian sciences in Western nations lack knowledge of the vast heritage we had that was connected with the agrarian sector. They lacked knowledge that the agrarian sector was immersed with the foresting tradition (we did not clear lands to be like deserts just to be able to feed humans). We had the ancient tradition of chena (slash and burn) cultivation dating back to 5000 years where small patches of land within forests were cleared and burnt (not in the manner that we do today).

Whatever the step that was taken was in a manner that did not ruin any of the earth’s creatures and with an utmost sense of respect for the soil, plants and animals. Both our pre and post Buddhist history is entwined with nature and many spiritual rituals and traditions were associated with harvests. To hurt a tree or a plant or an animal in the process of harvesting was considered an akusal. Our westernised education have ruined this sensitivity of ours.

The aim of this column is to remind ourselves that we had a heritage where we were a robust, healthy nation, producing our medicine and our food. We were self-sufficient. We did not have the craze to import everything and anything.

Therefore, today when we have such poor confidence of what was ours, we have to remind ourselves that before pesticide, weedicide and agro chemical induced fertiliser was introduced to us, we followed nature as the master. We did not try to distort nature.

Today, we consider it a fashion to sweep away leaves fallen from trees and take pride in vast lawns. This is not our culture. Every leaf that fell from our trees returned to our earth. Empty vast lawns was not our tradition; if there was such a land we cultivated on it.

Major challenge

Today, we have a major challenge. We have the challenge of de-colonising our minds. The best of us who think we are nationalistic may need to do some deep reflective thinking; not because we are not nationalistic but because we have absorbed into our psyche Western science beyond the rational limit. We have begun hero worshipping the idea that our ancient systems and knowledge do not fit into this modern world and that our ancient food and medicine are inferior to the Western science decreed alternatives.

A nation that does not use its own intelligence and inherent knowledge for modern challenges but only depends on the so called expertise of others is on the cusp of self-destruction.

At least now we have to make an effort to become a nation that takes pride in its own knowledge and look towards putting such knowledge into practical use. In these times of pandemics and health related uncertainty we need to create wide scale social awareness within the country of how the wellbeing of the soil should be nurtured and how this means the wellbeing of us all.

Today, there is an artificial fear being induced that a lack of imported fertiliser will kills us all from starvation. As long as each of us are aware that we can help into life within the earth a plant and feed it with the earth’s bounty we need not fear.

Colonial rule

Being under long drawn colonial rule, having allowed our age old agrarian systems that co-existed with the eco system and bio diversity to fade into oblivion, Sri Lanka formally resurrected organic agriculture in the 1980s. This is twenty years after the ‘scientific’ had invaded our minds through the Green Revolution of the 1960s where we were told that chemical agriculture saved millions of people from starvation. This theory could be countered by observing just one ordinary vegetable plant in a garden which could be seen as yielding enough for continued consumption, even without much human effort including even constant watering or using disintegrated leaves and twigs as fertiliser. Leaving nature to its own devices to sort itself out is called Sobadaham Govithena (which those such as Thilak Kandegama has knowledge of) and this is just one branch of ancient agrarian practices.

Yet, with this rich past, we opted to buy the myth that agro chemicals, weedicide and pesticide were compulsory to get us ‘poor, developing countries’ as we were labeled out of ‘starvation.’ Somehow, we never got round to thinking how we survived during the times of our kings when we had large populations, sustained by our intelligence, our age old knowledge systems and our commitment to the land.

Despite this heritage of ours, the tragedy is how we became beholden to the Green Revolution, remaining dumb in the face of rising diseases; from cancer to diabetes, watching in silence as our farmers became ‘addicts’ of poisonous substances that transform the earth into a graveyard for all other living beings were traditionally part of the eco system that gets involved in the food production process. We also were seemingly oblivious that this new survival mode was costing the country millions. Our money was being drained out through multinational chemical companies for the purported reason of feeding the nation ‘scientifically.’

Chemical fertiliser

With chemical fertiliser what can be observed is that there is a better harvest when they are first used but there is a gradual decline because of the dying of the microbiota (Bacteria Funghi, Viruses, Nematodes, Worms and Insects) that sustains all plant life – which is what sustains the luxurious growth in a forest, where the leaves and twigs that fall of trees make up the rich dark nutrition for the soil that surpasses any artificial fertiliser.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which once staunchly promoted chemical agriculture was forced to change its stance in 2015 when two United Nations experts on hazardous substance and waste and right to food called for worldwide phase-out on the use of highly hazardous pesticides in the backdrop of governments, businesses and others from around the world gathering  in Geneva, Switzerland, for the fourth meeting of the International Conference on Chemicals Management in September and October 2015. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substance and Waste, Baskut Tuncak, was quoted then as saying that  the risks are particularly grave in developing countries “many of who import these highly hazardous pesticides despite having inadequate systems to reduce risks.” We can see here in the comments of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substance and Waste, the danger to which we have fallen because we have not used our common sense, dulled in the stupor that any Western ‘discovery’ or ‘knowledge’ is superior to ours.

We should then, each of us introspect, whatever our academic qualification or social or political position is whether we know the basic ancestral knowledge regarding nutritionalising the soil which was a core aspect of ancient agrarian science. In these pandemic times it would be pertinent to mention that our agrarian science was part of our medical science. All our indigenous plants/fruits double up as food and medicine.

Heirloom rice

Our heirloom rice varieties have high medicinal properties such as eliminating threats of diabetes and cancer. Everyday herbs used in our food are termed super medications by foreigners for whom these are luxuries. Yet, we depend on foreign solutions for our health challenges. Chemical agriculture threatened the existence of many of our indigenous plant and seed varieties including rice but there are many in Sri Lanka who attempt to revive this heritage.

To all those who are working on education reforms in this country ensure the revival our ancient agricultural knowledge and our ancient medical knowledge through our school curricula. For this we need to treat as national treasures the few persons in this country who still retain such knowledge. Without this, we will be forever at the mercy of foreign nations for our wellbeing and survival.