Agricultural pesticide use in Sri Lanka

Friday, 2 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Adverse effects on human health and environment
By Hector Senerath The topic widely discussed at present, ‘the kidney diseases’ suffered by farmers in major rice growing districts such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, attributed to pesticide use as the main cause prompted me to throw some light on the role played by the Department of Agriculture in the introduction of pesticides and the precautions taken for proper use of the same as an experienced extension officer who spent a lifetime in the improvement of rice production in Sri Lanka. In the early 1960s the time I joined the Department of Agriculture, pesticide use was almost nonexistent. The rice varieties grown were mostly indigenous or old improved types and pest problems were few. As such pesticide sale was not a lucrative business. The few pesticides recommended by the Department such as DDT, Endrin, 34DP, MCPA to name a few were sold by the agricultural instructors whenever necessary with proper instructions for use. Farmers often used traditional methods to control pest problems. Similarly pesticide companies were also few. They were mainly importers and suppliers. The above mentioned insecticides were later banned from use having found that they were dangerous to human health and environment. New pesticides were introduced to replace them. The DOA promoted pesticide use among farmers. One example for this was that the amount of sale of seed, planting materials and pesticides was one of the criteria in recommending annual salary increment of the agricultural instructor. As for weeds rice was transplanted in most areas since labour was cheap while it was broadcast sown in areas where the conditions were not suitable for transplanting. On the other hand, the tall varieties could withstand the competition from weeds as well. Therefore very little or no weedicides were used. Instead proper land preparation, hand weeding or mechanical weeding were the methods commonly adopted. Cultural practices like row transplanting that was promoted as the ‘Japanese Method’ and row seeding were also adopted to enable the use of rotary weeders for better weed control. During 1963-64 period the rice yields in Sri Lanka was very low. The average yield stood at around 1.8 kg per hectare. As such most of the national requirement of rice was imported. Similarly in other tropical countries too the average yield was low compared to temperate countries. Revolutionising rice cultivation Having realised this situation the Ford Foundation in the mid ’60s established the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Philippines with the objective of improving rice production in Asia to bring self sufficiency to most countries in this region. As a result the Department of Agriculture (DOA) also joined hands with IRRI to participate in joint research and rice production technology dissemination in order to improve the yields locally with the view of reaching self sufficiency. IRRI was able to revolutionise the rice cultivation in Asia by developing IR8 the wonder rice it was called, by changing the structure of the plant that was traditionally grown in Asia. This plant was short, profusely tillering, fertiliser responsive with very high yield potential. After IR8, more varieties like IR5, IR20 etc. were produced and distributed to countries. Later on local breeders developed varieties with the same traits as in the newly developed IRRI varieties to suit the local conditions. These varieties replaced the IRRI varieties and they were more adaptable to local conditions. The late 1960s and whole of the 1970th decade was named the ‘Green Revolution’ period due to significant changes that was taking place in whole of Asia in the sphere of rice cultivation. During this period top priority was given by the DOA to improve rice production in the country with the aim of achieving self sufficiency. The then Director of Extension Dr. Earnest Abeyratne drew up a plan to make use of the new technology that was being developed by IRRI widely all over the country, and he took some drastic steps like closing down the oldest and the only School of Agriculture for boys at Gannoruwa in order to convert it to an In-service Training Institute especially to provide refresher courses on modern Rice Technology to extension staff. Thus the new technology could flow down from research to extension and then to farmers. For this purpose selected extension officers were also sent to IRRI for specialised training on rice production. They on their return served as Trainers at the In-service Training Institute. Apart from training range Agricultural Instructors and Krushikarma Vyapthi Sevakas (KVS), courses of longer duration were also organised at this institute to train Subject Matter Officers (SMO) who could man the districts as specialists in Rice production and Plant Protection. Thus the channel for information flow from research to farmer was well established for the dissemination of new technology to farmers. Apart from that training was provided to officers of other aligned departments as well. Simultaneously the Seed Division of the DOA took over the task of producing seed paddy of new varieties for distribution to farmers phasing out the production of Old Improved Varieties. Hence the growing of New Improved Varieties caught up with farmers rapidly. As a result the average yields in Sri Lanka rose to 2.4 tons per hectare by 1968. New pest problems By about 1980s the new improved varieties of rice replaced the old varieties almost by 99%. With the spread of these varieties new pest problems (both insect and diseases) also surfaced, needing the use of pesticides. The scientists thought the pest problems could be satisfactorily controlled by using pesticides, so it became a necessity in the package of practices recommended for these new varieties. As a result insecticides were recommended for use on a calendar basis. Similarly herbicides too became necessary due to the short plant type of rice and the high use of fertiliser that enhanced weed competition. The DOA also pushed the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides hard thus making farmers highly dependent on these inputs. Reaching self sufficiency was the main target. For this purpose a new unit called Extension Field Trials (EFT) unit was also set up under extension division to prepare thousands of Field Trials every season containing new varieties, weedicides, insecticides and fungicides to be laid out in farmers’ fields in every district. In addition another set of small demonstrations called ‘Mini Kits’ were also distributed. They consisted of new varieties, insecticides, weedicides and fungicides. The SMOO/paddy in every district conducted these trials/ demonstrations and they were used as tools during training of farmers to show the good characteristics of new varieties and effectiveness of different pesticides. Training received priority in this program; hence a separate division for Education and Training was formed headed by a Deputy Director. Under him more In-Service Training Institutes (ISTI) were set up in the regions. In addition training centres for farmers (District Training Centres) were also established by SMO – Paddy, in every district. Large number of farmers received training every season at these centres in addition to farmer training classes conducted in their own areas (villages). The training covered new varieties and management practices, with emphasis on pesticide use for pest problems and the need for calendar based spraying for prevention of such problems as recommended by the scientists. Due to this campaign the country achieved self sufficiency by about 75% within about a decade. Yields rose to around 3.5 tons per hectare. Sale of agro-chemicals By this time the Agrarian Services Department was formed and the input supply component handled by the Agricultural Instructors (AI) was handed over to the Divisional Officers (DO) of that Department relieving Agricultural Instructors (AII) of that burden so that they could devote full time for technical guidance. Thus the sale of agro-chemicals became the responsibility of the DOO. Consequently sale of agro-chemicals became a private business. Many people and companies also took over the pesticide business. Adding to this, by about 1990 onwards the cost of labour rose so high farmers could not afford transplanting costs. Therefore more and more farmers took to broadcast sowing requiring herbicide use to control weeds. As such herbicides became a part and parcel in rice cultivation. It was a boon to pesticide companies. More and more companies and people took to this business and it gave rise to competition between them thereby embarking on large scale campaigns. Very strong and forceful campaigns by pesticide companies competing with each other made a big impact on farmers changing the attitudes and practices so much so that pesticides came to be known as ‘Beheth,’ medicines for pest problems. Gradually with time, pesticide handling and use was getting out of control. As such the DOA started awareness programs on the hazards of pesticides and conducted training for farmers on safe use of these products. But the impact was slow. As a consequence in the year 1980 an act was passed to control and regulate imports, formulating, transport, storing and use of pesticides. A Registrar was appointed for the enactment of the law. Authorised officers were appointed for districts to supervise and monitor the sale of pesticides. Dealers were trained and issued licenses for pesticide outlets. Some of the hazardous chemicals were banned and all agrochemicals were classified according to its hazardness to health and environment. This enabled to control some of the lapses in pesticide trade and streamline the whole system. But at farmer level misuse and improper use was taking place and there was no tool to correct it other than farmer education. The plant protection arm of the DOA was strengthened with SMOO at district level who had direct contact with the National level Plant Protection Service unit that kept them updated/upgraded regularly through in-service training as well as foreign training. Further more fully equipped Plant Protection Units too were established at district level for servicing and training on proper application methods of agro-chemicals and maintenance of application equipment etc, through a FAO funded project. By this time IRRI scientists also found that total dependence on pesticides is not the answer for pest control, because the pest resistant varieties they developed happened to succumb to pests after some time. This happened due to the development of different Bio-types of the pest that could attack the resistant variety e.g.  IR20 which was resistant to Brown Plan Hopper (BPH) lost resistance to BPH after sometime. Moreover they found that most of the insects found in the rice eco-system are beneficial for the mere fact that they are behaving either as predators or parasites on pests. In other words they are natural enemies of rice pests. It was evident that by conservation and augmentation of natural enemies, damage to the crop or loss of yield could be kept at a low level. Hence it was decided that an Integrated approach to pest control is a better and a safer approach than using one single method such as insecticides. Thus the initiation of the ‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM) approach for pest control in rice was accepted as a new concept. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) The DOA having realised the importance of IPM for reduction of pesticide use urged the FAO at the beginning of 1980 to formulate a project to popularise this concept among farmers. The Entomologist and the Director of Extension together with the Plant Protection Officer of that time having negotiations for several years with FAO managed to finally initiate the IPM program for rice in Sri Lanka. In 1984, four countries were selected to participate in a Regional Project for IPM – Rice. The countries were Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later on the project expanded finally having 12 countries in South and South East Asia participating in the program. At the inception of the project, extension of rice IPM was first implemented using the transfer of technology method. The KVSs and others having been trained first on IPM techniques were instructed to organise one IPM yaya (Tract) per season in their range and train the farmers during the season. IPM was included in the national extension program and it was a compulsory program for extension officers and was evaluated constantly. There were around 2,000 KVSS and about 600 aII in the field. No extra payments were made for this work. It was a national program. The training was done on the conventional farmer training model using teaching aids, etc., with very little practical training. Accordingly it was possible to create awareness among farmers on the role of beneficial insects present in the crop and their conservation. Economic Threshold Levels (ETL) for few major pests was introduced as a tool for action (spraying) by research, whenever pest populations were observed. But it was not feasible at farmer level due to the numbers to remember for each pest and counting. Cultural practices and mechanical methods to minimise pest build up caught up with farmers to a certain extent. Erecting bird perches in the field was one method that became popular, especially to attract nocturnal birds to prey on rats. Small scale evaluation in two districts done at this stage did show a modest reduction in pesticide use among trained farmers. Number of classes conducted by the officer was three on an average per season which was insufficient. Though contemporary conditions were optimal with qualified officers, sufficient field staff and strong policy and operational support the effect was limited. The model worked for simple prescriptions but did not work for complex field problems in pest management. Obstacles faced during program In 1989 under the government’s devolution program the Extension Division of the DOA was devolved to the provinces. Subsequently the KVSS that operated at village level were removed and entrusted with other responsibilities thus causing a loss of trained man power for agricultural extension work. The loss of extension workers at field level created a void causing farmers to seek advice from other sources like neighbouring farmers and pesticide dealers or follow what is shown in media advertisements. In 1990 the Department of Agriculture was re-organised. The Plant Protection Service unit responsible for the implementation of the IPM project that was functioning under Extension came under Seed Certification and Plant Protection Centre. Thereby the support required from Extension lagged behind. Change of officers at decision making level at short intervals due to retirements also affected the program due to change of priorities. After devolution of the Extension Service to provinces the DOA lost some administrative powers over provincial extension services. Allocation of funds from DOA to provinces was also stopped thus preventing the release of project funds handled by DOA to provincial extension services for seasonal IPM activities. Therefore fund allocations for IPM activities in districts had to be done by the FAO, thereafter causing the extension division of DOA to lose interest in the management of the program. All these problems caused the project to scale down its activities in districts. Anyhow the program picked up again with the support of the Provincial Departments of Agriculture and more support from the project after 1994. Mahaweli Authority also joined the program at this juncture. Participatory IPM A development in Indonesia and Philippines that were participants of the Regional IPM Project gave rise to the Farmer Field School (FFS) concept in the late 1980. It was found that the complexity and variability of rice ecosystems demanded a practical educational approach, replacing the message based approach to make farmers understand ecological and agronomic principles. Crop health, not pest control became the central theme in the training. Weekly observations and classes guided farmers through the exercise of agro-ecosystem analysis to make decisions independently. This so called “Participatory IPM” became popular among farmers, trainers and government officials. What is a Farmer Field School? Adults learn best from experience; in the case of farmers from observations in the field. Firsthand knowledge is superior to information received from others. The term ‘Field School’ implies that the field is a learning ground. The farmer field school is a weekly gathering of a group of farmers and their facilitator to learn to observe and understand the dynamics of their crop’s ecosystem. In an exercise called ‘Agro-ecosystem Analysis’ participants depict their observed field variables and make comprehensive decisions on how to manage the crop over the next week. Additional hands on experimentation stresses the strong tolerance of rice plants to stem or leaf damage, which normally triggers unnecessary spraying by farmers, and the importance of conserving beneficial organisms in rice. The training is participatory because the farmers take observations, do analysis and draw conclusions themselves. Moreover group dynamic exercises encourage learning from peers, and strengthen communicative skills and group building. The facilitator avoids instructions or lectures but provide the opportunities for firsthand experience by the participants. He introduces an activity, explains the process and sets the farmers to work. Shortcuts to the learning process are seen as missed opportunities. During group discussions the facilitator fills in with questions rather than solutions. Key principles in an integrated pest management are: nGrow a healthy crop nObserve the field regularly (once a week) for pests and natural enemies nConserve natural enemies in the crop nTake action when necessary IPM field program Sri Lanka following the countries that were already implementing FFS approach got ready to follow suit in 1994. Same year the then President of Sri Lanka in her policy statement stated that Integrated Pest Management would be encouraged in future to minimise health hazards due to pesticides. With the help of the FAO – Regional Project, Plant Protection Service of the DOA organised the first Training of Trainers (TOT) course on FFS in 1994/95 Maha season. Forty-three Agricultural Extension workers from DOA, Mahaweli Authority and two Non Governmental Organisations (CARE and Sarvodaya) passed out as Master Trainers. This was a season long (three month) residential training. Subsequently six more similar training programs were conducted pushing the total of Master Trainers in the country to 251 by 2003 covering all districts and Mahaweli systems in addition to few NGOs. Thus the IPM-FFS program started in 1995 Yala season, spread wide year after year in all districts and Mahaweli Authority areas. Impact of IPM-FFS training: (Results of a Broad scale study and an In-depth study). Pesticide application – The training had a profound effect on the number of pesticide applications. Insecticides were reduced by 81% from 2.2 applications per season in Non – IPM farmers to 0.4 applications among IPM farmers. The organophosphate insecticides used by these farmers belonged to WHO class 11 hazardous classifications. Fungicides – Use was low. It was further reduced by 50% due to training. Herbicides – Use was not influenced by training due to broad cast sowing where other methods like hand weeding or mechanical weeding is impractical. Pests and natural enemies – Farmers were able to identify both groups of insects and their role in the crop ecosystem. Crop management – After training, IPM farmers became thorough with the rice plant life cycle and its requirements at different growth stages making them experts in crop management. Crop yields – Yields at IPM sites were on an average 23% higher than at non-IPM sites. Profits – With lower inputs such as pesticides the profit at IPM sites was as much as 41% higher than at non-IPM sites. Farmer cooperation: The relationship between farmer and trainer (AII) strengthened based on trust and sincerity. Collective action: Consolidation of farmer groups learnt to depend on collective decisions and actions. The FAO-IPM project came to an end in the year 2002. It’s sad to note that the Extension Division of the DOA lacked interest to carry on this program further in spite of the urgent need that prevailed due to ever increasing hazards caused by pesticides. But the Provincial Departments of Agriculture in their districts and Mahaweli Authority in their areas continued the program. But with no further training of trainers the numbers of trained IPM personnel dropped gradually due to retirements and promotions in all districts thus reducing the magnitude of the program. The IPM-FFS program focus on changing the knowledge, attitude and the practices of farmers. As such to obtain a wider coverage of farmers and adoption, the time needed may run to several years unless the program itself is given priority and widened all over the country with government backing. (The Speaker and several ministers including the Minister of Agriculture in the present government have seen the success of the IPM-FFS program in the field.) No extension program involving farmers has been successfully implemented to gain results overnight. Introducing new improved varieties, agro-chemicals and chemical fertiliser took many years but still the farmers need to be guided on proper use of these products. It’s a never ending process. Likewise introducing IPM also needs constant follow up and guidance until the farmers become experts. Present day generation of farmers is literate enough to be able to understand the complexity in the cropping environments and act when guided properly. For the present day problem of health hazards due to pesticides, seeking medical solutions is not the only remedy, finding alternatives for pesticide use is another means to minimise damage to human health and environment. Farmer Field School (FFS) concept is a strong approach to educate and change the behaviour of people. Many countries use this training method to combat many problems. Cambodia does FFS for AIDS management, Vietnam for Dengue management, African countries for dairy management and forestry. In the mean time FAO is presently implementing a Regional Program for Vegetable IPM in Thailand and Vietnam using FFS approach. Although there are no government sponsored programs in Sri Lanka at the moment some NGOs are conducting FFS programs in some villages in Northern District at present on IPM. Plant Protection Service of DOA conducted a pilot project on Integrated Pest and Vector Management (IPVM) from 2002 to 2005 in collaboration with the Anti-Malaria Campaign targeting mosquito control in few selected districts and Mahaweli areas, with funding and assistance from FAO and WHO. FFS approach was used in this instance too. The country has reached self sufficiency now. It is time to look into aspects of management that cause hazards to people and environment they live in and take steps to rectify these problems. In conclusion, Farmer Field School concept which has been proved to be successful locally in introducing IPM is gaining popularity in many countries especially in the developing world. A National Program on these lines if implemented locally would help tackle many problems associated with people’s lives. For this a well planned program with properly trained personnel would be a requirement. (Presently FAO promotes IPM as the preferred approach to crop protection and regards it as a pillar of both sustainable intensification of crop production and pesticide risk reduction.  As such, IPM is being mainstreamed in FAO activities involving crop production and protection.) [The writer is a retired Assistant Director of Agriculture (Plant Protection) and retired FAO/National Expert – FAO IPM Project, Sri Lanka. His experience includes as an agricultural instructor in the field for six years, subject matter officer/paddy and plant protection for three years, rice production trainer for 12 years.]