ECONOMYNEXT - Sri Lanka is making agricultural policy based on unscientific claims at times with the backing of President Maithripala Sirisena, Plantations Minister Navin Dissanayake said.
"The executive does not understand modern agriculture, whether it is the glyphosate issue or the palm oil issue," minister Navin Dissanayake said at the Colombo Tea Traders' Association Annual General Meeting on August 09.
He said that there has never been proper communication between the President's office and the Plantation Industries Ministry.
"There is a lack of scientific evidence in agriculture policy making," Dissanayake said. "People without knowledge are opposing commercial agriculture."
The president banned the importation of the weed killer chemical glyphosate in 2015, following lobbying that it had caused chronic kidney disease in the dry zone, including in his home district Polonnaruwa.
In Sri Lanka there has been claims by researchers that God Natha had revealed revealedt arsenic is linked to the disease, which were then spread by surrogates.
One paper linking glyphosate to kidney disease of unknown origin which gained wide publicity said no animal studies were done to prove the theory because Sri Lanka was a country where a majority followed the Buddhist faith.
The popularity of the chemical however had led to concerns.
The World Health Organization had classified glyphosate as a Class2a carcinogen which was probably cancer causing with strong evidence on animal studies though there wasn't much evidence on the chemical causing cancer on humans.
Other class2a carcinogens include malathion, red meat, cooking with firewood indoors and high temperature fying.
Sri Lanka's chronic kidney disease is described by the World Health Organization as having an unknown origin.
The ban of glyphosate led to cost escalations for the tea industry, Sri Lanka's second largest merchandise export, with planters resorting to manual labour for weeding and other chemicals.
Alternative chemicals such as MCPA caused some tea containers to be quarantined in countries such as Japan for exceeding chemical residues, leading to loss of business.
Tea exports to Japan fell from 9.1 million kilogrammes in 2014 to 7.4 million kilogrammes in 2018.
Meanwhile, the President in March 2019 also restricted planting of oil palm trees, after villagers and environmental groups claimed the crops absorb too much water and drain water tables.
Asoka Nugawela, a professor in the faculty of agriculture and plantation management at the University of Wayamba, had said that opposition to oil palm cultivation was based on fears that lacked scientific basis.
A draft study by the Central Environmental Authority, on which much of the opposition based, was not signed by four of seven members of the panel which prepared it and contained several wrong conclusions, he had said.
Oil palm extent was only three percent of total land area under plantation crops and posed no threat to traditional crops like tea, rubber and coconut and did not use more water, depleted the ground water table or compressed soil as feared, he had said.
Plantation companies want to expand oil palm cultivation to 20,000 hectares approved by government from 11,000 hectares today to diversify away from traditional tea, rubber and coconut whose prices have fallen in the regular commodity price cycle.
The extent was decided to meet rising local edible oil requirement as oil palm yields were higher than that of coconut, and they require less land and labour which were in short supply.
High import duties on palm oil, imposed to satisfy a powerful coconut grower lobby, was a key incentive for palm oil planning.
Dissanayake said that the 20,000 hectare limit for oil palm was set by ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The minister said that he is willing to work with environmental groups on evidence.
"We can find a win-win solution for everyone," he said.
Minister Dissanayake said he was speaking out because whoever wins the upcoming elections, he would not be a minister next year.