“For sure, the double-edged legacy of the Green Revolution which promoted high external inputs in agriculture must be critiqued. Past mistakes can be rectified at least now.
“However, corrections have to begin upstream by questioning macro-level policies. For example, for half a century, Lankan farmers have had a huge — 90 per cent — state subsidy on chemical fertilisers. This does not encourage thrifty use, yet successive governments have hesitated to fix the massive drain of taxpayer funds.
“Thus, mass kidney failure is more than just a public health emergency or environmental crisis. It is symptomatic of cascading policy failures in land care, water management and farming over decades.”
This is an excerpt from the first of a monthly series of analysis blogs (columns) I will be writing for SciDev.Net in 2014.
Titled “Going upstream for lasting kidney disease remedies“, the first essay looks at the broader implications of a chronic kidney disease that is spreading in India and Sri Lanka for which medical and other researchers still cannot pinpoint a specific cause.
I have been writing and broadcasting about this public health issue for sometime, and have listened (or interviewed) most key players on the Lankan side of the investigation. In this opinion essay, I look at the policy dilemmas and healthcare challenges posed by Chronic Kidney Disease of uncertain aetiology, or CKDu.
I argue: “There are no quick fixes. In searching for solutions, health and environmental activists must rise above their single-issue advocacy positions. They can bring grassroots concerns to national debates. Collaboration – not confrontation or conspiracy theories – is the need of the hour.
“Hijacking a human tragedy for scoring some debating points is not worthy of any true follower of Rachel Carson.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I look at the lasting influence of Silent Spring, a popular science book that first came out 50 years ago, and is now widely regarded as a book that changed our thinking about the environment.
Its author, marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) was an early practitioner of evidence based policy advocacy. She was measured in what she wrote, and asked more questions than she could answer at the time. Yet the chemicals industry accused her of being anti-progress and scare-mongering. Smear campaigns targeted her as a single woman, and suggested that she was “probably a Communist”. How she weathered this storm holds valuable lessons for all modern day activists.
Despite the recent International Year of Chemistry (2011), chemicals don’t get good press in Sri Lanka. If at all they make it to the news, or become a current affairs topic, that is usually as a bad story: a chemical spill, water contamination or suspected pesticide residues in our food.
All these happen, and we should be concerned. But chemicals are everywhere in our modern lives — reducing drudgery, protecting us from disease and overall improving the quality of life. It’s all a question of balancing risks with benefits. Also discerning what we really need as opposed to what we want.
Focusing on bad news is the media’s typical approach, and demonising science and technology is common in many sections of our print and broadcast media. Such posturing also fits well into the prevailing narrative of the ‘whole world being out to undermine, destabilise and destroy us’. So chemical industries must be part of that ‘conspiracy’, no?
Many of Lanka’s environmental activists don’t allow facts and analysis to get in the way of a good scare story. Uncritical journalists and their editors often peddle their half-baked arguments and conspiracy theories unsupported by any evidence. Very few scientists speak out for science and reason.
I based my talk on five scientists each of who took on once-revered chemicals and formidable industry interests, all in the public interest. By showcasing these champions of public science, I wanted to show that there are honest, diligent scientists who engage in evidence-based advocacy. Not all scientists are part of some global conspiracy to poison us…
I ended by urging journalists to look for credible and moderate scientists who are led by evidence, not conjecture or prejudice. Amplifying their voices is something we in the media are well positioned to do, but don’t do nearly enough.
Presentation to Media workshop on scientific reporting on chemical issues, organised by Centre for Environmental Justice in Colombo, 25 September 2012: