The challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector have come to light on many occasions in the recent past, due to issues pertaining to the lack of irrigation facilities, fluctuating production levels, increased responsibility on the country’s agriculture sector due to import bans, and microfinance debts affecting the farmers.
However, the newest reason behind the country starting to talk about the agriculture sector again is the Government’s plans to switch from chemical fertiliser-based agriculture to organic fertiliser-based agriculture. Even though the overall idea of organic agriculture is seen as an eco-friendly, inexpensive farming method, Sri Lanka is still struggling to figure out whether this move is a blessing or a curse, as it entails a number of massive changes in the agriculture sector.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement said that the importation of chemical fertilisers will be completely stopped in the foreseeable future, while gradually increasing the production of organic fertilisers in the country, as despite the chemical fertilisers’ contribution towards obtaining high crop yields, the profit earned does not reverse the harms caused to the people by polluted water. Also, he announced the Government’s plan to establish organic fertiliser-based agriculture in the country, and that instead of the fertiliser subsidy, steps would be taken to provide farmers with organic fertilisers.
Sri Lanka spends $ 400 million to import fertilisers.
Today’s Spotlight looks into practical matters pertaining to the Government’s plan and the status quo of its implementation.
Plan vs. implementation
According to groups working with farmers, even though farmers do not necessarily oppose the Government’s plan, they have doubts as to the implementation of the plan, especially due to the nature of the traditional farming methods they are accustomed to.
In this regard, the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) said that farmers are of the general opinion that the Government’s plan may beget many practical issues and challenges, and that the country is yet to begin a proper discussion among farmers about the implementation of this plan.
“There is a certain way farmers engaged in their agricultural activities in the past 40-50 years, and they look at these issues based on that experience,” MONLAR Convenor Chinthaka Rajapaksa told The Morning.
In this context, due to the Government’s hasty decision, farmers have doubts about continuing their farming activities, he said, adding that such doubts are also a result of the discrepancies between politicians’ plans and the implementation of those plans in the Sri Lankan context. He noted that when it comes to implementing political decisions, most of the time, it is the general public that has to experience the adverse impacts of such decisions, and that in this case, it is the farmers who will have to endure such consequences.
Meanwhile, over the past few days, certain political parties also raised concerns about the Government’s plan to switch to organic fertilisers, concerning themselves with the practicality and implementation of the plan.
According to politician and former Governor Dr. Hemakumara Nanayakkara, who is also an agriculturist who has a doctorate in organic agriculture, the Government’s plan, which he referred to as a shortsighted decision, has the potential to even push the country towards a famine. He opined that prior to taking the said decision, the Government should have carefully studied the ground-level situation, taking into account the opinions of the experts in the field.
He explained: “Our lands have been cultivated using chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals for a long time. Chemical fertilisers came into existence after World War II, and before that, we had a non-chemical agricultural system. Thereafter, in the 1960s, Dr. Norman Borlaug, who initiated the Green Revolution, started breeding new varieties and hybrids which have a very high responsiveness to agrochemicals, chemical fertilisers, and micro irrigation. The varieties we have at present, be it pumpkin, chillie, capsicum, tomato, or potato, are new, improved varieties, and therefore, they cannot be grown under organic agricultural conditions. Our traditional varieties, such as traditional rice varieties, tomato varieties, and carrot varieties can be grown under organic conditions. However, this little information has not been understood by the Government, and the President has taken a decision to promote organic fertilisers hastily. But, I am sure that the President has been misled by groups who do not understand agriculture and do not possess even a rudimentary idea about agricultural science. So, this is an impossibility. From the exportation of tea, rubber, coconut, and other crops such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, Sri Lanka earns a total of around $ 2,200 million, whereas we spend around $ 400 million for the importation of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals.”
Adding that this decision, if implemented without research, will create major chaos in the country and that the country will head towards a famine, Nanayakkara said that in the event of a famine, Sri Lanka will have to resort to the importation of food, as some authorities have already stated. He noted that that would not be an advisable option, as most of the imported food are chemically produced.
“The moment the ban on chemical fertilisers comes into effect fully, the crop production will go down drastically. According to my estimate, it could be 50-70% and marginal tea lands will face a dieback situation due to undernourishment. When tea, rubber, coconut, and minor export crop production declines, Sri Lanka will lose the international market. Other countries including India, China, and the Philippines will take advantage of it, and in the event we lose the international markets, how are we going to manage it?” Nanayakkara queried, adding that it is practically impossible, because Sri Lanka’s cost of production is much higher than some of the other countries that compete with Sri Lanka.
He noted that importing would not be easy owing to the Covid-19 pandemic prevailing in all countries including in mainstream food producing countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia, from which Sri Lanka will likely have to import food. Further, he noted that even if foreign countries came forward to assist Sri Lanka, most of the food items contain toxic substances, as commercial crops are most of the time cultivated using chemical fertilisers. He also said that some crops are difficult to be cultivated in Sri Lanka, and that the country would have to import them regardless.
Nanayakkara explained: “The present Government says that Sri Lanka should switch to organic agriculture immediately, in order to produce food items which are free of toxic substances. But, today, we import wheat, and even 10 years from now, we will still have to import wheat, because wheat cannot be grown under our climatic conditions. So, all the wheat flour we import is chemically produced. Not only wheat flour, tomato puree imported to produce tomato sauce and a large number of food items we import are actually genetically modified. In this context, importing food items to deal with a shortage of harvest caused by the sudden switching to organic fertilisers is not an option.”
If Sri Lanka stops chemical fertilisers only to import chemically produced food items, what is the meaning of this plan, he questioned. He added that regardless of whether foreign countries would assist Sri Lanka in the event of a famine, the country should still face the true issue pertaining to switching to organic fertilisers.
According to Chinthaka Rajapaksa, there is also an issue of farmers and fertiliser sellers hoarding available fertiliser stocks, which is partially a result of the Government’s plan.
He explained: “The Government has already imported the fertiliser needed for the Yala season, and there are adequate stocks at Ceylon Fertiliser Co. Ltd. and Colombo Commercial Fertilisers Ltd., the two foremost companies distributing fertilisers. However, since a discourse began in light of the Government’s plan, an unwarranted fear has arisen. Farming activities of the Yala season have already started, and under the fertiliser subsidy, around 50-60% of the fertiliser has already been distributed among the farmers.”
But, there is a certain shortcoming, Rajapaksa said, adding that there is a mafia in many industries where those who have stocks of goods hoard them when there is a possibility to sell them for a higher price. He noted that fertilisers also face the same issue.
He noted: “According to the information I have received, since there is a certain tense situation in the society about the fertiliser issue, certain parties are reported to be hoarding fertiliser and also selling fertiliser at exorbitant prices. There is also a high possibility that issues may arise concerning the fertiliser needed for other crops, and the fertiliser hoarding issue is most likely to affect other crops and their farmers also.”
A long-term process
Speaking of how to properly implement the Government’s plan, Nanayakkara suggested that Sri Lanka should, first of all, identify the varieties which grow under organic agricultural conditions, and as the second step, should start organic agriculture from barren, uncultivated lands, not the lands which are being cultivated at present.
Elaborating on this, Nanayakkara added: “The reason is that when transforming a land cultivated under the chemical agricultural system to a land where an organic agricultural system can be used, it will take at least five years for the naturalisation of the soil. The soil has to be naturalised as mycorrhizas, nitrifying bacteria, and other beneficial fungi and bacteria should grow naturally in this soil. In fact, we will have to grow these things in culture, and introduce them to the soil to expedite this process. An analysis in this connection has not been done yet.”
He further cautioned that the Government, before going ahead with this plan, should obtain expert opinions. He also urged that President Rajapaksa take immediate action to revoke the decision to ban chemical fertilisers until proper research about the matter is conducted.
“If we initiate this plan step by step, everyone will support. Otherwise, farmers would be affected and will give up farming,” Nanayakkara opined.
He noted that even though organic agriculture is not a bad thing, Sri Lanka should phase this process properly, and go phase by phase. He said that the country should conduct proper experiments in this connection, before actually implementing any plans.
Meanwhile, expressing similar opinions, Chinthaka Rajapaksa said: “I do not think that anyone in Sri Lanka is ideologically against the main objectives of this plan to switch to organic fertilisers; it is the practical aspects pertaining to its implementation that raises concerns. Academics, researchers, and chemical fertiliser companies also have a similar opinion – they say that if the Government’s plan could be implemented properly, it would result in very good benefits. Scientists and researchers as well as the Department of Agriculture are also of the same opinion.”
However, despite allegations that the Government does not have a proper, long-term plan to stop chemical fertiliser use, the authorities maintain that the Government has identified the potential repercussions of switching to organic agriculture immediately, and have a long-term plan in place.
State Minister of the Production and Supply of Fertiliser and the Regulation of Chemical Fertiliser and Insecticide Use Mohan Priyadarshana De Silva, who was unavailable for immediate comment yesterday (6), told The Morning late last month that a number of preliminary activities are being carried out in connection with this plan, and that it will take some time to fully implement the Government’s plan to guide farmers to use organic fertilisers to the maximum level possible.
He further said that the Government had allocated a sum of Rs. 1 billion to promote organic fertilisers in the country. He noted that Colombo Commercial Fertilisers Ltd. had been tasked with producing organic fertilisers, and that the Cabinet of Ministers had granted approval to it. He added that his Ministry is working towards implementing the Government’s plan to switch to organic fertilisers, and that in a context where Sri Lanka spends a massive amount of money for chemical fertilisers and farmers misuse chemical fertilisers by using more fertiliser than they should, this move will be beneficial to the country in many ways including the lessening of health issues pertaining to the use of chemical fertilisers.
Meanwhile, National Fertiliser Office Deputy Director Kasun Mahathanthila, also confirmed that the Government is in the process of taking preliminary steps to promote organic fertiliser in the country.
He added that certain steps in that connection were taken in the Yala season, and that farmers of around seven districts have been issued organic fertilisers. According to Mahathanthila, for the time being, it is expected to complete the overall process of switching to organic fertiliser by 2025.
He noted that the progress of the said small steps in the coming few seasons would have to be evaluated, in order to plan and implement the future steps in this connection, and that since the ban on chemical fertilisers has not been implemented in full, the results of the steps taken would be helpful in determining the future course of action in this regard.
Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage, and his Ministry, were unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, expressing concerns similar to those of Chinthaka Rajapaksa and Nanayakkara, Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) President Thilak Kariyawasam recently told The Morning that switching to organic farming is not something that can be done overnight, and that when the required soil fertility is not available, it is not possible to build it up in a short period of time. He noted that it would take two to four seasons to achieve the required soil fertility.
According to Kariyawasam, the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) programme must be first encouraged among the farmers, before they gradually shift to organic agriculture. Commenting on the systematic changes that are needed for the implementation of large-scale organic farming, Kariyawasam said that trained agricultural officers are needed from the Department of Agriculture. He also alleged that at the time the shift takes place, farmers would have questions about the farming methods that are practised with the use of organic fertilisers, adding that as per his knowledge, the Department does not have many officers to engage in this process.
Attempts to contact Department of Agriculture Director General Dr. W.M.W. Weerakoon to inquire about the Department’s role in this process, proved futile.
However, speaking to The Morning recently after the announcement about the Government’s plan, Dr. Weerakoon said that even though the Department does not advise anyone to use chemical or organic fertilisers, it endeavours to raise awareness about the scientific aspects of the use of fertilisers. He also noted that not only does it take time, it also causes a decline in the harvest and affects the production, and therefore, it should be implemented gradually.
Plans, despite their attractiveness and timeliness, need to also be practical and beneficial in the long run. As a country that has witnessed more than enough projects that led to no considerable result, the farmers’ uncertainty about this plan are justifiable. To rectify this, the authorities need to not only have plans in place for the implementation of this plan, but also to raise awareness among the stakeholders, especially farmers, who are the main beneficiaries of this plan.
Also, as some who spoke with The Morning stressed, this plan should be a collective effort of farmers, the authorities, and the experts in the field, which would bring together practical, economic, policy, and scientific aspects.