‘Fertilizer subsidy’ has become a popular topic of informal discussions among almost every fraction of society fuelled by fierce resistance from the farming community to changes implemented through the recent budget proposals by the government. Unfortunately, legislators/policymakers also seem to be in a dilemma partly due to the controversial demands of their vote base, raising [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Myths and realities of fertilizer subsidy: Will it protect the farmer, consumer and the nation?


‘Fertilizer subsidy’ has become a popular topic of informal discussions among almost every fraction of society fuelled by fierce resistance from the farming community to changes implemented through the recent budget proposals by the government. Unfortunately, legislators/policymakers also seem to be in a dilemma partly due to the controversial demands of their vote base, raising concerns over pollution and food security. We applaud the government for being brave enough to withdraw the fertilizer subsidy partly and making room for public debate so that better options could be identified. There is no division of opinion among soil scientists relating to the decision on withdrawing of fertiliser subsidy, and this article elaborates our justification to support it with few suggestions to be considered in a new subsidy programme.

Soil – the treasure of farmer
All early civilisations are rooted in ‘fertile’ soil. Sustaining a fertile soil signifies sustaining a civilisation. Farming is heavily dependent on fertile soils, which provide all essential needs of a growing plant, water, air and nutrients. Soil which provides nutrients to a crop in adequate quantities, in utilisable forms and in a balanced manner is usually referred to as a ‘fertile’ soil. Removal of a large amount of nutrients as crop yield cannot be replaced naturally and soil fertility declines rapidly if nutrient exploitation is faster than rate of replenishment. Crop production in such soils declines significantly over a short period. Applying chemical fertilizers or other sources of nutrients is a must to achieve the potential yield of newly improved crop varieties.

Yet this practice would not help to sustain yields in the long run mainly due to two reasons; firstly, only three or four essential nutrients of the 17 are added to soils repeatedly.  Secondly, organic fertilizers such as compost, manure or crop residues which provide all essential nutrients and improve soil properties enabling of high nutrient retention are seldom incorporated to soils. The unavoidable outcome of such practice is yield stagnation. Then, the common corrective measure practised by farmers is to increase the dose of chemical fertilizers applied relying upon the myth, ‘more fertilizer gives more yield’!  Unfortunately, this practice converts soils less hospitable for crop growth resulting in heavy losses of fertilizers, ultimately polluting water and atmosphere.

Healthy soil is the wealth  of a healthy nation
Improper use of agrochemicals has been often been cited as the major culprit of CKDU (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology)prevailing in the agricultural areas of the dry zone. Although this is yet to be proven scientifically, there is adequate evidence to show that soils under intensive agriculture and associated environments have been polluted with residues of agrochemicals and impurities therein. As a result, beneficial soil organisms are killed and the functions of many important ecosystems carried out by them come to a standstill. Crops grown on contaminated soils tend to accumulate more toxic substances in the edible parts and release more toxic substances to water and atmosphere. Live examples for such are those grown with vegetables in Nuwara Eliya and Kalpitiya.

There is research evidence on elevated levels of phosphorous and heavy metals such as cadmium in soils of some farms in the upcountry and cadmium levels of cabbage and carrots grown therein reaching closer to the upper limit of the permissible level. Presence of nitrate in drinking water sources above permissible levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been reported repeatedly in Kalpitiya. Soils could make toxic substances less available and detoxify by soil organisms with adequate amounts of organic substances only if adequate amounts of organic matter is available. Therefore environmental and health costs of this wrong practice are unaffordable by a poor nation. Why don’t we implement effective measures to protect our fertile soil with the same spirit and effort made on safeguarding race and religion etc? Is it due to ignorance or negligence?

Has fertilizer subsidy  triggered overuse?
We can’t give a clear answer to this question using statistics but overuse of subsidised inputs (in comparison to a recommendation) has been recorded in many countries including the US and India. As revealed by researchers, in the past, introducing a subsidy and controlled retail price always increases fertilizer use i.e. due to increase in land area under cultivation or due to increase in the application rate. A substantial increase in fertilizer consumption in 1993 over 1992 was accounted due to an increase in the land area cultivated. During 1997 -2005, subsidy was confined to urea and its consumption reached a peak in 1999 due to an increase in urea application rate. A study conducted by W.M.L.K Wijetunga and co-authors on Kethata Aruna subsidy programme implemented for rice in Minipe revealed that the fertilizer use, crop yield and the cultivation extent have increased by 32 per cent, 17 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively from 2005 to 2007 implying an increase in rate of fertilizer application.

Although a majority of farmers are aware of fertilizer recommendations made by the Department of Agriculture, they do not consider it as mandatory to apply fertilizers according to a recommendation simply because farming today is a profit oriented business with a great risk to many stakeholders.  Maximum yield with maximum affordable inputs is the misunderstood rationale behind this business. The decision of farmers on the rate of fertilizer application is highly subjective. The general practice of a significant population of farmers is to add fertilizer to maintain the greenness of the crop, a sign of getting the maximum yield. Farmers who grow rice in both seasons add all issued fertilizers for each season to the rice crop unless compelled to sell a portion due to an urgent need. Farmers who are ambitious and financially stable, purchase additional quantities of fertilizers from the open market or from other farmers.

The land/service tenure is also a key driving force targeting high yields thus with high possibility of overusing fertilizers. Those who grow a cash crop in Yala and rice in Maha season generally save a portion of fertilizers issued for rice for the following cash crop. Thus, lower amounts of fertilizers are added than recommended to the rice crop. However, farmers are under the belief that unutilized fertilizers by the previous cash crop would remain in the soil and fulfil the nutrient requirement of the rice crop. This is a myth. This practice should not be permitted under any circumstances as overuse of fertilizers always degrade the soil and pollute the environment. All in all, it is beyond doubt that the majority of farmers do not follow proper practices. If this is the prevailing situation, the goals of a fertilizer subsidy programme would not be met and, perhaps undesirable impacts would nullify whatever yield benefits obtained.  In this context, it is crucial to identify the best subsidy scheme that assures the sustenance of agricultural production in the long-run and secure farmers and consumers.

Incentives to protect farmer, consumer  and the environment
We are of the opinion that subsidies for rice should be continued but subsidy for cash crops should be granted following a thorough analysis on present nutrient management practices. As a country, a gradual phasing out of the subsidy should be planned to make farmers financially well off.  Certainly, subsidizing the fertilizer using the earnings of taxpayers is not the best way to assure security of food in terms of quality and quantity. We strongly believe that any subsidy programme should encourage proper use of inputs while sustaining productivity of soil. In this regard, paying guaranteed minimum price for paddy would be more effective over paying cash based on the acreage. In the absence of a fertilizer subsidy in 1980, 1984 and 1993, the guaranteed price for paddy allowed farmers to keep purchasing fertilizers as required.

There was a gradual increase in fertilizer consumption up to 17 per cent from 1990 to 1993 implying that demand for fertilizers increased faster with increasing paddy price than subsidizing fertilizers. However, farmers will keep increasing fertilizer application rate only up to a point where yield response is evident. If necessary, additional support such as loan/insurance should be introduced to farmers belonging to low income category to purchase inputs initially.  Promoting proper nutrient management practices The correct use of nutrient inputs based on a ‘soil test’ is a must to achieve yield targets, maintain soil productivity and environmental health.  It may not be possible to launch island-wide soil test programmes with available facilities within a short time. Irrespective of such difficulties, this good practice should be initiated at least area-wise avoiding bureaucratic inefficiencies so that farmers will be motivated. The Soil Science Department of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya has an analytical service for soil, plant water and fertilizer testing.

We could offer the service at a nominal fee for farmers in selected areas considering it as a national service until adequate analytical facilities are made available by relevant authorities. Using organic inputs such as manure, compost and crop residue, etc. should be promoted by providing incentives. This could be identified as a soil conservation subsidy and implementation of such would need the introduction of a good practice of record keeping by farmers and a mechanism of collecting information at the farmer level. At present, animal manure is added often to vegetable growing soils and in organic farming without assessing their quality. Monitoring of their quality by the responsible authorities is essential since incorporation of high doses of animal manure is one of the main reasons for elevated levels of heavy metals and phosphorous and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in up country soils. Besides their application rates should be recommended considering ‘soil test’ and chemical fertilizer inputs.

Promoting eco-friendly  technologies
A recent issue of the Scientific American magazine (January, 2016) published an interesting article on ‘Microbes added to soils could boost crop production’. It explains research carried out by the leading US agribusiness company Monsanto along with other firms on hunting beneficial soil microorganisms that could be used as seed inoculants to boost crop growth with a cut down of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If successful, this would change the product base from chemistry to biology and would be a landmark in the history of developing agricultural technology. Shouldn’t it be a national policy to promote use of such local products if success is proven in the field?  What should be grown is a choice partly made by the environment (i.e. soil, water availability and climate) and partly by the land owner. Diversifying the land use is an effective measure to reduce risks and uncertainties in crop production.

This strategy was effectively used in New Zealand following withdrawal of the agriculture subsidy. Is there any land use policy for agriculture and to which extent, policy makers could influence farmers on selecting crops? Growing traditional rice varieties in a small area for the household consumption has become popular among rice farmers in the dry zone.  This is a good practice that should be promoted due to two reasons; one is that a niche market has already been established for traditional rice.  Secondly, as a result of not adding chemical inputs, soil grown with traditional varieties will be less polluted. Besides, their higher organic inputs in terms of root exudates and straw would make soil more fertile than those grown under improved varieties allowing more beneficial microbial communities to be re-established.  Year 2016 has been declared by UN as the International Year of Pulses, aimed at increasing their consumption and reducing nitrogen fertilizer inputs.

Including pulses in crop rotations is a practice encouraged always. The extent of growing green gram, cowpea and black gram in four districts was about 30,000 ha in 2012. Their cost of production was less than 25 per cent that of chilli and red onion. Farmers who grow pulses with high demand for human consumption also deserve receiving a soil conservation subsidy since fertilizer inputs are less and incorporation of crop residues to soil substantially improve soil quality.  Implementing an effective agricultural subsidy to satisfy multiple objectives is a challenge. For this, the consent of all main stakeholders is crucial. We appeal to ‘patriotic’ politicians those who bring farmers to the streets demanding the fertilizer subsidy, to set aside their selfish motives and support correct policy decisions that benefit the nation in the long run. We also request policy makers to analyze all scenarios thoroughly and make a prudent decision on the best scheme that will protect the health of the nation.

(The writer can be reached at  chandir@pdn.ac.lk)

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