The above title is not mine, but comes from a politician-turned-agriculture scientist who didn’t mince his words when he described – during a TV interview – the irrational decision of the government to ban chemical fertiliser and pesticides. It’s once again troubled times for Sri Lanka’s agriculture, as the decision by the government was without [...]

Business Times

Heading towards a disaster


The above title is not mine, but comes from a politician-turned-agriculture scientist who didn’t mince his words when he described – during a TV interview – the irrational decision of the government to ban chemical fertiliser and pesticides.

It’s once again troubled times for Sri Lanka’s agriculture, as the decision by the government was without any consultations with key stakeholders. While there is general agreement that organic farming is the future, implementing decisions suddenly without considering the short-term and long-term ramifications would, as the above scientist said, “lead to a famine”.

Having decided that this should be my focus today, I wondered where I should start. And, that opportunity came when the phone rang and it was Pedris Appo, short for Appuhamy, a retired agriculture expert who does farming.

“How are you Appo?” I asked. “Fine…fine. I wanted to talk to you about this ban on chemical fertiliser. It would have a huge impact on us and this has happened just as we are to start our cultivation season,” he said.

“Yes, it’s an inadvisable move. There should have been proper consultation before a decision of this magnitude was taken. Reminds me of the foolhardy move to ban glyphosate a couple of years ago which adversely affected the tea sector,” I said.

“Ministers also don’t know what to say or when to say it. I heard one minister saying that if there is a shortage of production due to organic farming, Sri Lanka will import fruits. Doesn’t he realise that such fruits would have been grown using chemical fertiliser?” he said.

Organic farming globally is small. According to the IFOAM Organics International published in February 2020, 71.5 million hectares of worldwide farmland are organic, representing just 1.5 per cent of global farmland.

One of the problems of chemical fertiliser is its over-use by paddy farmers. Experts say that since the fertiliser is given free (Sri Lanka spends billions of rupees on doling out free fertiliser), farmers tend to abuse its use.

Reduce the subsidy and if farmers have to purchase fertiliser, overuse would end; that’s one way of solving the problem of excess use of fertiliser.  Experts say that rather than ad-hoc, knee jerk responses to a problem, in this case there should have been a 3-year, 5-year and 10-year plan in phasing out chemical fertiliser and replacing it with the organic product.

For the country’s main export crop, tea it’s a double whammy after the glyphosate debacle in 2015.

Here are the words of a tea expert on this issue: “The unscientific, illogical and unwise banning of the glyphosate weedicide had a significant direct impact on all crop production, crop yields, land productivity, labour productivity, quality of the food crops, impacting on the earning capacity and the livelihoods of agricultural sector workers. Sri Lanka has yet not recovered fully from the consequences of the banning of glyphosate and lost some premier export markets like Japan, for instance.”

Asked for his views on organic farming, he said natural organic farming methods do not provide sufficient food crops to feed the population. Intensive crop production with judicious and scientifically recommended application of fertiliser, chemicals and weedicides is required for commercial scale crop production, he said, adding: “Without fertiliser inputs only the marginal crop of a plant according to the natural capacity can be produced, which is totally inadequate for food/crop production.”

He cited an example where a tea estate had transformed to organic cultivation only to see its production drop by 60 per cent.

While the government seems to think there are sufficient stocks of fertiliser for the current paddy season, representatives of private importers say there is likely to be a shortage in the market.

Being a bit hungry, I walked into the kitchen and made myself a chicken sandwich and then was drawn to the conversation under the margosa tree. The overnight rain had cleared and amidst bright sunshine this Thursday morning, I could hear Kussi Amma Sera saying, “Prashnayak thiyenawa pohora gena (There is some problem about fertiliser)”.

“Ow, aanduwa pita-ratin gena pohora thahanam karala-ne. Meka ape rate duk vindina govinta loku balapemak wenna yanne (Yes, the government has banned imported fertiliser. It would have a huge impact on our farmers who are struggling these days),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu.

“Govinta prashna godak thiyenawa wal-ali ekka saha paladawa nethi karana wenath palibodakayan. Den egollanta karadara pita thavath karadara (Farmers have enough problems with elephants and crop losses due to pests. Now they have been dealt another blow),” noted Serapina.

Agriculture specialist Wicky Wickramatunga, in an article on the fallacies of organic agriculture published in this Business Times this week, asks the question: “Can Sri Lanka with a population of nearly 22 million and a landmass of 65,000 square km and a per capita GDP of less than $4,000 be 100 per cent organic overnight?”

He also asks: “Can Sri Lanka double the cultivated land extent of 2.3 million hectares to compensate for the loss of 50 per cent yield by going totally organic overnight? In contrast a pest attack can have devastating results of even a 100 per cent yield loss.”

For the record, paddy production in 2020 increased to an all-time high level, supported by favourable weather conditions and the conducive policies of the government. According to the Central Bank’s 2020 Annual Report, government intervention in the form of the guaranteed paddy purchasing price and the provision of free fertiliser for paddy cultivation contributed to the significant improvement in production in 2020.

Tea production registered a notable decline of 7.1 per cent in 2020 due to adverse weather conditions and labour supply disruptions due to the pandemic. Rubber production recorded an increase of 4.6 per cent in 2020, largely due to attractive market prices and favourable weather conditions that prevailed in the second half of the year, while coconut production declined by 9.5 per cent in 2020, as a result of the lag effect of insufficient rainfall received by major coconut growing areas in 2019.

Winding up my column while continuing to munch the sandwich with sips of hot milk tea from a mug, my thoughts were on the need for a pragmatic approach to the problem. It’s not too late for the government to consult key stakeholders on the organic issue and reach a consensus after consultation.

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