Those readers who recall the early 1970s may remember what were then known as the ‘Midnight Gazettes’. These were official notifications that came out of the Government Press while the nation slept, only to wake up to find some sudden and radical step taken and given legal effect. Not too different these days are the [...]


The fertiliser ban


Those readers who recall the early 1970s may remember what were then known as the ‘Midnight Gazettes’. These were official notifications that came out of the Government Press while the nation slept, only to wake up to find some sudden and radical step taken and given legal effect.

Not too different these days are the surprises the Government is wont to spring on the people overnight. From the ban on the slaughter of cattle (since reversed) to the ban on the import of palm oil (since amended), now comes the announcement that there is a ban on chemical fertilisers — with immediate effect.

The Government is determined to implement what has been stated in its election manifesto i.e. to pursue a policy that will redefine current agricultural policy that has contributed to the widespread increase in kidney diseases among farmers and cancerous foodstuffs in the market, most of which are attributed to chemical fertiliser. A monk turned politician was instrumental in getting the former President to implement a similar policy starting with the ban on the chemical weedicide, Glyphosate. A state institution for Strategic Enterprise Management was created under the Presidential Secretariat to, inter alia, oversee this policy decision but the agency was no sooner disbanded for lack of implementation after tea plantation managers began complaining that production was getting affected as a result of the ban. The same individual claimed credit for incorporating this same policy in the manifesto of the ruling party.

Nobody in his or her right mind would want fertiliser or agrochemicals that would pass poisonous substances through soil, water, rice, vegetables and other edibles into the bloodstream of the citizenry. The issue at hand is whether the remedy is the cure.

Proponents of this latest ban argue that the use and abuse of imported chemical fertiliser is a multinational conspiracy against the ‘Third World’; that industrial countries themselves have moved away towards organic farming and environment-friendly agricultural practices. They acknowledge the fact that the country is in dire straits with the lack of foreign currency and fear the possibility that opponents of the ban will be quick to say that the root cause of the ban is money.

They want a propaganda campaign that will dispel this notion from among farmers. Again, they say multinationals will be at work to dishearten the farmer by peddling this theory. They warn that Government officials themselves can be hand-in-glove with these multinationals in undermining this conversion to organic farming. They go further to say that most of the seed varieties used by the farming community are linked to imported fertiliser and call for a shift in such practices. They say the Government policy is contradictory by giving large new tracts for farming and then clamping this ban.

Even by what these proponents say, this overnight ban and what is being envisaged by the Government is a humongous task, a revolutionary reform in the country’s agricultural policy.

The critics are many. They are equally adamant that this is a mistake that could have disastrous consequences for the country and its people. Without a proper discourse, and without proper alternatives to supplement the absence of chemical fertiliser and minus any safety net, they argue that it could lead to a potential drop in domestic food production which will result in the need for food imports, which, in turn, would contribute to draining out larger sums of scarce foreign currency.

One of the main reasons they attribute to the problem of fertiliser usage is the poor quality of cheap fertiliser imports so that Governments can give a subsidy. Another is the wrongful and indiscriminate application of fertiliser partly due to the free subsidy and partly due to bad nutrient management by farmers not well briefed on the subject.

While the pros and cons are being debated in the midst of an already imposed ban, one indisputable fact that emerges is that of corruption. A common denominator in Sri Lanka, the State sector and the private sector have been equally in the business. Whether it is the State’s chosen nominees or some in the private sector, they are in the same game. Even the proponents of the ban, those like the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform caution about the possibility of new players close to the Government leadership entering the now open field to do business in ordering organic fertiliser from India, China and multinationals edging out the oldies in the trade. There will be new kids on the block seeing big bucks and new vistas as new avenues open up.

Then there is locally manufactured organic fertiliser that is expected. An academic writes in this newspaper (see Page 4 ST2) that “systems” are such in a developing country like Sri Lanka that there can even be commercial production of organic fertiliser domestically full of toxic material from freely available “sewage sludge and municipal waste”. Horrific as it sounds, these are realities that occur in this country. Take the recent case of the import of cancerous substances in coconut oil, widely used for cooking and the Government’s sheer incompetence in taking proper action on it. When the carcinogenic Afltatoxin substance is discovered by chance in coconut oil by health inspectors, it is simply re-exported. When it slips through, inspection, it is in the open market.

Coincidentally, this week the new Director General of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Sri Lanka assumed office. The WFP is a UN agency helping countries with food security and has been in Sri Lanka since 1968. Sri Lanka is one of 88 countries relying on WFP help. According to WFP statistics, Sri Lanka is 6th in the Global Climate Risk Index due to extreme weather, floods, droughts, landslides etc.; 15 % of the country’s children under five suffer from wasting and 45% of women of reproductive age are obese or overweight. COVID-19 has hampered income earning, impacting food and nutrition security. It is not a rosy picture.

The proponents of the ban on chemical fertiliser cite Cuba as an example of reaching self-sufficiency in organic fertiliser, but Cuba is also one of the 88 recipients of WFP aid. These overnight decisions must not be taken lightly or based on any outdated political ideologies.

Organic agriculture is, no doubt, the ideal future.  But sans proper preparation for a sudden overnight transformation, there can be, and there will be, major issues.

The road to disaster is sometimes paved with good intentions where the remedy might be worse than the problem at hand. In Latin it is said, bona diagnosis, bona curatio. A good diagnosis is required for a good cure.

Typically, the Government has second thoughts after imposing the ban and is expected to issue a revised option tomorrow.


Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.