Not a day passes without a local TV news channel highlighting the problems of paddy and vegetable farmers largely due to the human-elephant conflict. These days the focus, however, is on farmers unable to get their supply of fertiliser, as a result of which their crops are under-nourished. The same issue confronted the trio when [...]

Business Times

Scaling down


Not a day passes without a local TV news channel highlighting the problems of paddy and vegetable farmers largely due to the human-elephant conflict. These days the focus, however, is on farmers unable to get their supply of fertiliser, as a result of which their crops are under-nourished.

The same issue confronted the trio when they met for their weekly ‘gossip’ under the margosa tree. Despite the lockdown, the three – all living down the same lane – had gathered to enjoy a cup of tea and conversation. Just when I was preparing to warn them that gatherings of this nature are not permitted under quarantine rules, I hesitated as the conversation was too interesting to cut short.

The discussion was also about the fertiliser import ban, which we wrote about three weeks ago, but compelled to revisit the issue due to its seriousness in the national economy which may result in a food shortage, forcing imports as yields would fall sharply.

 “Meka wera-di. Eih pohora pita-ratin gena eka thahanam kare (This is wrong. Why did they ban fertiliser imports?),” asked Kussi Amma Sera. “Kattiya kiyanawa, rasayanika pohora ape soukya-yata honda-ne kiyala (They say chemical fertiliser is harmful to our health),” said Serapina. “Eth kohomada ape goviyo jeevathwenna. Egollo avurudu gananavak rasayanika pohora pavichchi kara-la thiyanawa-ne. Prashnayak ethiwela-nane (But how will our farmers survive? They have been applying chemical fertiliser for many years now and there has been no problem),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu.

The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is firm that the ban will continue; in fact at the first meeting of the newly-formed 45-member committee to move towards a green economy and discontinue the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, it was expressly stated that the import ban decision will not be changed under any circumstances.

Most experts are sceptical that the move would pay dividends in the way the government wants it to – maintain the same production yields and ensure no harm comes to the population through the use of chemical fertiliser which by the way has been used for decades. On the other hand, experts agree that at some point Sri Lanka should move towards organic farming, but point out that the process should be staggered over a period of time – not a sudden halt in fertiliser imports.

As I pondered over these issues, there was a call. It was Pedris Appo, short for Appuhamy, a retired agriculture expert who does farming, on the line. He in fact spoke to me a few weeks ago on this same subject.

“Looks like the government is unwilling to reverse the ban on imported chemical fertiliser,” he said, adding that there would be “serious repercussions”.

“I think there are some influential parties behind the move who have convinced the President that this is the best course of action towards a green economy,” I said, adding that there was also criticism that it was burdening farmers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As an agriculturist I know that this is a foolhardy move as organic fertiliser provides just a small percentage of nitrogen compared to chemical fertiliser. Furthermore, soil adjustment to organic fertiliser takes time and cannot be done overnight,” he said, discussing many other national issues before winding up the conversation.

The need to rethink the import ban policy is echoing across the development landscape, with many experts expressing concern as to the impact on production yields. Here are three views from experts:

Eminent economist, Dr. W.A. Wijewardena, in his widely-read weekly column, begs the question whether the decision is fertile ground for food riots. He says today farmers are cultivating hybrid varieties which depend on the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to sustain the output levels. Hence, when these two inputs are denied to farmers, a sudden drop in the output is unavoidable. It seriously threatens food security, on one side, and causes losses to farmers, on the other. This is fertile ground for food riots and farmer agitations, he says, adding that it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will have an immediate net gain from the ban.

The Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association welcomed the decision to switch to organic farming from a chemical fertiliser-based model but raised concerns on its application without due thought.

It predicted massive economic losses due to potential yield losses in the absence of proper substitutes for chemical fertilisers and pesticides with the implementation of the import ban on fertilisers and pesticides. The immediate adverse impacts on food security, farm incomes, foreign exchange earnings and rural poverty can be detrimental to achieving the cherished long-term goals.

Wicky Wickramatunga, an agri-entrepreneur who has wide experience in the global and local agriculture sectors, says Sri Lanka spends nearly Rs. 60 billion annually to give a fertiliser subsidy to farmers and imports of conventional first-generation fertilisers such as urea, triple super phosphate and Muriate of Potash cost the country nearly US$300 million per year.

But the problem is that the quality assured second or third generation fertilisers such as compound, slow release and controlled release types are hardly being imported to the country.

“Moreover, most of the first-generation fertilisers are imported through tender procedures and it is no surprise that the cheapest and lowest quality fertilisers are supplied to the farming community under the subsidy scheme. Second and third generation fertilisers do not fall under the subsidy scheme and, therefore, a credible comparison of high-quality fertilisers and conventional types cannot be done. There is no doubt that the farmers are using unacceptably high volumes of fertiliser due to two reasons; firstly, because it is given at a highly subsidised price and secondly because the supplied fertilisers are of very poor quality. This has pushed us to use 287.2 kg of fertiliser per hectare of cultivated land, the highest in the region,” he said.

A group of tea plantation experts has also recommended
a gradual scaling down of imported fertiliser, instead of a
total ban.

As I prepared to complete the column, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room with a second mug of tea. Pointing a finger at her, I warned her against meeting her friends in the garden due to COVID-19 restrictions. She sheepishly smiled in response and as I took a sip of tea, I was hopeful that the government would consider the proposals of experts and ensure a gradual scaling down of fertiliser imports, reversing an earlier decision.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

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