First there was euphoria from the agriculture sector. Newspaper headlines screamed that the ban on chemical fertiliser has been reversed amidst the issuance of a gazette on chemical fertiliser, which was lapped up by the industry. Finally, it was whispered in industry circles that the government had realised its folly and corrected the issue by [...]

Business Times

Return to sanity


First there was euphoria from the agriculture sector. Newspaper headlines screamed that the ban on chemical fertiliser has been reversed amidst the issuance of a gazette on chemical fertiliser, which was lapped up by the industry. Finally, it was whispered in industry circles that the government had realised its folly and corrected the issue by reversing the ban.

In the meantime, some importers of chemical fertiliser, sensing that some clarity was required on the proclamation, were in contact with government officials to find out what the new directive meant.

Their joy was short-lived. The gazette issued on July 30 under the signature of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was only for selected chemicals to be imported to mix with organic fertiliser, aimed at increasing the nitrogen content in organic fertiliser. At the same time, the President’s Office denied that the ban on chemical fertiliser had been lifted. The industry, particularly, the tea sector was shattered.

“This is very worrying. We don’t know how to proceed with the constant changing of the goalposts. We are bound to lose our tea markets when production becomes costlier and quality drops using organic fertiliser,” said a top tea industry official, who had hoped the government would reverse the ban on chemical fertiliser following a prolonged outcry over the move by the industry, scientists and agriculturists.

Their general message was that while shifting to organic fertiliser is a healthy move in the right direction, it cannot be done immediately but should be phased out over five to 10 years.

As I pondered over these issues on this bright Thursday morning, the phone rang. It was Pedris Appo (short for Appuhamy), a retired agriculture expert who does farming, on the line.

“Hello… have you been following this week’s developments on the ban on chemical fertiliser,” he asked.

“In fact, I was planning to write about it. But tell me what can you make out of this gazette notification on liquid fertiliser imports?” I replied.

“Well, what the government has done is to allow the import of certain chemicals to increase the nitrogen content in organic fertiliser. Under the mineral or chemical fertiliser category, the import of mixtures of ammonium nitrate with calcium carbonate is to be permitted; superphosphates under phosphate will be allowed; and three of the fertilising elements – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium will be permitted. These are among other chemicals that are to be permitted on a restricted basis,” he said in explanation, adding that the President would never go back on his word of banning chemical fertiliser as its impact on food affects the people’s health.

As we ended our conversation after discussing many aspects of the negativity of the ban on chemical fertiliser, I looked towards the margosa tree where the trio was in conversation.

“Okkama rajayata weda karana kattiyata wedata enna wunane sanduda. Bus saha kochchi pirila thibba (All state employees were asked to report to work on Monday. The buses and trains were crowded),” said Kussi Amma Sera.

“Eka honda theeranayak neme ne. Mokada corona kattiya godak wedi wela ne (I think it was not a wise decision as the number of cases of coronavirus has increased),” noted Serapina.

“Den baala kattiyath merenawa ne me ledeta. Ispirithala pirila (Now there are young people also dying of the disease and the hospitals are overflowing with patients),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Coming back to today’s topic, some agriculturists cannot understand the logic of imposing chemical fertiliser sanctions on the rubber sector, for example. “We don’t eat rubber – so how can that be harmful to our health? Some of these decisions are illogical,” said one agriculturist.

The ban on chemical fertiliser stems from an increase in chronic kidney disease (CKD) especially in the North Central Province, which has been blamed on water contaminated with chemicals used in fertiliser. While there is a division of opinion on this research, another problem is the overuse of fertiliser by farmers since it is subsidised and offered cheap. Experts say the solution lies in removing the subsidy on chemical fertiliser which would reduce the quantities used by farmers; not totally banning it.

Be that as it may, tea industry officials fear a drop in quality of tea owing to the absence of chemical fertiliser which would result in markets being lost just like Sri Lanka lost the Japanese market for premium tea over the ban on glyphosate use during the previous regime. “Anything in excess is not good for health. As far as the tea industry is concerned, there was no overuse of chemical fertiliser and the right quantities were used,” said one tea official.

The new permits to import quantities of nitrogen are to boost organic fertiliser ahead of the forthcoming Maha season in September-October. Chemical fertiliser was used during the Yala season which is coming to an end, while there were also shortages experienced by farmers who have been protesting across the country demanding their fertiliser supply.

According to experts, the content of nitrogen in chemical fertiliser is over 40 percent while the nitrogen content in organic fertiliser is a mere 4-5 percent. That’s the reason why the government has permitted nitrogen imports to boost that content in organic fertiliser. However, such nitrogen-boosting chemicals would only boost the nitrogen content to a maximum of 15 percent in organic fertiliser, which would still result in lower food output.

The decision to allow nitrogen-boosting chemicals is also specific to sectors like floriculture and horticulture. However, since such chemicals are expensive overseas, it remains to be seen whether farmers can afford it or whether the government would subsidise such material to make organic fertiliser use more effective.

This week’s gazette also comes after tea smallholders, among other formal tea sectors, have had discussions with the authorities to import compost fertiliser containing nitrogen, warning that if such fertiliser is not available, the crop loss would be disastrous.

There has been a plethora of comments and criticism of the government’s chemical fertiliser policy and many articles on this topic in the Business Times pointed out the folly of this move. In one article titled ‘Chemical fertiliser ban: A policy blunder’, two scientists – Ms. Hasara Rathnasekara, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya and  Dr. Pradeep Gajanayake, Faculty of Technology, University of Sri Jayewardenepura – wrote that in implementing a fertiliser ban, the government ignored complementarity between land, labour (domestic inputs) and inorganic fertiliser/pesticides (imported inputs).

“Crops may expect yield reductions due to less or no chemical fertilisers. Such yield reductions will have spillover effects on raw material suppliers, collectors, transport agents, processors, wholesalers, retailers, consumers and may diminish export competitiveness. Low yield and low income may lead to a surge in rural unemployment and poverty,” they wrote.

As I watched Kussi Amma Sera bring into the office room my second mug of tea, I realised it’s still not too late – just like the decision to allow nitrogen-boosting chemicals – to phase out the ban on chemical fertiliser.

PS: A friend mentioned that Sri Lanka doesn’t have enough compost and other raw material like cow dung to produce organic fertiliser. “They might have to import cows not for milk but to get sufficient quantities of cow dung,” he laughed. I gently warned him that this is no laughing matter but a matter of life and death for Sri Lanka’s farmers.

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