We are facing the most turbulent period in the agricultural history of this country. Unavailability of fertilisers has triggered farmer unrest across the country. Farmers who are supposed to be cultivating the fields at the onset of the Maha season are holding placards and protesting on the streets, following an abrupt government decision on organic [...]

Sunday Times 2

Agriculture crisis taking Lanka towards major catastrophe, soil scientists’s body warns


We are facing the most turbulent period in the agricultural history of this country. Unavailability of fertilisers has triggered farmer unrest across the country. Farmers who are supposed to be cultivating the fields at the onset of the Maha season are holding placards and protesting on the streets, following an abrupt government decision on organic agriculture conversion.

A fraction of paddy farmers have started the cultivation without adding much-needed phosphate fertiliser as basal dressing. A majority of farmers have not started cultivation due to the fertiliser shortage. Nitrogen fertiliser supplies are long overdue while there is uncertainty over their availability. The net result at the end of the season would be a reduction in national food production.

Farmers who should be in their fields cultivating are protesting on the streets. The issue has led to fears of a coming food crisis

On the other hand, our precious soil resource is in imminent danger due to unchecked imported organic fertiliser. As a professional body having a history of 52 years and a membership of more than 300 soil scientists from universities, research institutes, the Agriculture Department, the Export Agriculture Department and the private sector, the Soil Science Society considers it as a responsibility to raise its voice on behalf of the 1.7 million farmer families and the Sri Lankan people, against the ad-hoc decision taken by policy makers.  It is noteworthy to mention that we conveyed our concerns on importing organic fertiliser to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa through a letter dated May 16, 2021.

An organic fertiliser product has been ordered from abroad, however the samples failed to meet the standards stipulated by the Sri Lanka Standards Institute. The country was fortunate to detect the presence of pathogenic microorganisms in samples of this product, which would have otherwise been allowed to be brought in and applied in bulk quantities to the precious soil of our country, causing serious issues for generations to come.

We, the soil scientists, reiterate our stance that organic and biofertilisers should not be imported and applied to our precious soil resource under any circumstance. We again emphasise that the damage to our soil by such application will be irreversible.

To make up for the delayed supply of the imported organic fertiliser, as an ad-hoc measure, a liquid nano-urea fertiliser was imported without following the standard procedure. The importation of this liquid fertiliser containing only 4% nitrogen (N) is beyond the comprehension of the knowledge of the subject specialists.  The Agriculture Department adopts a standard procedure when introducing a fertiliser to the country. Thus, a new fertiliser is first subjected to laboratory tests followed by field efficacy tests to ensure the suitability of the product and assess the possible implications on the environment. This procedure has been strictly followed for decades to protect the soil resource and the agriculture system with a view to putting the public funds to good use.

A large sum of public funds, 39 million US dollars (around 7,900 million Sri Lankan rupees) is being spent on importing the nano fertilizer. But its suitability for our crops and environment is uncertain.

Although an ad-hoc recommendation was made for the use of nano fertiliser in paddy cultivation, according to calculations, it would provide only 0.6% or a fraction of the total nitrogen requirement for paddy even with three applications during the growing season.

Further, we wish to highlight that there is no scientific basis for replacing urea with nano-urea since neither heavy metal nor other toxins are found in urea. Instead of importing costly nano-urea, judicious application of urea is needed to minimise the possible negative environmental impact due to loading for nitrates in surface and ground water.

Another ad-hoc importation was unprocessed Potassium Chloride (KCl). However, the potassium and heavy metal contents of this imported fertilizer are not known. If this product contains heavy metals exceeding permitted levels, the risk for soil, water resources, environment and the human health is high. Therefore, ensuring the quality of imported KCl is essential before distributing it to farmers.

Furthermore, it is disappointing to note that these developments have caused ad-hoc spending of public funds to buy organic fertiliser, the efficacy of which is not known.

Scientific basis for conversion
to 100% organic agriculture

As a scientific community, we recognise the strategy to “promote and popularise organic fertiliser during the next ten years” as mentioned in the Government’s election manifesto “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor”. Moreover, the recently developed National Agricultural Policy has highlighted “the gradual increase in the extents of land with organic ameliorations” in policy action 3.10. Such a strategy would have allowed identifying ground realities and setting realistic targets for organic agriculture.

However, we regret to note the nonscientific, short-sighted and unprofessional advices have misled the Government to take a rash decision on April 28, 2021 and issue a gazette notification on the abrupt shift to 100% organic fertiliser-based crop cultivation and the ban on importation of inorganic fertiliser.

As a professional body, we are in a position to scientifically challenge the false claims behind this decision, mainly the slogan “Wasa-Visa” that is being tagged on the inorganic fertiliser and linked to the prevalence of the Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka’s dry zone agricultural regions.

Extensive studies show there are no direct effects of inorganic fertiliser on CKDu. Instead, elements such as magnesium and fluoride and their interaction with the hardness of water have been reasoned out as the probable cause. It is pertinent to point out that Sri Lanka’s wet zone where there is intensive cultivation is surprisingly unaffected by CKDu.  We regret to note that few medical professionals are continuing to mislead people and decision makers in this regard.

Nutrient management is carried out and recommendation about fertiliser types and application rates made based on long-term crop response studies by crop research institutes. These studies are designed based on scientific principals in crop physiology, soil science, agricultural chemistry, agro-ecology etc. For example, nitrogen fertilisers should be applied in split dosages considering the requirements at different crop growth stages, available amounts in the crop field and fate in soil after application.

Inorganic fertilisers have been recommended for crops in Sri Lanka since 1950s and they are recognised for the increased yields enabling to feed the exponentially growing population of the country. Organic amendments have been long recognised for improving the soil health as complementary to inorganic fertilisers. All crop research institutes stress the importance of organic fertiliser application as a soil amendment, along with chemical fertilisers, in all their fertiliser recommendations with proven results.

Moreover, judicious use of inorganic fertilisers by adopting integrated plant nutrient management practices is the expert recommendation on nutrient management for all crops.  We regret that these crop research institutes’ recommendations have not been considered when taking this rash decision.

Moreover, decisions on mainstreaming sectors such as agriculture, where nearly 25.5% of our labour force is involved should have been taken in a more responsible manner considering food security and socio-economic impacts.

Recently, the Soil Science Society opened a platform to discuss the feasibility of 100% organic fertiliser-based agriculture with the participation of experts in different crop sectors. Based on the available scientific evidence, the conclusion was that national level 100% organic fertiliser-based agriculture is practically impossible and will lead to a considerable decline in yields of paddy, tea, rubber, coconut and other export agricultural crops.

We wish to reiterate to the decision makers that food security is the main pillar of national security and damage to the country caused by such short-sighted decisions will be irreversible.

The way forward with good
agricultural practices

The country is presently experiencing adverse consequences of this short-sighted decision triggered by polarised advice. It is a scientifically proven fact that present agriculture production systems cannot sustain the expected high production levels with 100% organic fertilisers. This is the reality for a country like Sri Lanka which has diverse soils and climatic conditions. Therefore, the national level implementation of this short-sighted decision would lead to a food shortage in the country and malnutrition in the long-term.

Moreover, there is an apparent danger of farmers moving away from agriculture due to low returns causing tremendous negative impacts on the socioeconomic status of the country.

Tea, spices, vegetable and fruit crop sectors will suffer with the unavailability of quality fertiliser in time in terms of yield and quality losses. This again will badly reflect on the GDP of the country and foreign exchange earnings. In the absence of proper standardised procedures for the manufacture and distribution of organic fertilisers, there is a danger of sub-standard products flowing into the market.

As previously experienced in attempts to ban commodities in Sri Lanka, there is a possibility of black-market products entering the country. The quality as well as the environmental and health impacts of such unauthorised products cannot be predicted. Thus, the long-term impacts on the soil resource and environment would be tremendous.

In view of the above facts, soil scientists fear that the country is heading towards a catastrophe. We strongly suggest that the Government to reconsider the decision on banning the importation of inorganic fertilisers and formulate strict guidelines to adopt integrated plant nutrient management practices. The Agriculture Department has already developed Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and site-specific nutrient management strategies to support integrated nutrient management delicately balancing the use of organic and inorganic fertilisers without compromising food production and soil degradation.

We as professional soil scientists are always willing to provide expert advice to resolve the present crises and ensure the sustainability of agriculture in our motherland. Unless the decision is reversed, the objective “Building up a healthy and productive nation guaranteeing the people’s right for safe food”, stipulated in the national policy framework “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” could not be achieved.

(Prof. W.A.U. Vitharana,
President Soil Science Society,
Sri Lanka can be contacted via email:


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