Importation of chemical fertilisers will be stopped completely
- Fishmeal, bonemeal and bloodmeal are also considered as organic sources to provide nitrogen and phosphorous in an organic setting, if they are produced using organic inputs
- Policy changes that can do good, can also do harm. It is customary in policy formulation and implementation to look at relevant cases in other countries or in this country
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stressed that the importation of chemical fertilisers will be completely stopped in the near future. The usage of chemical fertilisers leads to a better harvest. However, the negative consequences caused on human lives through pollution of lakes, canals and groundwater due to the chemical fertilisers outweigh the profit. The health sector has pointed out that the effects of chemical fertilisers have led to a number of non-communicable diseases, including kidney diseases. The expenses to treat these patients and the impact on human lives caused by these chemical fertilisers remain high. In order to produce a healthy and productive citizenry, the government must ensure the right of the people to access a non-toxic and balanced diet. President Rajapaksa said that measures will be taken to ensure that only organic fertiliser would be used in the agriculture sector in the country in the future.
"The President said that organic fertiliser will be provided in lieu of the concessionary fertiliser package for farmers. The President highlighted that the annual sum of USD 400 million spent on fertiliser imports could be used to uplift the lives of the people"
The President shared these views at a meeting held with the heads of State Corporations and Statutory Boards at the President’s House and said that all the respective parties should intervene to increase the production of organic fertiliser in the country. The President said that organic fertiliser will be provided in lieu of the concessionary fertiliser package for farmers. The President highlighted that the annual sum of USD 400 million spent on fertiliser imports could be used to uplift the lives of the people. The President said that the people expected a change in policy by electing him to the Office. President Rajapaksa said that the support of everyone was needed to fulfil those aspirations for the country.
Organic agriculture (OA) is considered a strategy to make agriculture more sustainable. Bhutan has embraced the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100% organic nation. By analysing the recent on-farm data in Bhutan, we found organic crop yields on average to be 24% lower than conventional yields.There was a considerable reduction in Bhutan’s GDP, substantial welfare losses, particularly for non-agricultural households, and adverse impacts on food security.
More importantly, around 25.5% of the population in Sri Lanka engage in agriculture, though the sector’s contribution to GDP is as low as 7.3% (2020 data) The sector has been affected by low productivity, water and land use inefficiency and high post-harvest losses for a longer period of time. These are the areas Government would have paid much attention prior to completely stopping of chemical fertilisers.
In this context, it can be assumed that the President has decided on this nationally important subject of agriculture and completely banning the fertilisers in a wrong line may be based on someone’s incompetence guidelines considering only on few positive impacts to numerous negative impacts which affects not only the farmer community but also the consumer community in this country. It is simply too important a decision to be taken by the President alone. In the final analysis, radical decisions taken in good faith will lead to a situation where the farmer will be dragged from the field to the road, which will deal a severe blow to the local agriculture sector.
GOVERNMENT HAS NOT DONE ITS HOMEWORK ON THE FERTILISER, PESTICIDE & WEEDICIDE BAN
Professor Rohan Samarajiwa, a much respected scholar and think- tank with vast experience in policy planning categorically described the ill effects of completely banning of chemical fertilisers. The Cabinet Paper banning fertiliser, pesticide, and weedicide imports with immediate effect that was rubber-stamped without discussion or scientific research, constitutes a sea change in Sri Lanka’s agriculture policy. Its implications for consumers, for the livelihoods of farmers, and for those who have invested in agriculture and related sectors are vast.
Despite the 20th Amendment, it is wrong to marginalise Parliament and to ignore state agencies with expertise. Because Agriculture is a devolved subject where officials in the Provincial Councils should be consulted even in the absence of elected Council Members. Given the expropriate effects on the private property of those whose investments are affected, the authority of the Courts as the guardians of fundamental rights and as the upholders of equity is likely to be invoked.
"The Cabinet Paper is rather unusual. The entire justification for the proposed actions is anchored on the President’s election manifesto. No references are provided to studies, committee reports, etc. It is foolhardy to build national policy on the weak foundation of manifesto promises. Each manifesto contains panoply of promises"
NO MANDATE FOR CHANGE
The Cabinet Paper is rather unusual. The entire justification for the proposed actions is anchored on the President’s election manifesto. No references are provided to studies, committee reports, etc. It is foolhardy to build national policy on the weak foundation of manifesto promises. Each manifesto contains panoply of promises. Was the vote a considered approval for each of those promises?
The primary purpose of a manifesto is to convince citizens to vote for the candidate or political party presenting it. The secondary purpose is to gain legitimacy for specific actions. Manifesto- making is political not scientific or systematic.
Those who have been involved in manifesto making will testify to the opacity of the process, wherein what is accepted one day can disappear the next day and new clauses and conditions can mysteriously appear even after the “finalisation.” Though, contributions can be sought, and consultations conducted, in the end, decisions are made by a few in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms.” A manifesto is, at most, broadly indicative of orientation and priority-setting. Given the partisan and opaque procedure used to develop a manifesto, errors and impossible promises are unavoidable.
But because the Cabinet Paper lacks any other justification, one must look. Rather than rely solely on the quoted excerpts,the proposed actions are inconsistent with the language of the manifesto.
According to professor Samarajiwa, a change in a policy with broad impact requires care and caution. The change may do much good, as the Cabinet Paper claims. Because of the repeated claims that our food is contaminated with “vasa visa,” most consumers would support a change away from chemical fertiliser and pesticides. But they are unlikely to accept higher prices and unavailability. Hotels are unlikely to accept “ugly fruit.” Growers are unlikely to accept drastically reduced yields and/or inability to market their produce at prices that are above costs of production. The net benefit must be demonstrated, not simply asserted.
Growers large and small will be unhappy about being unable to recover the investments they have made in preparations for growing or in crops in the ground by this sudden reversal in policy. This response will also be shared by other participants in the sector who had entered perfectly legal contracts but are now unable to clear their shipments from the port. It is common sense for the Government to give adequate notice of a change in policy or the law so that affected parties can make the necessary adjustments to their business practices minimising losses.
"Professor Rohan Samarajiwa, a much respected scholar and think- tank with vast experience in policy planning categorically described the ill effects of completely banning of chemical fertilisers. The Cabinet Paper banning fertiliser, pesticide, and weedicide imports with immediate effect that was rubber-stamped without discussion or scientific research, constitutes a sea change in Sri Lanka’s agriculture policy"
Policy changes that can do good, can also do harm. It is customary in policy formulation and implementation to look at relevant cases in other countries or in this country. Risk assessment, identification of collateral effects, and careful structuring of rules to avoid negative outcomes can be done by government officials or by external consultants with the required expertise.
The President claims that Sri Lanka will be the first to go all-organic. A cursory Internet search will show that a fellow SAARC country, Bhutan, announced the intention to go all-organic in 2008; and that its experience has been assessed by independent scholars and published in the peer-reviewed and open scientific publication PLOS ONE in 2018 (DOI =10.1371/journal.pone.0199025). The abstract states:
Based on these yield gaps, we assess the effects of the 100% organic conversion policy by employing an economy-wide computable general equilibrium (CGE) model with detailed representation of Bhutan’s agricultural sector incorporating agroecological zones, crop nutrients, and field operations. Despite a low dependency on agrochemicals from the onset of this initiative, we find a considerable reduction in Bhutan’s GDP, substantial welfare losses, particularly for non-agricultural households, and adverse impacts on food security.”
Does this mean that no other country should go all-organic? No. Is this the only study? No. The purpose of looking at the experience of others is to learn from them. It is irresponsible not to make the effort to mitigate the negative impacts which will fall upon consumers, growers and others in the sector and to design the policy most suited for local conditions.
Even within the country, prior knowledge existed because the fiasco of the previous government’s effort to promote organic farming at the behest of Ven. Athuraliye Rathana, MP. That ended with much waste of public funds and the shutting down of the implementing agency, SEMA. It would not have been all wasted if the present government made the effort to learn from it.
The government appears to have learned little from the palm oil ban that had to be walked back and modified. It is normal procedure to circulate a Cabinet Paper to all relevant Ministries for their input and to win concurrence. Walking back and modifying is what happens when this procedure is not followed.
This blanket ban does not affect only food items consumed within Sri Lanka. It also affects subjects under multiple Ministries. It can devastate non-food segments such as foliage exports. It is likely to strangle the fast-growing fruit and vegetable export industry which was subject to rigorous enforcement of standards such as Euro GAP that my organisation worked on with the Department of Agriculture and the Exporters Association. The legislature can choose to take actions that result in such collateral effects. But it should at least have considered them. This Cabinet Paper does not.
A POLITICAL DECISION THAT IS NOT TOO PRACTICAL
The political decision to ban completely the chemical fertilisers has now created dispute among farmers. It was also reported that farmers across the country already started facing a shortage of fertilisers for the current Yala season although the authorities claimed adequate stocks were available. The previous Yahapalana government also made a political decision for a “non-toxic agriculture” back in 2016 and how the programme failed and even the government institution -- Strategic Enterprise Management Institute (SEMA) – which was entrusted to implement that programme was closed down in 2018.such experiences in the past are the reasons why farmers are uncertain and confused after the President announced the complete ban on the import of agrochemicals.
Dr. Warshi Dandeniya, a Senior Lecturer and presently the Head of the Department of Soil Science, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka said that the production of organic fertiliser required for all crops may not be possible immediately and it would take a long time to produce the required quantities. Chemical fertilisers gained prominence globally during the Green Revolution after World War II. Plant breeding produces high-yielding crops. Crops also needed nutrients for high yields. This created a high market for chemical fertilisers with high concentrations of nutrients that plants could easily absorb. Chemical fertiliser support was essential for even the most genetically productive plants. “Accordingly, the high-yielding crops and chemical fertilisers that came to the market after the Green Revolution was a combined package. The result is that the growth of the plant breeding process over half a century goes hand in hand with chemical fertilisers,” It was the origin of agrochemicals.
HOW AGROCHEMICALS HAVE BECOME SUCH A BIG PROBLEM IN SRI LANKA?
According to Dr. Dandeniya, “One of the major problems in Sri Lankan agriculture is the application of fertiliser outside the fertiliser recommendations. Farmers misuse or overuse fertiliser. When more fertiliser is applied, they can be washed away and added to water sources. The relevant nutrient content may be greater than the amount a plant needs. When used sparingly, the plants may not get proper nutrition, which can lead to many diseases. Both of these methods cause damage. Also, soil degradation is accelerated as the soil contributes as much as possible to the plant with less fertiliser application.” A proper assessment of many factors including geographical distribution of farmland and cultivated crops is required, if a concrete decision is to be taken in relation to Sri Lanka as well.
“Sri Lanka’s agricultural economy is associated with various events such as paddy, vegetables, plantations and flowers. There are also separate public corporations associated with those sectors. Therefore, agriculture in Sri Lanka is an institutionally highly structured subject. There are also different varieties of organic fertilisers. There is an organic fertiliser with added charcoal. The carbon in such fertilisers sometimes does not decompose for about a hundred years. As mentioned above, farmers also use chemical fertilisers at different ratios regardless of the recommendations.”
"As all of us are in a pandemic situation, no government in the world will take such a decision in a crisis like this. Unfortunately, haphazard and arbitrary decisions like this, will deter any investors coming to Sri Lanka. Without doubt the foreign Embassies in Sri Lanka must be seriously concerned by now about the arbitrariness of decision-making in Sri Lanka on life and death issues, not only for investors but also for the people and their food supply"
Dr. Dandeniya pointed out that the availability of fertiliser in the market and the amount of money available to farmers during the season are other important factors that affect the use of fertilisers.”As the debt burden increases, the purchasing power of fertilisers decreases. Even though fertiliser is given very cheap, farmers have no idea how to use it sparingly. We need to understand the vicious cycle of chemical fertiliser use before introducing farmers to organic fertilisers.
On the other hand, at present, organic contaminants in foods imported into Sri Lanka are not adequately tested. Only a few institutions have the necessary knowledge and technology. It is also very expensive. The other important issue is whether there are enough organic fertilisers in Sri Lanka for agriculture after chemical fertilisers are stopped. Alternative methods are also used on a very small scale in the global context.
THE SCIENCE OF FERTILIsERS AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF BANNING CHEMICAL FERTILIsERS
The decision to ban chemical fertiliser importation and usage should have been given more thought considering the scientific evidence rather than taking such a haphazard and hasty decision. As per Ranil Waliwitiya, Government must not take impulsive decisions which affect the livelihood of a whole nation and its food security. As we all are in a pandemic situation, all the nations around the globe are giving utmost priority to ensure domestic food security.
This decision should have been taken in consultation with scientists and agriculturists with a well-developed plan to systematically transition to perhaps a predominantly organic agriculture over a period of time without causing a famine. Methodologies can be worked out to reduce dependency on conventional fertilisers. With the currently available technologies it is possible to gradually cut down the usage of conventional fertilisers, up to a point; the operative words being ‘gradually’ and ‘up to a point’.
If fertiliser chemistry is properly manufactured and managed, it can be utilised even to control fungal and bacterial diseases, which in turn reduces the use of pesticides. However, Sri Lanka does not have this type of technology and, as an agricultural nation; it should work to attract investors to bring these technologies to the country.
CHALLENGES OF ORGANIC FERTILIsER- OGANIC FERTILISER IS MORE EXPENSIVE
Organic fertilisers provide very low nutritional value to plants when compared to conventional fertilisers, and therefore need to be applied in large quantities. There are not many materials available in the world to formulate quality organic fertilisers, and extraction methods are also limited. To be certified organic, most inputs should come from certified organic sources, which further limits sources and makes them even more expensive.
As an example, conventional urea with 46% nitrogen can be bought at USD0.88 per 1 kg while an organic plant-based product with 12% nitrogen (this is the highest % of plant-based organic nitrogen available) is about USD12.00 per 1 kg. Therefore to get the same percentage of nitrogen in urea, you have to spend nearly USD50.00 if going with organics. In this case, it is 50 times more expensive to choose organic nitrogen.
Neither the grower nor the food consumer could afford this additional expense. Another example is monopotassium phosphate which gives 34% Potassium and 52% Phosphorous at USD 1.65 per kg. It is difficult to find good plant based organic materials to replace both potassium and phosphorous. You can buy kelp/seaweed extract at USD12.00 per kg, but it has only 16-18% of potassium. Therefore, cost is a significant factor when comparing conventional vs organic fertilisers.
Fishmeal, bonemeal and bloodmeal are also considered as organic sources to provide nitrogen and phosphorous in an organic setting, if they are produced using organic inputs.
As these are animal based, there are always issues related to animal diseases such as madcow disease. Importing organic inputs is neither easy nor safe, as the importing country has to protect its biodiversity.
As these are plant or animal-based materials carrying microbial elements they can be a serious threat to endemic species.
A meta-analysis of life cycle assessments conducted by Clark and Tilman in 2017, that included 742 agricultural systems and over 90 unique foods produced primarily in high-input systems showed that, per unit of food, organic systems require more land, cause more eutrophication, use less energy, but emit similar greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as conventional systems (Michael Clark and David Tilman 2017): “Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice” – Environmental Research Letters, 2017. 12).
THE BAN ONCHEMICAL FERTILISER, A THREAT TO FOOD SECURITY WHICH ENDANGER NATIONAL SECURITY
The ban on the import of chemical fertiliser makes sense to some and not to others; however it has far- reaching implications for food security.
If the ban of chemical fertiliser is implemented, there will be a massive reduction in agricultural output in the near future creating shortages, riots and unprecedented price rises of products and we will simply not be able to feed the population without a substantial increase in imports.
Under the current exchange rate we can import every food item for less than we can currently produce, and if this policy is implemented, you will see that the disparity of the local cost and price versus import would be more than three times. If food imports are banned, starvation will result.
Policymakers have missed the basics of economics, namely, supply and demand. This simple formula determines price, availability, production and consumption. The concentration of Government policy on the availability or lack of inputs affects supply while keeping the demand unchanged, creating dissatisfaction among the populace; demand has to be changed, and that is a long term prospect.
Farmers confirm the massive reduction in output, with many wondering how they could survive unless prices more than doubled at the farm gate. The level of ignorance of the non- farming consumers who believe they are eating poison and who think this ban is a good thing, is surprising. They are only thinking that they will consume wholesome food without regard to prices they will have to pay, which means they will not be able to afford a fraction of what they consume today.
Prices will rise to levels where few can afford to pay for food, resulting in riots or theft of farm gate products to keep families alive. As a nation we are very bad at anticipating the outcomes of actions until it is too late.
There is no engagement of the state officials because no one wants to discuss it, hoping it is just another gazette notification that will be reversed at the last minute. This kind of uncertainty does not bode well for the country’s food security. Policy initiatives beginning with the inalienable right to ownership being sacrosanct from tenancy is the first step. Food security leads to national security as it is a vital component of national security.
BEST OPTION FOR GOVERNMENT
The Government should suspend the implementation of the Cabinet Paper and appoint an Inter-Ministry Committee of Experts with the power to co-opt external experts to report back on a practical method of achieving the objectives of ensuring food safety and environmental conservation. Given the complexity of the changes and the collateral effects, it is best that a pilot study be conducted. The larger programme design should be based on those studies.
MOST DESIRABLE OPTION FOR OPPOSITION
If the Government does not act responsibly, the Opposition should demand a Select Committee, or at least a debate in Parliament. Stakeholders should move the courts. Our food and our livelihoods are too important to be cavalierly toyed with by those learning on the job.
As all of us are in a pandemic situation, no government in the world will take such a decision in a crisis like this. Unfortunately, haphazard and arbitrary decisions like this, will deter any investors coming to Sri Lanka. Without doubt the foreign Embassies in Sri Lanka must be seriously concerned by now about the arbitrariness of decision-making in Sri Lanka on life and death issues, not only for investors but also for the people and their food supply. The advisors to the President must take full responsibility and accountability for this developing catastrophe. This entire saga will come to an end causing a great threat to national security.
In 2014, during the global conference of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) held in Bhutan, country’s agricultural minister announced that the country’s target was to become organic in the year of 2020 (Bhutan: Organic By 2020).Having passed the 2020 deadline, Bhutan today has achieved only about 10 percent in organic agriculture production with just about 545 hectares of crop land (less than 1 percent of total arable land) certified organic. 100% organic target by 2020 pushed to 2035. Organic farming in the Netherlands, for example, is the result of a long-term plan. In Sri Lanka too, all this has to be done with the farmer who makes a living from agriculture. All the above empirical data, opinions of experts and scientific factors suggest that President’s right thing is in wrong line. In my opinion, as the fertilisers issue is so critical to food security and national security, order will have to be reversed and Government must plan for a 10-15 year scientific programme. President’s advisors must learn to do right thing rightly, not right thing wrongly.
I being a fellow researcher would like to recommend to President to make decisions based on independent third-party research and not on data supplied by parties with vested interests. Research and data must be independent and unbiased. Without implementing this process, it will be difficult to use the data for decision making processes. Scientific facts are critically important in taking a decision like this and hopefully the catastrophic decision taken will be corrected soon. Finally would also like to recommend to establish a national institute such as Organic Material Review Institute (https://www.omri.org/). This institute, as a regulatory body, will form the guidelines and protocols for developing an organic agriculture sector including certifying materials and products to be used in the sector. This is a necessary step before banning of commercial fertiliser and moving to organic agriculture.
“ENEMY IS BETTER THAN SELFISH FRIENDS”.
The writer is an international researcher and writer, former Security Forces Commander Eastern Province and Wanni Region, and former Sri Lanka Sinha Regimental Commander
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