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President to ban chemical fertiliser imports: Will the switch from chemical to organic fertiliser bear fruit?

2 years ago

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There was a time when Sri Lanka was known as the “Great Barn of the East” and was a leading cultivator of paddy. To this day, Sri Lankans take pride in those lost days of glory, while the status quo of the country’s agriculture sector is on the decline. Sri Lanka is no longer self-sufficient in paddy, nor are farmers revered as before. Farmers’ status of life is challenged by a plethora of reasons, the most pressing one being the lack of long-term solutions to their issues.   Govt. to promote organic fertilisers President Gotabay Rajapakjsa last week emphasised that the importation of chemical fertilisers will be completely stopped in the near future, while increasing the production of organic fertiliser in the country. At a meeting held on 22 April, the President added that even though the use of chemical fertilisers helps obtain high yield, the profit does not repair the harms caused to the people by polluted water of tanks and groundwater sources. He further stated that the adverse effects of use of chemical fertilisers has caused a number of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including kidney diseases, stressing that in order to create a healthy and productive citizen, the Government should ensure people’s right to healthy food. He pledged to direct the country’s agriculture sector to organic fertiliser-based agriculture, adding that all relevant parties must extend their assistance to increase the production of organic fertilisers. Instead of the fertiliser subsidy, steps therefore would be taken to provide farmers with organic fertiliser, the President said, noting that a sum of $ 400 million spent annually to import fertiliser could be used to uplift people’s lives.   Switching to organic fertilisers: Practical aspects In a context where the discourse on switching to completely organic or less chemical fertilisers in agriculture has been going on for some time, some farmers’ groups expressed doubts about the practicality and the implementation of the President’ plans, as it is a mammoth task, considering the high usage of chemical fertilisers in the country’s agriculture sector. In response to the President’s statement, the All Island Farmers’ Federation (AIFF) said that even though stopping the importation and use of chemical fertilisers is an admirable endeavour, the said promise had been made without a proper plan, leaving out a number of decisive factors that play a key role in switching to organic fertilisers from chemical fertilisers. AIFF National Organiser Namal Karunaratne told The Morning that farmers have got used to using chemical fertilisers for a long time, and that therefore, in order to implement the President’s plan, a number of steps should be taken to ensure smooth transition from chemical fertilisers to organic fertilisers. “The Government is cutting down on fertiliser supply to farmers, and only 50% of the requirement has been provided. Due to this, the Government is about to face a massive disapproval from the farmers, and in order to save itself from this opposition, the Government says that they are planning to switch to organic fertilisers,” he alleged. Karunaratne, however, said that his organisation is also of the same opinion and that the use of chemical fertilisers in the country should be stopped. “However, more than organic farming, what we should promote is biological farming (bio-farming) which involves allowing microorganisms to grow in the soil. If farmers were to use organic fertilisers, they would have to use it in large quantities, which is not practical. Dr Ashoka Ranwala has introduced bio-farming, which involves zero chemicals and minimum fertiliser usage. It includes a liquid fertiliser which strengthens microorganisms’ activities in the soil. That is the type of cultivation Sri Lanka should embrace. That method is eco-friendly,” he noted. Karunaratne said that the President’s remarks have ignited a huge concern because it was made without any proper plan. He stressed that if the Government is planning to promote organic fertilisers, it should first come up with a proper plan. When asked what the AIFF, as a group representing farmers’ groups, suggests in order for a smooth transition from chemical fertilisers to organic fertilisers, Karunaratne said: “We have already started with farmers in this connection; what we require is the support of the State. When we say organic farming, the priority should not be options such as compost. Even though compost is also important, there are practical difficulties such as the need for a huge amount of compost. “A plant’s growth needs three main nutrients: Phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen. These nutrients can be found in water, air, and soil. But due to the increased use of chemical fertilisers, the ground (soil) has been polluted and therefore it is not in its ideal state. This has resulted in an interference with the functions of microorganisms, and what is needed is strengthening and restoring their functions.” In this context, it is extremely important to repair the damaged soil, which is an arduous process, he said, adding that it cannot be done by farmers. According to Karunaratne, soil found in fields contains a less number of microorganisms, and it impedes traditional and organic farming. “It is with the green revolution that chemical fertilisers were introduced. Even though the green revolution was good, the technology that followed is being misused today, which in turn has harmed the fields,” he explained. Karunaratne went on to say that if organic fertilisers/farming is to be promoted in the country as an alternative to chemical fertilisers, there are a number of related aspects that need to be looked at. “In line with such a plan, steps should be taken to introduce suitable seeds as well, because most of the seeds used today are hybrid seeds. Most of these seeds have been created to be farmed using chemical fertilisers and do not produce new seeds. We need to make a huge difference as far as the seeds we use are concerned. In addition, the soil should be completely changed. Moreover, farmers’ mindsets should be transformed to use organic fertilisers. Most importantly, when traditional seeds are farmed, we can expect a certain decline in harvests, and we certainly have to take into account such practical issues as well,” he noted. “In this context, trying to promote organic fertilisers for the sake of doing so will bear no fruit,” he said, adding that without giving due attention to the changes that need to be done to the fields/soil, farmers, seeds, and other related facilities, there is no point in talking about such plans. “As a matter of fact, the President’s statement has caused an adverse situation. There is a shortage of fertilisers, and after the President’s statement, even the farmers who are in possession of some amount of fertilisers are afraid to share with or lend to fellow farmers the fertiliser they have,” he said. Expressing similar concerns, Department of Agriculture Director General Dr. W.M.W. Weerakoon told The Morning that switching from chemical fertilisers to organic fertilisers cannot be done immediately, and will take some time. “The Department does not advise anyone to use chemical or organic fertilisers; instead, the Department endeavours to raise awareness about the scientific aspect of use of fertilisers. Not only does it take some time, it also causes a decline in harvest and affects the production. Therefore, it has to be done gradually,” Dr Weerakoon noted. The Department is currently conducting research on the use of organic fertilisers as well as non-organic fertilisers. He added that the Department is also raising awareness about the proper use of fertilisers in order to obtain the maximum harvest possible.   Fertiliser shortage The President’s remarks came in a context where the country’s farmers are experiencing a shortage of fertilisers and an increase in fertiliser prices. In the last few weeks, the media reported that there is a scarcity of fertilisers as well as seeds, and according to some media reports, even though some farmers had received fertiliser, they had not received sufficient amounts of fertiliser. The shortage of fertilisers, according to Karunaratne, has severely affected farming activities.  “There is a shortage of fertilisers in the country, and fertiliser prices too have increased. The distribution of triple super phosphate (TSP) started after close to 75% of farmers started farming. Sri Lanka’s biggest field is the Gal Oya project, where around 125,000 acres of fields are used for farming activities. However, farmers in that area also did not receive fertilisers on time, and by the time they received it, it was too late. Similar issues prevail in the Namal Oya, Rajanganaya, and Nachchaduwa areas as well. A lot of farmers did not receive urea. Even though some received it, they did not receive fertilisers to meet their requirement. On top of everything, prices of fertilisers have also increased. A bag of fertilisers usually sold at Rs. 1,000 is now sold at Rs. 1,600-1,700. The price of a bag of PSP has exceeded Rs. 2,000,” Karunaratne stressed.   Plans afoot to promote organic fertilisers When contacted by The Morning, State Minister of Production and Supply of Fertiliser and Regulation of Chemical Fertiliser and Insecticide Use Mohan Priyadarshana De Silva refuted allegations that there is a fertiliser shortage in the country. “Fertilisers are being provided as usual and there is no shortage issue. My Ministry is working towards implementing the Presidents’ plans to switch to organic fertilisers. Sri Lanka spends a massive amount of money for chemical fertilisers, and farmers are misusing chemical fertilisers. They use more fertiliser than they are supposed to due to the misconception that using more fertiliser would result in more crops. But that is not true. In addition, there are a number of health issues pertaining to the use of chemical fertilisers. Also, crops cultivated using organic fertilisers are sold at a higher price in the market. It is after taking into account all those factors that the Government arrived at the decision to promote organic fertilisers instead of chemical fertilisers,” he said. De Silva added that the Government has already allocated a sum of Rs. 1 billion to promote organic fertilisers in the country. Colombo Commercial Fertilisers Ltd. has been tasked with producing organic fertiliser, and the Cabinet of Ministers has already granted approval to it, according to the State Minister. He further said that a number of preliminary activities are being carried out in connection with this plan, and that it will take some time to fully implement it and reach the goal of using organic fertilisers to the maximum level possible. Both matters discussed in this article – i.e. smooth and effective transitioning to organic fertilisers and resolving the fertiliser shortage issue – need different answers, but at the end of the day, it is the farmers and consumers who are going to be affected the most. Switching to organic fertilisers will not make any difference if the famers do not receive it on time, and blindly switching to organic fertilisers without taking into account other practical matters would once again leave farmers with more issues than they had. Solutions to farmers’ issues not only need to be prompt, but also need to be effective. Both effective solutions that last only for a short period of time and long-term solutions that are not effective are useless. Perhaps it would be best to take decisions that directly affect farmers after holding discussions with them first.

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