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Gazette banning chemical fertilizer imports; a move on wrong advice Agri Ministry Secretary

19 October 2021 12:01 am - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Secretary to the Agriculture Ministry Prof. Udith Jayasinghe takes questions from Daily Mirror about the current crisis of the agriculture sector and the dispute over detection of harmful bacteria in fertilizer samples imported from a Chinese company. He is an expert in the agriculture sector. He is the former Vice Chancellor of Wayamba University. 
Excerpts: 

 

  • Samples we received from China on two occasions found to be contaminated with bacteria. 
  • We are having our evidence. We are going to prove it
  •  We had to work with a misinformed policy
  •  Our country’s plant and animal protection system is efficient.
  •  They don’t engage in any malpractice


QThere is a crisis in the agriculture sector with farmers agitating over the lack of fertilizer. How are you going to address it?   


 

In the short term, it is an issue because people-farmers and other entrepreneurs – have been used to apply chemical fertilizer. Over the last three or four decades, what happened was the delivery of fertilizer to their doorsteps. They apply such fertilizer in quantities determined at their whims to their fields. Even fertilizer subsidies were given. They did not even pay the real cost, it means. We cannot blame farmers for their agitations. They have been used to do so. It is not recommendation or quality that matter to them. Once you have cultivated plants, it needs NPK. Plant does not know anything. It has no sense. It needs nutrition only. Nutrition is named in this country as fertilizer. Fertilizer is named as Urea, TSP and MOP. When there is fertilizer for paddy farmers, it is Urea. If you talk to an upcountry farmer who is cultivating onion or potatoes, fertilizer substances which look like pellets are identified by their colour. They call them ‘Dam Keta, Nil Keta ‘in local jargons. When these innocent farmers cultivate, they want output from it. For that, they need to have plant nutrients. When they don’t get it in the way they are used to, they get agitated. At the same time, we have to resolve this issue. We need agriculture at the end of day. 

 

Maybe, the beauty of organic agriculture was overestimated.  As a result, the previous mode of agriculture was harped on. I, as an agriculturist with experience over three decades, believe wrong advice has been given in this manner. 

 


QYou cited practical concerns involved here. But, the government started the introduction of organic farming three or four months ahead of Maha season. Why did you do it?


  When we prepared President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy document ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, we clearly stated that we wanted to go through a system in which environmentally friendly  plant nutrients should be used. That is in place of poisonous, low quality and artificial fertilizer. It means we need transformation from a culture of using  poisonous fertilizer to a culture of using environmental friendly, non-poisonous, natural,  good quality and high generation fertilizer. These are naturally organic. We are promoting organic agriculture. Agriculture and fertilizer are two things. Organic agriculture was proposed in the manifesto. I was also involved in drafting it. It is a process to be achieved over a decade. Cancellation of the use of chemical fertilizer was announced in a gazette notification. I think it is based on wrong advice. I am not responsible for that. The President is not responsible for it. When we advise decision makers at the highest political level, it should happen in the proper manner. I believe this should not have happened. Now, we are in the process of revising it. We don’t lay the blame on the government because the President or the subject minister did not do it purposely. Maybe, the beauty of organic agriculture was overestimated. As a result, the previous mode of agriculture was harped on. I, as an agriculturist with experience over three decades, believe wrong advice has been given in this manner. It could not have been the cancellation of chemical fertilizer. It should have been allowing the import of eco-friendly plant nutrients. If the gazette notification had been worded that way, there would have been a nice situation in the country today. Then, we could have worked on it nicely. We had to work with a misinformed policy. We are now trying to correct it with the blessings of the political system and the administrative system. 

  
QHow are you going to revise this decision now?


Even in the discussion we had with the President, the ministers, the researchers and the administrators, we have very clearly indicated that we have planned to overcome this issue. We can replace those unwanted, poisonous fertilizer with standardized bio-fertilizer. Urea is also not a poisonous material. It is used in many other industries. When we use anything overly, it can be harmful. We are now going to come up with standards, application procedure and training sessions for farmers. It is a holistic framework. We need some time for it. The Maha season has started now. We need food security.  We need a compromise on our policy. If there is a mistake done, it is my duty to correct it. We want to go by government policies. At the same time, we want to protect our agriculture. 

 

If there is any bacteria present in whatever percentage, it is an issue. The company is saying its product is totally safe and sterilized. We have given a signal not to bring such substance here.


QHow challenging is it to overcome the problem currently existing?


It is a challenge. I have been here for just four months. At the beginning, I was also confused. I want to face the challenge with my friends. I know those in the system. Many of them are my teachers. Others are my friends, their friends etc. I have the support of these people. With that, I get a lot of advice and criticism. With respect to the government’s policy, we want to go for organically oriented, plant nutrients. When this comes to the next stage, you will be getting very high quality, third generation fertilizer well accepted in other countries. These are very innovative products. They are coming to Sri Lanka because our production of organic fertilizer is not enough to cover the entire paddy and other sectors. It is only 30 percent we have developed. We have to import the remainder. We are going to import from India. We have tested all these products. They are very good. We are in the process of bringing them here. I am sure farmers will be happy when they see it. Farmers are farmers. Businessmen are businessmen. Consumers are consumers. We will provide fertilizer. At the same time, we will implement our policies. The product we bring here is a Nano-technology based product. It is heavily used in India. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting it. 


We don’t want to import every time. We want to manufacture such products here. Next year, we hope we will be able to develop our own products. 


QAlready, some farmers have abandoned their cultivations such as maize. What will you be doing if there is a crop reduction as a result?


That is the thing we are really worried.  Before moving to the field, farmers have their estimations. Without seeing fertilizer and other inputs, they are a little reluctant to come to the fields and work them. Within the next ten days, it will be alright. There will be positive mindsets among farmers. It is true we are administrators. All administrators are Sri Lankans. They don’t want to destroy the agriculture system at any cost. The President correctly said that food security would be ensured. We will do everything possible to provide them what is needed. We will be able to take care of our food security. Some reduction of maize cultivation has happened.  This is the maize season. When there is no fertilizer, that is an issue. In two weeks’ time, I am certain the problem can be addressed. The Minister has also instructed to release fertilizer stocks available.   

 

I accepted this post at a time when nobody wanted to take over. I was   the Vice Chancellor. I had all the privileges. I could have stayed happily. I wanted to assume work here and deliver. I was sure that I could do.


QMaize is something we use to manufacture animal feed. When there is a shortage of animal feed, it will affect animal products, particularly poultry products. How are you going to address it?


We had a top level discussion in this regard with the Finance Minister and all agriculture administrators and the two ministers. If there is a shortage of maize, it will affect the manufacture of animal products. If there is any issue with maize production, it will be supplemented. We don’t want our livestock industry to be affected. I believe people will start cultivations soon. The pandemic also affected the implementation of our plans. We were in a disadvantageous position in arranging logistics. Now the system is working with the vaccination drive. We want to go a little faster. Maize cultivation will come into shape. We planned for 100,000 hectares to be cultivated with maize. I think 80,000 have been cultivated. The rest of the landmass will be cultivated with fertilizer arriving. 


QYou said organic fertilizer was imported from India. Do we have enough facilities for laboratory testing to detect harmful bacteria?


It is a very good question. Our plant quarantine laboratories are not testing these for the first time. We have a very good history for plant protection. Those who are in the profession have never been held responsible for bringing unwanted pathogens into the country. They are doing their job. I am really thankful for them. If any pathogen arrives, it will be a disaster. They have facilities to do so. That is not to say that the facilities are 100 percent compatible with those in other countries. We want to have more equipment, modern equipment. We have received funds. I am sure these facilities will be ok. But, they are doing a good job. With the existing facilities, they can get very accurate reports. Our country’s plant and animal protection system is efficient. They don’t engage in any malpractice.   

 

There will be positive mindsets among farmers. It is true we are administrators. All administrators are Sri Lankans. They don’t want to destroy the agriculture system at any cost. The President correctly said that food security would be ensured.

 
QThere is a crisis triggered over the rejection of samples of organic nitrogen extracts imported from China. The Chinese embassy says it takes at least 67 days for a test report to be completed on harmful bacteria contained in such matters. But, Sri Lankan plan quarantine services have done it in three days. The company disputed it. How are you going to address it?


To my level best, with the information I have, this is a technical issue dealt with by the plant protection experts and the team of the Department of Director General of Agriculture. We have separate additional secretaries dealing with it. They are very correctly dealing with it and reporting to me. Samples we received first were found to be with such bacteria. There was suspicion why it happened.  We even did not believe that could happen. We have followed very clear-cut, transparent, procurement procedures. We have followed all the standards. Then, we brought the second sample. It was tested in three different places. We detected the same. If there is any bacteria present in whatever percentage, it is an issue. The company is saying its product is totally safe and sterilized. Our people have clearly shown the results of what they have done. Whether it is three days or four days, they are defending it. Maybe it takes six days to give a full report. We have given a signal not to bring such substance here. 
As a leading company, it has been reported to the embassy. It is not going  to create a big issue. We are having our evidence. We are going to prove it. It is not a government to government issue. It is not a company to company issue. The company gets facilitation it needs. We also respond. China is a country that helps us in many different ways. 


The process is still not closed though the shipment has been stopped for the time being. This is an international procurement. I am certain there won’t be any financial claim from us. We wish the company will realize it. 

 

With respect to the government’s policy, we want to go for organically oriented, plant nutrients. When this comes to the next stage, you will be getting very high quality, third generation fertilizer well accepted in other countries. These are very innovative products.


QAre you in touch with the Chinese company in this regard?


Of course, I am not in touch. We have a separate secretary for it.  


QThe government imposed import restrictions on food crops that can be cultivated locally. But, the local yield is still not sufficient after two years. The prices of these items have gone through the roof. When are you going to achieve self-sufficiency?


 When you look at 2019 figures, the situation was ok. With the Covid situation, field visits, coordination and seed distribution were hampered. We have six big mega projects. We could not run them. The Ministry also faced some problems. At regional level, some officials could not work. All these led to some delay. We are catching it up now. Over the last three months, we have put them into work. Project management is one of my subjects. It is my area of expertise. I was involved in such project implementation and management for the last 20 years. This is a good chance for me at the ministry do my part. I accepted this post at a time when nobody wanted to take over. I was   the Vice Chancellor. I had all the privileges. I could have stayed happily. I wanted to assume work here and deliver. I was sure that I could do. Agriculture is not fertilizer only. It is one out of hundreds of other things. I am sure I will be able to deliver with my team and other stakeholders.  


QAre you confident that Sri Lanka can achieve self-sufficiency? 


I believe so. If the inputs are given, it can be done. We did not have a national policy on agriculture  for the last several decades.  I was personally involved in developing it. I have submitted it to the Cabinet.  

 

See video on www.dailymirror.lk

 

 

 

  Comments - 2

  • Arnold Wednesday, 20 October 2021 08:40 PM

    Every singe man, woman and child in Lanka besides you knew it was a stupid idea.

    Ranaweera Tuesday, 09 November 2021 10:48 PM

    Yes because they have been made to believe so by Media and officers in the payroll of chemical Fertilizer companies.


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