Experts have opined that shifting to organic agriculture overnight isn’t a wise move
- Just last October Sri Lanka imported around 180,000 metric tonnes of chemical fertilizer
- In Sri Lanka, farmers utilize close to 300 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare
- Since farmers don’t have adequate knowledge on the consumption they think much fertilizer needs to be used to increase the yield
- Fertilizers have also contaminated most of the island’s waterways due to poor irrigation strategies
The old Sinhala adage, Mada sodagath kala goviya rajakamatath sudusui (when the mud is washed off, the farmer is fit to serve as king) has remained in the language used by the peasant. To date, no farmer has gotten an opportunity to be king; let alone washing off the mud. After a glorious period of agriculture attributed to the various kingdoms of yesteryear, colonial invaders made sure that they not only colonised our land, but our rich soil as well. With independence Sri Lanka thought she was bracing for an independent period to regain its lost heritage when in the 1960s she once again fell victim to the Green Revolution. This not only introduced farmers to chemical fertilisers, but along with it came many hazards, particularly regarding health due to the use of heavy metals. After all these years, the Government recently announced that it would not only ban the import of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals, but is planning to shift to a 100% organic agriculture system in another 10 years. However, on a practical note, this seems to be something far from doable.
Fertiliser mafia : Farmers back to square one
Back in 1943 a research was done on seeds and the maize crop in Mexico doubled its yield. This is the first research of its kind and it was after that that hybrid seeds were introduced to the market. Along with hybrid seeds came chemical fertilizers. “Sri Lanka became part of the Green Revolution after 1965 and while the soil and water got contaminated with the introduction of chemical fertilizers it also provided the environment for the growth of certain weeds,” recalled All Ceylon Farmers Association President Namal Karunaratne.
As a result, local farmers have developed the habit of utilising chemical fertilizer and this practice has passed down generations. “Just last October Sri Lanka imported around 180,000 metric tonnes of chemical fertilizers and the Sri Lanka Standards Institution condemned them due to the presence of heavy metals such as Arsenic, Cadmium. But the farmers are currently utilising this condemned stock. Actually fertilizers should be utilised at the rate of one kilogram per hectare. But in Sri Lanka, farmers utilize close to 300 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. One reason for this is due to poor quality. Since farmers don’t have adequate knowledge on the consumption they think much fertilizer needs to be used to increase the yield,” Karunaratne added.
With the heavy use of chemical fertilizer the texture of the soil and fertilizer use have changed. Fertilizers have also contaminated most of our waterways due to poor irrigation strategies. Karunaratne recalled how the present regime promised to provide organic fertilizers to farmers. “Placing their trust on the promise, farmers went and cast their votes. But that was that. Now they have decided to move into organic farming without any proper plan and farmers don’t have access to either chemical fertilizers or organic,” he added.
The decision has now prompted fertiliser dealers to sell them at black market prices. Therefore a kilo of fertilizers that was priced at Rs. 1500 is now being sold at Rs. 3500 or even more. A farmer would buy it at any cost. Taking advantage of this situation a dealer would say that there are only 10 bags remaining and for them to purchase them quickly. This information spreads through word of mouth and more people come to buy from him even at a higher price. But that stock of 10 bags never finishes.
“Imported organic fertilizers would introduce new pathogens to the soil along with invasive species such as giant mimosa and salvinia. These plant species will disrupt the entire ecosystem. Apart from pathogens, chemical, electronic and industrial waste has become another global menace”
Ceylon Farmers Association
Organic farming given a miss
Karunaratne further opined that shifting to organic farming is a huge process that needs proper planning. “Our farmers have adapted to conventional farming methods. There are seven agriculture institutes and all of them teach how farming is done with the use of chemical fertilizers. By changing it overnight, it is going to ruin the entire agriculture system. In fact farmers are now starting to hate organic farming,” he added.
Organic farming also means lesser yields and more challenges with fungi that grow on soil. Scientists who have studied soil claim that crops need around 16 elements to grow and produce a good yield. “Three fundamental elements include potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen. Sunlight is important for photosynthesis. Hydrogen and carbon are obtained from water. An important element is nitrogen. The air in earth’s atmosphere comprises 78% nitrogen. Leguminous crops such as Maa karal (long bean) grow in a symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria. The role of bacteria is to take gaseous nitrogen from the air in the soil and feed it into the legumes. In exchange, the plant provides carbohydrates to the bacteria. But with chemical fertilizers this nitrogen is provided instantly. In the case of short-term plants the plants are ‘wounded’ from different sides, so that nitrogen will quickly be absorbed to the plant. However, prior to shifting to organic agriculture there’s a need to restore the soil which has been contaminated for over five decades.” he said.
One school of thought is that Sri Lanka can produce organic fertilizers while continuing practices such as using cow dung and glyricidia. When asked if Sri Lanka could produce organic fertilizers Karunaratne said that it would take between 3000-5000 kilograms of compost fertilizers per acre. Speaking about various pathogens on soil he said that many types of bacteria, fungi, algae and protozoan play a huge role on soil. “Some viruses are also included. Their role is to loosen the soil thereby allowing soil to retain water. This produces humus and other different textures of soil which are essential for farming practices,” he said.
However the Government recently announced that it would import organic fertilizers. But this is a risky move. “Imported organic fertilizers would introduce new pathogens to the soil along with invasive species such as giant mimosa and salvinia. These plant species will disrupt the entire ecosystem. Apart from pathogens, chemical, electronic and industrial waste has become another global menace. Since western countries don’t have adequate space to dump them, these materials are crushed and sent to other regions as it is a potential money spinner as well. These materials could be crushed and sprayed in the guise of urea,” Karunaratne warned.
An illegal process
Importing organic fertilizers violates the regulations of the Plant Protection Act imposed in 1981. “This move also violates the National Environment Act since it can contaminate the soil,” opined Centre for Environmental Justice Executive Director Hemantha Withanage during a press briefing. “You cannot grow hybrid seeds using organic fertilizers. In order to do that we firstly need to create a seed bank. We can locally produce organic fertilizers from cow dung. The huge number of fish thrown away could be used to replace the nitrogen component. But we can’t move into an entirely organic agriculture system. Introducing organic agriculture has to be a step-by-step process.” said Withanage.
Article 14 of the 1981 regulations states that a small amount of fertiliser could be imported for laboratory research. However, legal experts claim that this cannot be used on land.
Following the claims, Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage announced that foreign organic fertilizers would be disinfected prior to being imported. “It’s not practical to disinfect so many containers of fertiliser,” opined Environmental Lawyer, Attorney-at-law Dr. Jagath Gunawardena.
“In case if the Plant Protection Act is violated the fines and penalties should be decided by the magistrate.” said Dr. Gunawardena.
Subsequently the government decided against importing organic fertilizers and plans are afoot to empower local farmers and local authorities to produce organic fertilisers in the country itself.
Dr. Gunawardena however observes inherent shortcomings in the Act. “There are some good clauses such as clauses 4, 7 and 12, but 20 years have passed since the Act was amended in 1999. Therefore it needs to be amended again to address challenges that the agriculture sector is likely to face in the future.” said Dr. Gunawardena.
“We need to replace wheat with organic rice, Kurakkan and even jackfruit. Home- grown Engily ala, Rathu ala can easily be grown anywhere. For example these could be grown around all the decorative trees that line the roads for anybody to pick the produce free of charge”
Ranjit Seneviratne, former
Food and Nutrition Specialist at the United Nations Food and
The biomass we burn could be exported
An ad hoc shift to organic farming also raises questions about food security, given yield losses and crop failures. Responding to a query on food security, Ranjit Seneviratne, former Food and Nutrition Specialist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said that if we truly want to help our people and our country we need EVERY DOCTOR in Sri Lanka to cooperate and tell everyone to eat healthy. “We need to replace wheat with organic rice, Kurakkan and even jackfruit. Home- grown Engily ala, Rathu ala can easily be grown anywhere. For example these could be grown around all the decorative trees that line the roads for anybody to pick the produce free of charge. This is already being done at the Community Garden I grow by the entrance gate in addition to vegetables and spices like Murunga, Gotukola, Mukunuwenna, Curry leaf, Rampe, Sera etc. It is all so easy. No person in Sri Lanka needs to starve as food can be grown everywhere.” said Seneviratne.
He further said that Sri Lanka does not need to import organic fertilisers. “We have so much biomass that people all over burn. For example, municipal workers burn leaves and other materials that they have collected, which we could export to countries that are reforesting.” he added.
Impact on export crops
When the Government announced its plan to ban the import of chemical fertilizers it wasn’t only a blow to paddy farmers, but also affected many crop cultivators in the island. For instance, the tea industry thrives on chemical fertiliser and tea planters complained that with organic fertilisers the yield is less and there would be a need to use double the amount of fertilizers. They point out that the texture of plants too have changed, compromising on the quality of the end product.
“Organic fertiliser usage and organic tea cultivation are two different aspects,” a source at the Tea Research Institute said while speaking on terms of anonymity. “It takes two to three years for a low-yielding tea estate to be converted into an organic tea estate. Around 30-50% yield could be obtained. The TRI has been recommending the use of compost fertilisers since the early ‘90s and it has been encouraging tea smallholders and large entities on integrated nutrient management. But the adaptation has been poor at the grassroots levels. In terms of productivity an average tea field produces around 3500 metric tones of tea per kilogram per hectare per year. But this is not the case in terms of organic tea and with yield losses it is not commercially profitable.
“On the other hand stakeholders don’t tend to adapt valuable practices such as soil management, establishing shade trees and adapting to the climate situation. Tea fields are pruned and every three to five years around 12-18 metric tones of dry matter is collected. Back in the day the tea pluckers took them to be used as firewood, but now they have gas cylinders in their kitchens. If this dry matter is chopped and burnt it will provide carbon,” the source added.
The source further said that the Government is looking for a roadmap to move into organic agriculture, but added that it has to be designed properly. The source stated that the Government should consider streamlining the fertiliser subsidy; for instance rather than planning to shift to organic agriculture overnight.
When asked if organic fertilizers would be useful to grow export crops such as cinnamon, Department of Export Agriculture Director General Dr. A. P Heenkenda said that organic fertilisers are used to grow most spices including pepper, cloves and nutmeg. “We make use of glyricidia, green leaf manure and these practices have continued since 1998. The plan is to expand them in future and research studies are underway. Already around 20% of our farmers are producing spices via organic methods. We have also established farmer organisations advocating producing organic pepper, cinnamon and other spices. This move by the Government is in fact a blessing in disguise.” said Heenkenda.
“Organic agricultural practices improve biodiversity, improves soil and water quality and emit less greenhouse gases. Right now the main issue is whether the soil is ready to adapt organic fertilisers. For this there has to be sufficient microorganisms to change insoluble fertilisers to soluble form”
Prof. Gamini Senanayake,
Chairman of Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy
Challenges in reversing a 60-year old practice
In a practical sense, shifting to organic agriculture overnight isn’t a wise move. “We have used chemicals for almost 60 years and as a result the soil has become toxic, dead and we cannot get a live soil in most parts of the country,” opined Prof. Gamini Senanayake, Chairman of Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy. “Organic agricultural practices improve biodiversity, improves soil and water quality and emit less greenhouse gases. Right now the main issue is whether the soil is ready to adapt organic fertilisers. For this there has to be sufficient microorganisms to change insoluble fertilisers to soluble form. But chemical fertilisers are already in the soluble form. Since we have continued to add chemical fertilisers, soil degradation has taken place and the earth has become unproductive. This is a golden opportunity, but whether it could be done in a short period of time remains a question.” said Prof.Senanayake.
When asked about producing organic fertilisers in the country Prof. Senanayake said that at present we don’t have the capacity to produce organic fertilisers. “Most farmers are smallholders. If we educate them to prepare organic manure on the site most issues will be sorted out. But the problem is that almost all our farmers have a sound knowledge of the use of chemical fertilisers as they started farming after the Green Revolution. Therefore we need to change the mindsets of people as well.” he said.
Prof. Senanayake blamed certain political decisions that have hindered the agricultural process in the country. “With decisions to establish the provincial council system all research stations related to agriculture are under the purview of the Central Government while extension services are under the provincial councils. Therefore continuity has broken. Therefore the link through which whatever technological developments were being taught to farmers was broken. Now there is no proper mechanism to disseminate new knowledge to farmers.” the professor said.
“We can manage the Yala season with existing stocks of fertilisers, but we assure that we will provide organic fertilisers during the next Maha season,”
Minister of Agriculture
We will not import any waste:Minister
A series of changes has been made in response to the growing concerns of farmers as well as the agriculture fraternity. The Ministry of Agriculture has not only started registering all organic fertiliser producers, but arrangements have also been made to use modern technology in this process. “We can manage the Yala season with existing stocks of fertilisers, but we assure that we will provide organic fertilisers during the next Maha season,” opined Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage.
Aluthgamage added that a single element liquid for Nitrogen will be brought apart from 70,000 metric tonnes of Potassium. “The reason to import nitrogen is because right now the maximum amount in soil is only around 2% but we need to increase this to around 5%. We will also use new technology making use of microbes to create a live soil. This is being practiced in many countries.” the minister said.
Aluthgamage also refuted allegations about government plans to import waste from China in the guise of organic fertilisers. “We will not import any waste. In fact there’s a committee of experts including the Vice chancellor of Wayamba University, microbiologists, soil scientists who will assess all products once they have been imported.” he said.
He assured that the organic fertilisers could be matched with existing requirements and that an agri-insurance policy is being designed in case farmers face certain hardships when shifting to organic fertilisers. “But even in that case we are ready to purchase harvest at a higher price to reduce the economic burden. In terms of food security we are making arrangements to cultivate 150,000 acres of barren paddy fields with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Army. In the case of vegetables three million families with a 4-perch land will be chosen as beneficiaries to receive seeds. Already 15 government organisations have come forward to produce organic fertilisers. Therefore we won’t have any issue in making compost fertilisers and matching the existing requirements,” the Minister affirmed.
In 2015, the Indian state of Sikkim declared itself as the first organic state in the world. But this was a 12-year long process. If Sri Lanka is to adapt organic agricultural practices, the wiser way to do it is perhaps implement a holistic, multi-dimensional approach in terms of research, policy decisions, trials and errors in the field, reviews from farmers, expertise from scientists, biologists, soil experts and various other stakeholders.