100% Organic Agriculture: A costly experiment leading to National disaster
Posted on October 24th, 2021

by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya Courtesy The Island

Five months have elapsed since the government’s, in all probability the President’s, decision to ban inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals to immediately transform Sri Lanka’s agriculture into totally ‘organic’ (or ‘green’ as the President referred to in his address at the SL Army’s 72nd Anniversary last week). At present, almost the entire agriculture sector is in crisis and the farming community is facing uncertainty at this crucial period of the year when the major crop-growing season is about to begin. Therefore, it is imperative that the President reconsider his decision to avert a national disaster. A recollection of the events leading to the President’s decision and its aftermath shows the extent of confusion that reigns, the muddled thinking of those in charge and the consequent mismanagement of this issue.

Background to the Decision

According to the President, the decision to ban the use of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals (which include pesticides and herbicides), was taken to safeguard peoples’ health and protect the environment. A close examination of scientific evidence, available in Sri Lanka (or worldwide), has failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between inorganic fertiliser use and any of the major human health issues prevalent in Sri Lanka (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology). A similar conclusion can be made on synthetic agrochemicals as well. While excessive use of fertiliser and agrochemicals could lead to human health and environmental issues, available statistics on fertiliser and agrochemical use in different countries show that their use in Sri Lankan agriculture cannot be categorised as ‘excessive’. Therefore, it is clear that the decision to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ was based on ideology and wishful thinking rather than on solid, scientific evidence.

Was there a clear plan in place prior to taking the decision?

All actions of the government, since the implementation of the fertiliser and agrochemical ban, clearly demonstrates a complete absence of an alternative plan prior to the decision. A major decision, such as this, necessitated a comprehensive analysis of its costs in terms of potential reduction of crop yields, its economic and social implications on farmer livelihoods, national food supply and the entire social fabric. The perceived environmental and human health benefits should have been weighed against the risks of disrupting the food production and supply chain and the ensuing social instability.

Furthermore, there should have been a rational evaluation of the alternative strategies (e.g. local organic fertiliser production) with regard to their practical feasibility, time frames available, effectiveness and cost. However, it is abundantly clear that none of the above has taken place prior to the decision. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major policy decision being taken without a rational, scientifically-valid analysis of either the current status of the issue or possible consequences of the decision.

Stakeholder response in the immediate aftermath of the decision

The stakeholder responses to the decision have fallen in to three broad categories. A minority consisting of hard-core organic agriculture advocates and environmentalists voiced their approval, arguing that: (a) protection of human health and environment should take immediate precedence over any concerns about reduced crop yields and consequent shortages of food supplies; (b) a gradual transition to 100% organic agriculture would be difficult to implement because of farmer preference for inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals when they are available. Hence, it was argued that their total ban was needed to implement organic agriculture. For example, the highly-influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobhditha Thera, who is often a strong critic of the present regime, advised the government not to ‘take a step backwards’ on the fertiliser and agrochemical ban.

The second category of responses came from a majority of the general public, including a fair proportion of agriculturists, who accepted the decision to go ‘100% organic’ as a ‘good’ decision in principle, but one that should have been implemented over time and in phases. This group assumes that it is possible to fulfil the national food requirement by 100% organic agriculture at some future date (by which time the national population also will have increased further).

In contrast, a majority of agricultural scientists and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the science of crop production based on the principles of agronomy, soil science, plant nutrition and plant protection is of the opinion that 100% organic agriculture will not totally fulfil the country’s food requirement, either now or in the future, but can be practiced on a limited scale for niche markets (as is the case worldwide). The majority of farmers, in their conventional wisdom gained from several generations of farming, also comes to the same conclusion that national-scale crop production, in an economically-viable scale, is not possible with 100% organic agriculture. This constitutes the third category of stakeholder response. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which consists of more than 110 academics with expertise in different sub-disciplines and specialities of Agriculture, in a communication to the President and the Government, advised identification, based primarily on soil fertility status, of specific areas in Sri Lanka, for possible gradual introduction of the practices of organic agriculture to pilot-test the feasibility of transition to organic agriculture in the future. This position also underlies the fact that 100% organic agriculture across the whole country and its agriculture sector is not a viable option.

It is hoped that events in the five-month period since the decision, especially during the past month, will have shifted the responses of some stakeholders from category one to category two and from category two to category three.

What has the government done or tried to do since the implementation of the ban?

Local production of organic fertiliser

Everything the government has done or tried to do during the last five months shows its lack of preparation and inability to address the issues and challenges ensuing from the ban. The widely-held assumption among the advocates of the immediate and total ban of inorganic fertiliser was that crop nutrient requirements on a nation-wide scale could be supplied with organic fertiliser, prepared locally. There was a proliferation of programmes, mainly in local authorities and farms maintained by various government institutions including the military, to produce ‘compost’, an organic fertiliser with generally low and variable nutrient concentration, mainly from solid waste, animal manure and crop residue. Because of the rush to produce organic fertiliser on a scale sufficient to meet the national demand within a few months, none of the locally-produced organic fertiliser is tested for its quality in terms of the presence of required nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and soil amendments (e.g. organic matter) or the absence of potential harmful agents. In this regard, the presence of heavy metals, such as Lead, Cadmium and Arsenic at levels above their tolerable thresholds is a distinct possibility because municipal solid waste, which is a common source material for compost production by local authorities, could contain material having the harmful heavy metals mentioned above.

Now, at the beginning of the Maha cropping season, which is the major season in Sri Lanka, it has become abundantly clear that local production capacity of organic fertiliser, irrespective of its quality, is inadequate to meet the national-scale demand for plant nutrients of crops to be grown.

Importation of organic fertiliser

The discussions that took place among officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the advocates of organic agriculture revealed the fact that even those who strongly advocated and advised the President to implement the ban did not have an evidence-based figure on the per hectare organic fertiliser requirement to calculate its national requirement. As a result, the government’s position on importing organic fertiliser was shifting and evasive in the immediate aftermath of the ban, with the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture making contradictory statements, both in and outside Parliament. When the realisation finally dawned on the government officials that local organic fertiliser production will not be sufficient for the coming Maha season, there has been a bungled attempt to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China, which is still continuing. This is despite the samples of this consignment twice-failing the tests for the presence of microorganisms.

The threat of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils via imported organic fertiliser

At the very outset of the ban on inorganic fertiliser, independent experts had warned of this very significant danger of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils, which could lead to a myriad of complex ecological processes with potential to disrupt the existing soil microbial community and set-off adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this well-meant advice of experts fell on deaf ears. The importance of protecting the native microbial population in a soil cannot be over-emphasised as the microbes play a pivotal role in many soil processes which sustain and regenerate its fertility. One of the major critiques of the large-scale use of inorganic fertiliser has been their modification of the natural soil microbial communities.

Importation of liquid organic fertiliser

When the attempt to import solid organic fertiliser from China was stalled (may be temporarily as attempts to import it are still reported to be continuing behind the scenes), there are reports that organic fertiliser in liquid form, a nitrogen extract according to the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, has been cleared for importation from India. A loophole in the existing regulations has enabled importation of liquid fertiliser which only requires to be free from ‘harmful’ microorganisms whereas solid organic fertiliser needs to be free from all microorganisms. The term ‘harmful’ microorganisms has no scientific validity in the broader context of environmental microbiology. This is because a microorganism that is categorised as ‘harmless’ at the time of its introduction to a foreign environment could easily become ‘harmful’ by fast proliferation in the absence of the ecological controls (e.g. natural enemies, environmental controls, etc.) that were present in its original environment to regulate its population within ‘harmless’ limits. Therefore, application of imported liquid organic fertilisers has the same level of threat to the local soil microbial population that the solid organic fertiliser poses.

It should be noted that if liquid nitrogen fertiliser is added to the soil, it is more likely to be leached down with rain or irrigation water and possibly pollute ground water than even the solid inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, thus nullifying a major argument for ‘going 100% organic immediately’. It is possible to apply the important liquid organic fertiliser to the plants as a ‘foliar application’. However, as in the soil, such an application poses a threat to the microbial communities that are present on plant leaves (called the phyllosphere microorganisms) by the foreign ‘harmless’ microorganisms, which are allowed to be applied along with the imported liquid fertiliser. A substantial amount of research done by Sri Lankan as well as foreign scientists has shown that phyllosphere microbes provide protection against a wide-range plant pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses and viroids) by various mechanisms and thereby provides natural protection to agricultural crops from a range of plant diseases. A possible disruption of the phyllosphere microbial community by foliar application of imported liquid organic fertiliser containing foreign microbes which are perceived to be ‘harmless’ could potentially increase the risk of disease outbreaks in major crops which will be impossible to control, especially in the absence of synthetic agrochemicals.

Crucially, in a crop such as tea where leaf quality is of paramount importance, foliar application of imported organic fertiliser containing foreign ‘non-harmful’ microorganisms could alter the leaf biochemistry in such a way to disrupt the key characters of made tea such as its flavour and strength. The negative impact that this will have on the Sri Lankan tea industry, which in these COVID-19-affected times has been one of the few assured sources of valuable foreign exchange, will be incalculable and may well be irreversible as a market lost cannot be easily recovered.

Furthermore, foliar application of liquid organic fertiliser would not bring any benefit to the soil. Application of solid organic fertilisers, most of which are really ‘organic soil amendments’ rather than ‘organic fertilisers’, improves the soil physical properties which are important to sustain and regenerate soil fertility. Accordingly, apart from increasing the threat of crop disease incidence by introducing foreign microoganisms, promotion of foliar application of organic fertiliser will not contribute to the government’s perceived benefits of ‘going 100% organic with immediate effect’.

This bungled attempt to import organic fertiliser, in solid as well as liquid forms, clearly demonstrates the government’s muddled thinking in its rationale, planning and implementation of this grand scheme of becoming the first country to go 100% organic in its agriculture. It is telling that Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, who was a strong advocate of this scheme a few months ago, went on record saying that in view of the clear and present dangers of importing organic fertilisers, it would be better to go back to the inorganic fertilisers.

Intervention of the Chinese Embassy and undermining of DoA officers

The statement put out by the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, a friendly country providing an enormous amount of aid to Sri Lanka, casting doubt on the validity of scientific procedures adopted by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), in detecting the presence of microorganisms (i.e. bacteria belong to the genera Bacillus and Erwinia, which contain several bacterial species which are enormously harmful to agricultural crops, both in the field and after harvesting) in the samples of solid organic fertilizer to be imported from a Chinese manufacturer, raises several points of concern. Even though the Embassy claimed that a minimum period of six days is required for detection of the above microorganisms, Sri Lankan scientists with expertise in plant microbiology and plant pathology, pointed out that the microbiological and pathogenicity tests required to make scientifically-valid conclusions on the presence of the above organisms can be done within three days. It is notable that none of the higher authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture came out to defend the validity of the testing procedure and the professional integrity of research officers of the NPQS who carried it out.

Instead, conspiracy theories (e.g. contamination of samples by injecting microorganisms in to them) and blatant threats of investigation by the CID by the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture himself sought to intimidate DoA research officers and undermine their work. When the second set of samples, which was reportedly brought under Police protection, also failed the microbiological tests at the NPQS, there is now talk of bringing a third set of samples to be tested. It appears that the government is bent on somehow importing this consignment of organic fertilizer from China. One wonders whether the statement put out by the Chinese Embassy envisaging resolution of this issue for the ‘benefit’ of both parties is a ‘veiled threat’ or not.

In the broader context, this represents another instance where the Sri Lankan government and its institutions have failed to support its scientific and research community whose work, performed with enormous difficulty in severely under-resourced infrastructure, provides the framework and solid facts (instead of wishful thinking based on speculation) for effective policy formulation.

(To be continued)

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