The coming full-blown crisis in agricultural sector courtesy of a shortsighted fertilizer ban
Posted on June 16th, 2021

Ranga Jayasuriya Courtesy The Daily Mirror

A few leaders would throw a wrecking ball into a big chunk of the economic machinery, worse still when it is stumbling under the weight of a coronavirus pandemic and a full-blown foreign exchange crisis. Alas, that is exactly what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is doing to the country’s agricultural sector through his misplaced fertilizer ban.

The agricultural sector employs one-fourth of the Sri Lankan workforce (Central Bank Data 2018), and is still the largest sector of employment in sheer numbers. It suffers from a staggering level of low productivity, contributing less than 7.5% of the GDP. 

Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA) warns that the average yields from paddy would drop by 25% if chemical fertilizers are fully replaced by organic fertilizers. 

President Rajapaksa’s fertilizer ban, not just lacking scientific logic, but was also announced out of blue, would simply decimate the income of struggling farming communities, who have enough everyday hazards to struggle with from draughts, an army of crop-eating caterpillars to loan sharks and predatory intermediaries – and now a President. 

 His demagogic policy would wreak havoc in Sri Lanka’s cashcrops, which are already suffering from low efficiency and competition from other emerging markets. The recent protests by farmers are only a storm in a teacup. This policy would leave a trail of destruction. 

Policy underpinned by hearsay

As for the scientific basis of President Rajapaksa’s fertilizer ban, the closest equivalent you could find is his own government’s policy of compulsory cremation of Covid-dead bodies.  A policy, devoid of scientific logic, that was decried locally and internationally for its specific race-baiting properties.

The defenders of the fertilizer ban have argued it would save lives, for that matter, surmising that heavy fertilizer use had been the primary cause of the prevalence of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) in the North Central Province. This is based on the findings of an equally half-baked research of which findings at best are disputed, at worst imaginary (No wonder when the lead researcher claimed a godly intervention of the Natha Deviyo in his dreams informed the research hypothesis). That research cannot explain why the tea-growing Upcountry areas which are also dependent on fertilizer or the country’s paddy growing Deep down South do not exhibit a similar prevalence of CKD. 

President Rajapaksa should not have implemented a policy based on guess-work. He should have commissioned a proper study into the causes of CKD, including a possible causal effect from heavy fertilizing, and incorporate good practices adopted by the lead nations against such hazards.

Economically unviable

When no country in the world does that – surely there are plenty of nations with superior agricultural technology and equally tight health regulations – there is a reason. It does not work!

In the first place, it would significantly reduce the yield.  For Instance, Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA) warns that the average yields from paddy would drop by 25% if chemical fertilizers are fully replaced by organic fertilizers. This would effectively reduce the profitability of paddy farming by 33% and rice consumption by 27%. (In contrast, applying organic fertilizer with the recommended dosages of chemical fertilizers would improve the profitability of farming by 16%).

Similarly, SAEA calculates the absence of chemical fertilizer would reduce the productivity of the Vegetative Propagated Tea (VPT) by 35 %. As a result, the export volume of tea would go down from 279 to 181 million kg, causing an income loss of Rs. 84 billion. These losses could further be aggravated due to the increased cost of labour to apply bulky organic fertilizers. Elsewhere, coconut yields would go down by 30% if chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not applied. In a recent article to Sunday Times, Peradeniya University Professor of Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition, Saman Dharmakeerthi, debunked many myths that support the government’s fertilizer ban. He observed that the ‘results of rigorous meta-analyses of organic-conventional crop yield comparisons  analyses indicate that across all crops, mean yield reductionin organic agriculture is in the magnitude of 19–25%.’   Nor can Sri Lanka produce enough organic fertilizer. The organic paddy cultivation alone would require nearly four million tons of compost at a very nominal rate of five tons per hectare.  For tea plantations, it could be well over another three million tons. The country at best produces 2-3 million composts a year. 

This is in addition to other maladies from deforestation to the introduction of new fungus to crop. The President should have listened to these saner voices. 

Not the problem – Nor the Solution

The agriculture sector in Sri Lanka suffers from a myriad of maladies. It is low productivity is fostering a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. Though paddy yield has increased over time, it is still a fraction in international comparison (4,790 Kg per hectare against 6,830 Kg per hectare in Kenya or over 8,000 kg per hectare by high yielding countries such as Egypt and Australia.

Research cited by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) finds that Sri Lanka can double the paddy yield with improved farm management. Worst still, given the smaller plots of lands, an average output of a Sri Lankan farmer is barely 1% of an Australian farmer. Also, the use of technology in agriculture is limited, not just by the farmers, but also by agri-businesses, according to the Central Bank Annual Report 2019. 

Sri Lanka does not need to reinvent the wheel. The progress and survival of nations are tied to the emulation and improvisation of successful strategies of lead nations. There are lead nations such as Israel and Australia which have excelled in farming in inhospitable conditions, and deployed technology and developed high yielding crop varieties. Sri Lanka can learn from these success stories, emulate them, build its own local capacities and cooperate with lead nations to that end. Instead, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has done this!

Govt. has created a needless crisis 

Across the country, farmers are complaining about a shortage of fertilizer. Mass gathering due to rumours of fertilizer being distributed risk becoming super-spreaders of coronavirus.  Tea smallholders who contribute 70% of production warn the Ceylon tea would be history if the crippling fertilizer ban persists. 

The government had last month banned the import of fertilizer and turned away two shipments of fertilizer, triggering the fertilizer shortage. The loss of harvest would plunge hundreds of thousands of families who live on the fringes back into poverty.  The government says it would compensate for the loss of income. However since President Rajapaksa does not bring that money from Medamulana, it would come from the public funds. That money could have better spent on the tablets and computers for the children of these communities so that they would be better equipped to leave the intergenerational poverty and underachievement. (As they leave for better-paying jobs, the farming plots get bigger).

Mao Zedong killed 30 million Chinese with his disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1958-60. Recently, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela de-industrialized his country, by waging war on the local industrialists who he suspected, probably rightly, were behind a failed coup against him. However, when the oil boom crashed, a few years later, Venezuelans, one of the richest nations in Latin America, were forced to eat from the bin or flee enmasse to neighbouring countries. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe took over white-owned farms and redistributed among his cronies, turning ‘Africa’s food basket’ into a basket case. All these countries have something in common: They lacked safeguards that stand against the irrationality and demagoguery of their leaders.  Sri Lanka suffers from the same deficit. Thus the folly of this policy of a self-harming fertilizer ban would be known only when the damage was done. 

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