Fertiliser tug-of-war left farmers in the lurch
Posted on June 29th, 2021

The Editorial Courtesy The Daily Mirror

The row between the authorities and the farmers over the ban on chemical fertilizer reminds us the Sinhala folktale Hathara Beeri Kathawa” in which a deaf man askes another deaf man a question to which the latter gives an answer which is nothing to do with the question. Here, farmers across the country demonstrate demanding fertilizer – chemical or organic – for their crops which have been severely affected by the government’s decision to ban import of chemical fertilizer, but the authorities deliver sermons on the effectiveness of organic fertilizer.
Despite some experts having expressed their reservations on the efficacy of organic fertilizer in paddy, tea, and vegetable cultivations, farmers do not seem to insist on chemical fertilizer alone; they demand any fertilizer for their crops which they have made it clear during their demonstrations. However, State media and media supportive of the government are allocating a considerable segment of their news bulletins to educate the farmers on the effectiveness and advantages of organic fertilizer. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his address to the nation on Friday said that he is determined to transform the current agriculture in the country into one based on organic fertilizer. He repeated it when he visited the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters on Sunday.  And now the issue has become political as the opposition parties too are joining the demonstrations or they are organizing the agitations in some areas. Sometimes this might turn the situation worse as there is a possibility of farmers being divided over the issue, despite them being economically affected.  The sudden ban on chemical fertilizer import appears to have a drastic impact on the country’s food production which might be felt by the people in a few months, by way of shortage in rice and vegetables and a resultant price hike of them in the market. 

Four views related to the current fertilizer debate seem to have floated among the people by interested parties. The government seems to be of the view that organic farming is flawless and the timing of the chemical fertilizer ban is also appropriate. Leaders of the government defend the move to stop the use of chemical fertilizer on the grounds of the negative consequences to human lives through pollution of lakes, canals and the groundwater while the impact on the health sector outweighs any benefits.  On the other hand, farmers are desperate in finding fertilizer as they have already started cultivation and they are neither concerned nor aware of the efficacy or impact of organic fertilizer. They just need fertilizer, whether it is chemical or organic. 

There are experts who argue that farming based only on organic fertilizer will affect the food security in the long run while there are others who are supportive of the government’s objective but have their reservations on the timing of the chemical fertilizer import ban. The first group contends that farmers are today cultivating hybrid varieties which depend on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to sustain the output levels and with the ban on chemical fertilizer and pesticides Sri Lanka will have to spend foreign exchange for importing food items.

A committee appointed by the government also represents the second group. Plantations Minister Romesh Pathirana told our sister paper the Sunday Times last month that the experts committee tasked with overseeing the ban on chemical fertilizer imports has recommended to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to impose the ban on the tea and rubber sectors until sufficient quantities of organic fertilizer were available and to defer the withdrawal of the fertilizer subsidy until such time. The same paper quoted Dr. Hemakumara Nanayakkara, who holds a doctorate in organic fertilizer as saying that although the Government’s decision was in order, such policy decisions could not be implemented hurriedly and there should be a gradual process followed. It is clear that the ban on fertilizer imports has been implemented without a proper plan which is evident by the farmers’ agitations across the country. If they had been provided with whatever fertilizer they wouldn’t have wasted their time in carrying placards along the roads and across their paddy fields. 

Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said last month there is sufficient fertilizer for the current Yala season. And now he says traders have created a shortage by hoarding. A government cannot absolve itself by blaming traders, as it must be capable of managing the market. Claiming similarly that the rice mafia is hoarding rice, the government is planning to import 100,000 metric tons of rice. When an opposition MP questioned whether the rice that is to be imported was produced by the organic farmers, Aluthgamage said organic farming is not applicable to current Yala season. Then, why on earth the government banned imports of chemical fertilizer prematurely?

It is clear that there is an issue on the ground. It demands immediate action by the government in the light of the possible drastic drop in the local food production in the near future. This is evident by the country-wide farmers’ agitations which is not hallucination but real. 

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