Grave crisis faced by Agriculture Sector
Posted on September 23rd, 2021

Dr. C.S. WEERARATNA Courtesy The Island

The importation of inorganic fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and herbicides (agrochemicals) was banned from the end of April 2021, to promote the use of organic fertilisers (OF) and natural pesticides. As a result, inorganic fertilisers such as Urea, Triple Superphosphate, Muriate of Potash and other agrochemicals (insecticides, fungicides, etc.) became scarce. Since then, as Gamini Peiris has mentioned in his article titled ” Fertiliser: getting curiouser and curiouser” in the Sunday Island of 19 Sept. dark clouds have started to descend on Sri Lankan agriculture.

Professional bodies such as the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA), a number of scientists in the field of agronomy, soil science and entomology in articles published in newspapers highlighted the undesirable effects of banning agrochemicals on food security, farm incomes, foreign exchange earnings and rural poverty. Farmers all over the country who were affected to a considerable extent, financially, by the ban protested. In spite of all these, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) continued to ban the import of agrochemicals. The farmers suffered immensely during the last Yala season because of this, as their crops were badly affected by lack of inorganic fertilisers, especially urea and pesticides, especially insecticides. Many farmers complained of reduction in yields. Several crops are reported to be affected by pathogenic organisms, which could have been avoided if appropriate pesticides were available. Banning fertilisers and pesticide imports had serious repercussions on the quality and quantity of export crops, especially tea which brings in more than US $ 1.25 billion a year — accounting for about 10 percent of the country’s export income.

The Agriculture Ministry promoted the manufacture of organic fertilisers, but they were unable to get sufficient amounts of good quality organic fertilisers to replace inorganic fertilisers. Probably the Finance Minister, having realised the utter foolishness of banning import of inorganic fertilisers and synthetic pesticides, lifted the ban and issued a gazette notification on 3 August re-authorising the import of several types of chemical fertilisers to be used in the forthcoming Maha season. However, in spite of re-authorising the import of several types of chemical fertilisers to be used in the forthcoming Maha season, according to media reports, Sri Lanka’s two state fertiliser companies have signed agreements with a Chinese fertiliser supplier to import a stock of 96,000 MT of OF inputs in granular form, containing 10 percent of Nitrogen. A ton of imports costs around US $ 300. (Those in the MOA may correct this figure if it is incorrect). The cost of a ton of urea is around US $ 300. It is difficult to understand why the MOA is keen to import OF containing 10%N from China, without importing urea which has 46% N. A few days ago, the MOA reported that OF to be imported are free of pathogenic organisms, but now reports are coming saying that samples of OF to be imported contain some pathogenic bacteria, such as Erwinia. If OF containing such pathogenic organisms are allowed to be imported, it will have disastrous effects on the country’s agriculture sector, by contaminating our soils and water resources. In countries such as Australia, no living plants or animals are allowed to be brought in. As it is, we are left with neither OF nor inorganic fertilisers for the coming Maha season, and it is the country in general and the poor farmers in particular who have to face the consequences.

Many crops are affected by pests and diseases. A fungal disease is affecting rubber crops and may have disastrous effects on the rubber production in the country. According to experts the disease is partly due to inadequate fertilisers. (See- Rubber growers call for immediate government intervention to solve ‘rubber industry’s COVID-19′. Sunday ISLAND of 5 Sept 2021.) There were reports indicating that betel , a crop which earns a considerable amount of foreign exchange , cultivated in the N.Western part of the country, is affected by a fungus. Army worm which affected many crops, is spreading. Pesticides are necessary to control these organisms, but importing pesticides is banned. No action appears to have been taken by the MOA to locally manufacture pesticides. As in the case of fertilisers, there are no appropriate pesticides available in the country for the coming Maha season, and again gravely affecting the country in general and the poor farmers in particular.

The economic and social benefits of the agriculture sector, which includes cultivation of food crops and plantation crops, are well known to most of us . But the foolish decisions taken by the MOA to ban importation of inorganic fertilisers and synthetic pesticides, without getting appropriate alternatives, appear to have made the country not realise these benefits. As a result, nearly two million farmers and their families are economically and socially affected, and the country is losing foreign exchange, which those in the Central Bank and other relevant institutions are frantically searching for.

Dr. C.S. WEERARATNA

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