Nano-Urea: A solution to presentfertiliser crisis?
Posted on October 25th, 2021

By R.S. Dharmakeerthi Professor in Soil Fertility and Nutrient management
University of Peradeniya

Safeguarding the food security is a prerequisite for ensuring national security. We can produce enough food or generate enough foreign exchange to purchase food to achieve food security. If we fail to secure these two, we will have to abide by the conditions set forth by other countries. Under the current global geopolitical battle to secure safe spaces, the super powers will always look for opportunities that they can capitalise in countries that are strategically important such as Sri Lanka. The current fertiliser crisis in the agriculture sector of Sri Lanka is making us even more vulnerable.

Organic Agriculture Mania

On 27 April, the Cabinet took a bold decision to ban the use of agrochemicals, almost overnight, to provide the nation with safe and healthy food. Recently, Senior Professor Udith Jayasinghe Mudalige, the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, has gone on record admitting that the sudden 100% organic agriculture was based on the wrong advice. If someone can mislead a government on a matter related to national security, then there must be something terribly wrong. The authorities now say a phase-out transition to 100% organic agriculture within a period of 3-5 years could have been the best policy. One could see the determination of the government to go for 100% organic agriculture. There are enough scientific publications that insist that crop yield will be reduced by 20-25% on average in organic agriculture leading to food insecurity of a country. Therefore, not the transition period, but the concept of 100% organic agriculture itself is a threat to national security.

Chemical fertilizer is not poisonous

The government still believes that chemical fertilisers are poisonous and have led to a number of non-communicable diseases including the chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu). Those who have a knowledge on soil science reiterate the fact that at rates of fertiliser applied in Sri Lanka, there is only a very low risk on health. For example, a final report of a government-funded research project on CKDu, led by Senior Professor Rohana Chandrajith of the University of Peradeniya can be considered a case in point. According to that report, causes for CKDu have been narrowed down to three reasons; namely fluoride content and magnesium content in drinking water, and low water intake by farmers. None of these causes are related to agrochemicals used in those areas. Even for other health issues highlighted by 100% organic supporters, a cause-effect relationship has not been established by scientific investigations.

Deficit of organic fertiliser

If the governments strive for 100% organic agriculture, they first wanted to produce the required quantities of organic fertilisers within the country and within 3-4 months before the next cropping season (i.e. this Maha season) starts. They failed to achieve this target and farmers are demanding fertilisers. Then without listening to the outcry of scientists not to import organic fertilisers, as it is a threat to our bio-diversity, plant and animal health, the government decided to import an organic nitrogen fertiliser” from a Chinese Company. At least two sets of randomly drawn samples from these organic fertiliser stocks were found to be contaminated by pathogens and micro-organisms. Later, the government announced that they will not allow this seaweed and manure-based nitrogen fertiliser to enter the country. The Chinese government then issued a press release saying that our test reports were not accurate. Despite all this the ship carrying the fertiliser lot is still sailing, and we will have to wait and see how the Sri Lankan government will handle the pressure from the Chinese government to accept that fertiliser lot.

Produce from agricultural lands is the lifeline and only income source of the farming community. They are in dire need of fertilisers. Some farmer societies have even decided not to accept water from the irrigation tanks until there is an assurance from the government on fertilisers. If fertilisers are not provided on time to farmers, this could lead to another crisis; management of water in irrigation tanks.

Nano-Urea: An illusion

The government has decided to purchase an alternative fertiliser called Nano-N” from India. Part of this fertiliser was airlifted as the cultivation has already started in some parts of the country and received on 20t October. Again, Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture was on record saying it was a highly efficient organic” liquid nitrogen fertilser. One hectare of paddy land requires only 2.5 liters of this Nano-N. This time someone has given the wrong advice to the Ministry of Agriculture and the government.

The patent right for Nano-N” fertiliser is owned by Indian Farmer Fertiliser Corporations Ltd. (IFFCO) and is produced in a factory owned by IFFCO in Gujarat. They invented this technology in 2019 and released for commercial purposes in June 2021. This suggests that even in India there is a limited experience on the use of this fertiliser. To the best of my knowledge there is no experimental evidence on the use of this product under Sri Lankan conditions. There are some important aspects of this Nano-N that farmers and general public must be aware.

If this is a organic” fertiliser, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture states, this must be imported into the country according to the conditions set forth in the Plant Protection Act following proper protocols to avoid another fiasco like the Chinese organic fertiliser issue. But what authorities is hiding from the public is that this Nano-N” is actually a synthetic fertiliser that cannot be used in organic agriculture. According to the web site of IFFCO, this product is actually called Nano-Urea” and hence cannot be organic.

This Nano-Urea” contains only 4% nitrogen as against 46% nitrogen in urea granules. If only 2.5 litres of Nano-Urea” is applied per hectare, rice plants will receive only 100 grams of nitrogen. This is assuming 100% efficiency which we will never achieve in nature. The most important point here is that to produce five tons of paddy harvest from one hectare, plant needs 105 kg of nitrogen of which 50 kilos of nitrogen are in grains. Therefore, anybody can calculate how many liters of Nano-Urea” is required to produce the expected yield. That is 1,250 liters of Nano-Urea” per hectare to provide at least the nitrogen that is removed from paddylands with harvest (i.e. 50kg N). Because of this, the limited available Indian research indicates that Nano-Urea” cannot be applied as the only source of nitrogen but must be used together with at least 50% of nitrogen from other organic and chemical sources. By giving farmers only 2.5 liters of Nano-Urea”, farmers will definitely reduce productivity. Our research evidence suggests that paddy yield loss due to lack of nitrogen fertilisers could be around 16-60% depending on the site characteristics. Therefore, Nano-Urea” will endanger our national security as we will have to depend on other countries for our staple food.

According to the IFFCO website, 500ml bottle of Nano-Urea” costs about Rs.640 (Indian Rs.240). Even if airfreight and other costs are ignored, the cost of one kilo of nitrogen in Nano-Urea” is Rs.31,000, where as one kilo of nitrogen in granular urea is only Rs.130. No wonder why the government has decided to provide only 2.5 liters of Nano-Urea” per hectare. What this writer cannot understand is that a much cheaper synthetic fertiliser like urea has been banned in their quest for 100% organic agriculture and then import another type of synthetic urea fertiliser at a price of 240 times higher. The government has ordered 3.1million liters of Nano-Urea” from IFFCO at a cost of Rs.4,000,000,000 (Rs. four billion according to the figures given above). If farmers need to obtain their expected yields, the government has to provide farmers with additional sources of nitrogen. But the country has not produced enough organic or bio fertilisers to provide at least one-third of nitrogen required by different crop sectors.

The government is creating an illusion that the Nano-Urea” is a wonder product that can replace 50kg of urea bag with just half a liter of this liquid nano-fertiliser. Of course, they are relying on the information provided by the IFFCO. According to IFFCO, because urea is in Nano” size particles, plants can absorb nitrogen from this product easily and utilize efficiently. What they probably not aware or hide from the public is that urea is 100% water soluble and they dissolve almost instantaneously disintegrating urea granule into urea molecules. The size of a urea molecule is much smaller (approximately 0.3 to 0.5 Angstrom in different dimensions) than that of a nano-urea” particle (200 to 500 Angtrom). If the size determines the absorption efficiency, then dissolved urea must get absorbed faster. Therefore, the question is why Nano-Urea” needs to be produced in the first place. According to the limited literature on Nano-Urea” this writer reviewed, the IFFCO conducted field experiments do not have a liquid urea only treatment to compare with Nano-Urea” treatment. This raises some concerns, at least in this writer’s opinion, on the significance of this wonder product.

Nano products are new to the environment and not enough research has been conducted on the long-term effects of nano particles on human health and environment. Therefore, in many organic agriculture certification systems nano fertilisers are not allowed. Therefore, before such new products are introduced, adequate research must be conducted in a given environment to ensure environmental sustainability that is expected from organic agricultural systems.

Finally, if the government is not taking evidence-based advices from their advisors”, we can only wait and see what will become of our food security and hence the national security vis-à-vis the interests of world powers.

The writer can be reached at dharmakeerthirs@gmail.com or +94-77 264 0505

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