The organic fertiliser fiasco: Is Sri Lanka’s bio-security at risk?
Posted on October 25th, 2021

Courtesy The Daily Mirror

Sri Lanka’s decision to transform into a fully organic nation was applauded by many nations advocating for organic agriculture but many experts also warned that this decision needs a scientific and gradual approach. Overnight, the importation of chemical fertilisers including pesticides and weedicides was halted, throwing farmers into a dilemma. Even though the government assured that there are ample fertiliser stocks to be distributed till September and that farmers would receive organic fertiliser by the beginning of the Maha season, the assurance remained to be another unfulfilled promise. A month and several days have elapsed since the beginning of the Maha season and farmers have now taken to the streets demanding the government to give them fertiliser as promised. Initially, the government planned to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China but the process had to be halted when standards institutions detected harmful pathogens in these samples. However, it seems that the Company hasn’t given up their attempts to send this consignment to Sri Lanka as yet. 

“Organic fertiliser samples previously received from the above company have been tested and found infected with harmful organisms to Sri Lankan agriculture. Therefore, NPQS did not issue any import permit particularly for this company for bulk quantities – Dr. Ajantha de Silva

A false alarm to test waters? 

‘Hippo Spirit’, a bulk carrier registered in Panama, has commenced its voyage from Qingdao Port during the early hours of September 22 and is currently spotted near Malacca (last updated on October 14). It has been berthed at this location for about nine days. However, a letter addressed to Agriculture Department Head, the Chinese fertiliser company Qindao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd states that the vessel would arrive at the Colombo Port on October 22. 


The letter sheds light on the tender process and how a third party – Schutter Group drew samples from the loading port and confirmed that the samples are qualified. After Plant Quarantine from China Customs we shipped our products to Sri Lanka on September 23,” the letter read. 


Further claiming that the products were up to the required standards, the letter mentioned that the products underwent a sterilization process at 600°C using raw materials such as seaweed, amino acid and humid acid. It has been tested as qualified by Schutter Group, China Customs, Technical Centre of Qingdao Customs and test results have proven that the products are free from Erwinia spp,” the letter further read while mentioning that the samples would be resent for testing to confirm if the contents were contaminated with the said pathogen while requesting Sri Lankan authorities to test samples again with a third party to eliminate any misunderstanding. 
In his response Department of Agriculture Director General Dr. Ajantha De Silva explains why the cargo cannot be accepted as the importation of plant commodities including organic fertilisers requires import permits issued by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS) as per the legislative provision given in the Plant Quarantine Act No. 35 of 1999. 


Organic fertiliser samples previously received from the above company have been tested and found infected with harmful organisms to Sri Lankan agriculture. Therefore, NPQS did not issue any import permit particularly for this company for bulk quantities,” the letter read while informing authorities to prevent berthing of the vessel as it has violated the international and national phytosanitary legislations, pushing Sri Lanka into a high bio-security risk. Copies of the letter were sent to the Agriculture Minister and State Minister, Presidential Secretariat, Agriculture Ministry Secretary, State Secretary of the State Ministry of Production and Supply of Fertiliser, Chairmen of Ceylon Fertiliser Company Ltd., and Colombo Commercial Fertilisers Company Ltd., Colombo Port Harbour Master and NPQS Additional Director.

“The so-called ship never arrived. Prior to arrival the agent has to notify the Ports Authority and get clearance for Dangerous Cargo, ISPS, Advance Payment and Health – Colombo Port’s Harbour Master Capt. Nirmal P. Silva

Ship gone missing, stern directives to reject cargo : Harbour Master 

Even though speculation was rife that the said vessel has reached the Colombo Port on October 22, Colombo Port’s Harbour Master Captain Nirmal P. Silva denied allegations. As per the latest update as at October 24, he confirmed that the ship cannot be detected on vessel tracking sites.


The so-called ship never arrived. Prior to arrival the agent has to notify the Ports Authority and get clearance for Dangerous Cargo, International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), Advance Payment and Health. In the case of this particular vessel, they have to obtain the Phytosanitary certificate as well since it contains plant commodities.”


However, Dr. Ajantha De Silva has in a written request informed several authorities about the contents of the vessel and to prevent berthing of the vessel. Since the samples contained harmful bacteria we have been instructed to refrain from accepting cargo,” he added.

“We are not opposed to going organic. His manifesto states that it would take around 10 years to make this transformation. It should be a gradual process. But this ignorant decision should be revoked. We request him to think about the livelihoods of farmers and reconsider this decision – JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake

Opposition parties raise alarm bells 

In a recent media briefing, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to think about the livelihoods of farmers and reconsider his decision on transforming Sri Lanka into a fully organic nation. We are not opposed to going organic. His manifesto states that it would take around 10 years to make this transformation. It should be a gradual process. But this ignorant decision should be revoked. The gazette initially stopped pesticides and weedicides. But later they allowed the importation of these chemical substitutes. Nano urea too is a chemical component. The President is now revoking his decisions and various ministers are announcing these decisions. But we request him to think about the livelihoods of farmers and reconsider this decision.”

“There are quality standards for inorganic fertilisers to determine the composition of urea, potassium chloride and other chemical components. But the problem with organic fertilisers is that although we can estimate the presence and species of microorganisms, we do not know the chemical structure of these fertilisers. Sri Lanka hasn’t developed such standards for organic fertilisers – Prof. Nalika Ranathunge

Lack of standards and quality assurance 

Expressing her concerns on the potential risks of harmful organic fertilisers, Prof. Nalika Ranathunge Senior Lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Biology, Faculty of Agriculture at the Ruhuna University said that the Erwinia bacteria causes soft rot in various plant species. There are quality standards for inorganic fertilisers to determine the composition of urea, potassium chloride and other chemical components. But the problem with organic fertilisers is that although we can estimate the presence and species of microorganisms, we do not know the chemical structure of these fertilisers. Sri Lanka hasn’t developed such standards for organic fertilisers.” 


Sri Lanka’s Plant Protection Act prevents harmful organisms from entering the country and the prevailing situation has provided a good opportunity for such organisms to enter into the country. But the consequences could be manifold. One of them is that these organisms could spread faster on a foreign soil as they do not have natural enemies. The Erwinia bacteria is a well-known plant pathogen that causes soft rot in various plant species and vegetables such as potatoes, cabbages and carrots. Certain plant pathogens will act unexpectedly on a foreign soil and will cause threats to biodiversity as well.”


She further said that there is no positive impact of importing organic fertilisers into the country although the government now has to provide organic fertilisers for cultivation purposes. As per the Act, no living material could be imported to the country unless for research. However, due to the new policy decisions taken by the government the SLSI introduced No. 1704 standard for the importation of organic fertilisers. As per the standard the organic fertilisers should be sterile and therefore cannot contain any living organisms. In this case the entire stock has to be sterile. But there are two concerns here. One is that in order to be an organic fertiliser it should contain a certain amount of favourable organisms that would help in plant growth etc., in order to achieve the expected outcomes. But that has been violated here. On the other hand, we do not know whether the fertilisers have been sterilized to the expected standards. The 20,000 metric tons of fertilisers is said to be sterilized at 600°C but we do not know if the entire stock has been sterilized this way.”


Prof. Ranathunge further explained that sterility is not only about the temperature but the duration as well. We need to ensure that each particle has been equally sterilized. On the other hand, when sampling is done, how do we assure that the sampling is proper? Microorganisms aren’t equally distributed as they may prefer colder temperatures etc.,” she said while warning that Sri Lanka may have to face a food scarcity and a food shortage in the coming months as producing organic fertiliser locally too is a time-consuming task that has to be implemented after proper lab research and field trials in different ecological regions. 

“We have enough organic material in the country to produce fertiliser but a coordinated programme of actions was lacking. We still haven’t identified the sources of organic fertiliser. Many organic fertilisers are equated to compost but organic fertilisers could contain human and animal matter as well – Dr. Jagath Gunawardena

A lacuna in the law 

When asked if Sri Lanka has bio-security laws in place Attorney-at-Law Dr. Jagath Gunawardena replied in the negative. But we do not know if these fertilisers included plant material only. Media reports confirmed that the previous consignment included E. Coli bacteria and, in that case, they have to get clearance from health authorities as per the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance. If it contained animal matter, they have to get clearance from the Department of Animal Production and Health as per the Animal Diseases Act.”
Speaking further he said that the dialogue on bio-security was initiated about a decade ago but the biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms took precedent. We therefore have a lacuna in the law when dealing with microorganisms.”


He further said that the whole concept of importing organic fertiliser is controversial and shortsighted from an agronomist’s point of view. We have enough organic material in the country to produce fertiliser but a coordinated programme of actions was lacking. We still haven’t identified the sources of organic fertiliser. Many organic fertilisers are equated to compost but organic fertilisers could contain human and animal matter as well. We can safely presume that organic fertilisers contain carbon. Therefore, there could be synthetic organic fertilisers as well. As such even organic matter are composed of chemicals.”
Dr. Gunawardena further said that shortsighted decisions would lead to a bigger crisis and warned of impending changes to agriculture, biodiversity, human and animal health. 

“Until we get proper stocks, we will not do the payment and already the Colombo Fertiliser Company has secured an interim order to suspend payments to the Chinese company – Mahindananda Aluthgamage

Interim order to suspend payments 

When contacted Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said that according to the Letter of Credit the money will be transferred but because the samples contained pathogens the Company has to send us proper contents. Until we get proper stocks, we will not do the payment and already the Colombo Fertiliser Company has secured an interim order  from  Colombo District Court to suspend payments to the Chinese company.”
He further said that the supplier has placed a bond of US$ 5 million but that Sri Lanka will not pay a single penny as they have violated the specifications in the tender.

  Tested and rejected  

Sri Lanka’s plan to import 99,000 metric tons of organic fertilisers at a cost of US$ 63 million from her close ally China didn’t succeed when authorities raised concerns over the presence of pathogens including E. coli and Erwinia in samples. The testing was done on a shipment specifically assigned to Sri Lanka by the German lab Schutter Global Inspection & Survey Co. Ltd. This stock was supposed to arrive at the end of September to be distributed among paddy farmers for the Maha season. 
Plant pathogens belonging to the genus Erwinia causes diseases in several economically important plants. Strains of Erwinia are perhaps the most important bacterial agents responsible for the spoilage of fresh vegetables post-harvest. The main type of spoilage by these bacteria is soft rots caused by pectic enzymes that break down pectins, resulting in a mushy appearance which is sometimes accompanied by a bad odor and water-soaked appearance. 

  Chinese Embassy clarifies  

Following reports about the presence of E. coli and Erwinia pathogens in samples, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka defended the Chinese firm in a statement dated October 8, 2021 stating that recent reports have harmed the reputation of the Company. 
The letter stated that the Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co. Ltd is a high-tech enterprise focusing on producing a new type of seaweed fertiliser and that its products have passed many organic certifications including the EU ECOCERT organic certification. 
The Company has undertaken obligations strictly in accordance with the signed contract. In the process of enforcing the contract, however, the National Plant Quarantine Service claimed that the sample received contained harmful bacteria including Erwinia after only three days of test and analysis. It is noted that according to the International Plant Protection Convention it would take at least six days to detect Erwinia. The hasty conclusion made by NPQS lacks scientific basis,” the Embassy clarified.

Farmers are engaged in a protest march demanding the government to revoke the fertiliser import ban

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