Sri Lanka – 100% Organic Agriculture: A costly experiment leading to National disaster – Part 2
Posted on November 3rd, 2021

By Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya

Source: The Island Online

Measures that contravene the principles of organic agriculture

According to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the key advantages of converting Sri Lanka’s agriculture into 100% organic is the expectation of a higher price premium for its agricultural products in the global market. It was also argued that any reduction in yield would be off-set by the higher price premium for organic food products. However, with the realisation that crop requirements of potassium and phosphorus, two major plant nutrients which are essential for production of any crop on an economically viable scale, could not be supplied with organic fertilisers, the government decided to import Potassium Chloride (KCl) and to use Eppawala Rock Phosphate (ERP) as sources of potassium and phosphorus, respectively.

Similarly, it dawned upon the advocates of 100% organic agriculture that some of the key pests, diseases and weeds, in large scale agricultural crops, in Sri Lanka, cannot be controlled by exclusively organic means. Blights and soft rots in a range of vegetable crops caused by various bacteria (including Erwinia species) are a case in point. Consequently, the government has allowed the import of certain synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

These are rational moves that bring the initial idealism of 100% organic agriculture back to reality. However, the downside is that despite the rhetoric of 100% organic agriculture, Sri Lankan agricultural products will not receive international certification as ‘Organic’. Therefore, the expected higher price premiums will not materialise and farmer incomes will plummet because of the decreased crop yields.

Many soil scientists, who have expertise on fertiliser, have pointed out that the claimed concentrations of nitrogen, the foremost plant nutrient that is required for crop production, in the organic fertiliser that was to be imported from China, could not have come exclusively from its organic source, the seaweeds. They expressed the strong possibility of this organic fertiliser being fortified with an inorganic source of nitrogen, such as urea, to raise its nitrogen concentration to the levels that were claimed. Therefore, it is possible that this consignment was ‘organic fertiliser’ only by name.

A darker side of this issue emanates from reports of these agrochemicals being smuggled into the country, from India, via the Southern coast. It is reported that the government, and the relevant regulatory authorities and armed forces, are turning a blind eye to this activity. Such tacit approval by the government is akin to how it managed the COVID19-related restrictions during recent months. Therefore, while the government tells the whole world that it promotes 100% organic agriculture, agrochemicals are used on the ground. A similar situation prevailed when the ban on Glyphosate imports was in place, from 2015 to 2018, where smuggled Glyphosate, of dubious quality, was available in the blackmarket.

On 13 October, a government media release claimed commencement of the distribution of 30,000 tons of ‘organic potassium chloride’ imported from Lithuania. It is difficult to determine whether this is a demonstration of ignorance or an attempt to delude the farming community and the general public. There is nothing called ‘organic potassium chloride’. Potassium chloride (KCl) is an inorganic fertiliser obtained from the Earth’s mineral deposits. For well over 50 years, KCl has been the main form of potassium fertiliser for agricultural crops all over the world, including Sri Lanka. In organic agriculture, potassium is supplied in the form of crop residues (e.g. rice straw) which contain potassium as a component of their tissues.

Promised payment of compensation to farmers for loss of crop yield

In the immediate aftermath of the issuance of the Gazette notification, in May, when the strong possibility of plummeting crop yields was pointed out by several stakeholder groups, the Cabinet Minister said that farmers would be compensated for loss of yield due to the absence inorganic of fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. The advisors to the Minister, and the few hard-core organic agriculture advocates, claimed that these compensations could be paid from the substantial savings of foreign exchange that would become available because of the ban. However, to this date, this promise has not been fulfilled, despite a significant proportion of the national farmer population, growing a wide range of crops, including paddy, pulses, onions, potato, low-country and up-country vegetables, tea and various horticultural crops, including cutflower and pasture, already incurring substantial losses of production due to the ban of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals during the yala season of 2021.

Ministry officials, task forces and advisory panels

The dis-jointed management (or mis-management) of this vital national issue is exemplified by various personnel in-charge of the Ministry of Agriculture and in advisory panels to the President and the Minister. The Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, at the time of implementation of the ban, who showed enthusiasm and optimism for successfully implementing the conversion to 100% organic agriculture, resigned after three months in office, reportedly over a disagreement with a key proponent of the inorganic fertiliser and agrochemical ban who was functioning as the top advisor to the Minister, on importing organic fertiliser in contravention of the Plant Protection Act. Following this resignation, a senior academic, who is an agricultural economist by training, has been appointed as the Ministry Secretary to oversee implementation of the organic agriculture policy. Despite his brilliant academic record as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, in the early 1990s, this official has so far demonstrated little understanding of the biological realities of meeting the national food production targets with the limited nutrients from organic fertiliser and in the absence of commonly-used synthetic agrochemicals to control pests, diseases and weeds of crops.

In the week following the issuance of the Gazette notification, in early May, a Presidential Task Force, consisting of 46 members, which included 20 politicians, several hard-core activists promoting organic agriculture and a miscellaneous collection of agriculture practitioners, academics, industrialists and businessmen, was appointed with the task of transforming Sri Lanka’s economy into a green socio-economy with sustainable solutions to climate change. Preparing a roadmap for the complete transition from ‘chemical farming’ to organic farming (as per the Media Release from the Presidential Secretariat on 10 May) was listed as one task of this Task Force. However, it is notable that the Gazette notification, banning the import of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals, had already been issued on 06 May, effectively transforming Sri Lankan agriculture from the so-called ‘chemical farming’ to organic farming overnight. On examining the track record of the personnel in this Task Force, it is clear that it lacked the balanced scientific expertise to analyse all aspects of a complex issue and plan a difficult operation and provide advice to the President. This deficiency has been borne out by the absence of meaningful action taken by the Task Force and the news of some its members expressing the impossibility of their task. Events of the last five months have shown that there certainly is no roadmap developed and put in place.

In September, the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture also appointed a 14-member Task Force for Sustainable Agriculture, consisting of academics and a few administrators and entrepreneurs. This Task Force also has the same weaknesses of the larger Presidential Task Force in terms of balance and competence in expertise. As expected, no tangible outcomes have emanated from this Ministerial Task Forc, as well.

Given the national importance of the plantation sector of agriculture, the Cabinet Minister of Plantation Agriculture has been conspicuous by his silence and inaction in the Cabinet, the Parliament and in public forums that address this critical national issue.

Visible impacts on different crop sectors and prognosis for next year

The yala cropping season, which immediately followed the implementation of the ban, was completed largely with inorganic fertiliser stocks that had been imported before the ban, but were sold to farmers at exorbitant prices by traders. Although the production statistics are not yet available, it is highly likely that, for a majority of crops, both yields per unit land area and total production in yala 2021 have been below-average. This is because of the yield reductions due to lower rates of fertiliser application and increased yield losses caused by pests, diseases and weeds, which are predominantly controlled by agrochemicals in large-scale crop cultivations. There are reports and images of vegetable crops, both in the up-country and low-country areas, shrunken in size by shortage of nutrition and decimated by diseases and pests in the absence of agrochemicals for their control.

The prognosis for the coming maha season is frightening. There are daily media reports of farmers, from almost all parts of the country, expressing either reluctance or point blank refusal at Pre-Seasonal Meetings (i.e. Kanne Rasweem) to start crop cultivation in the absence of an assured supply of fertiliser and agrochemicals. In a majority of these occasions, farmers specifically request inorganic fertiliser saying that organic fertiliser is simply not suitable for cultivation of paddy and some of the key other field crops such as maize. The government officials at these meetings are unable to provide the assurances that the farmers are seeking. If this situation prevails in the next month and a half, the area cultivated with paddy and maize during this major cropping season will decrease substantially. When coupled with the lower expected yields per unit land area because of the lower nutrition from organic fertilizers and non-chemical control of pests, diseases and weeds, a substantial decline in the total production of paddy, maize and almost all other crops is inevitable. Repercussions of this will be felt in many related food sectors. For example, reduced maize production and the resulting shortage of animal feed in which maize is a major component will cause a reduction in poultry products (eggs, chicken).

The potential social consequences of an overall shortage of essential food items are disturbing to the say the least. A population that has been inducted recently to queuing for rice, sugar, milk powder and gas will have to get used to queues for many essential food items. How disciplined the people will be in the face of this situation over a prolonged period is anybody’s guess.

How has the President and the government responded to this situation?

It is patently clear that the authority to make situation-changing decisions lies with the President. It is also clear that the President has been wrongly-advised by his advisors. More depressing is the observation that members of the Presidential and Ministerial Task Forces are either ignorant or incompetent to analyse the situation and recommend appropriate action or lack strength of character to tell the truth to the President and advise him about what should be done immediately without delay. The bottom line is that the current uncertainty in national food security undermines the national security, the very platform on which the President campaigned and got elected.

After towing the President’s line for a long time, a few government lawmakers have started to acknowledge the reality and have started making noises about being prepared to listen to the ‘peoples’ voice’ and ‘take a step back’. Last week, the immediate-past President went on record saying that Sri Lankan agriculture is at a historic low and that a day may come when he would not be able to go to his home town. Following these statements from those in his own ranks, there was expectation that the President would review his decision. However, his latest reference to the current fertiliser and agrochemical policy during his speech at the Sri Lanka Army’s 72nd Anniversary showed that nothing has changed. While acknowledging that it is difficult, he still wants the current policy to continue.

The President’s argument that he received a mandate from the people to embark on the current policy on fertiliser and agrochemicals because he had included it (even though not to be operationalised in this specific manner), in his manifesto, is a flawed argument. The people do not approve manifestos in their entirety. In an election, people make their choices based on a few key aspects (e.g. national security on the most recent occasion) without reading each and every statement in a manifesto. Therefore, it is nothing more than self-delusion to still take up the position that he has the peoples’ endorsement to continue the current policy.

What should be done immediately?

In view of the clear and present danger of a nationwide crop failure in the coming maha season and the possibility of food shortages, the President has no option but to reverse the ban on inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. Steps should be taken immediately to import, at least 50% of the requirement of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser (i.e. urea). This is assuming that at least a limited fraction of the nitrogen requirement will be supplied from the organic fertiliser that has been produced in-country. In view of the shortage of foreign exchange for importation of nitrogen and potassium fertiliser, crops in the current maha season will have to be managed with 50-60% of the recommendations of inorganic fertiliser, which will provide an economically-viable crop yield to the farmer and a level of food supply to the consumers to avert the impending food crisis and social unrest.

Distribution of this fertiliser among farmers, should be strictly regulated and should be done in phases during the cropping season. This is to prevent their over-application and encourage split-application (i.e. providing the requirement in several splits) and thereby minimise leaching and evaporation losses of urea. The same should be done for potassium chloride fertiliser (the so-called ‘organic potassium chloride’), which is equally vulnerable to leaching losses.

What should be done on medium- and long-term?

Continuation of recent initiatives to expand the share of organic agriculture in the local agricultural production

The drive to produce organic fertiliser, by a wide range of stakeholders and entrepreneurs, in both public and private sectors, is one positive outcome of the ban on inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals. These initiatives should be continued. An important step in this regard will be to develop and implement quality standards for organic fertilisers that are locally-produced.

In parallel to the production of organic fertilisers, a drive to produce a variety of organic-based agrochemicals has been initiated. These initiatives should be incentivised and continued with a view to reduce the use of synthetic agrochemicals to expand the practicing of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Phased out reduction or complete withdrawal of the subsidies on inorganic fertiliser

The nearly 100% subsidy of inorganic fertiliser that was in place for nearly three decades in Sri Lanka contributed to their over-use and excessive farmer reliance on them while diminishing their interest in adding organic amendments for natural regeneration of soil fertility. While being a financial drain of public funds and foreign exchange, the fertiliser subsidy also inflated the true economic profitability of farming in Sri Lanka. Its gradual reduction (or complete withdrawal) will prompt farmers to seek ways of increasing the profitability of their farming by improving crop management with efficient cultivation practices (collectively called ‘Good Agricultural Practices’).

Promotion and support of research on an economically-viable mixture of conventional and organic agriculture

Excessive reliance of the farmers on subsidized inorganic fertiliser and widely-available, commercially-supported synthetic agrochemicals contributed indirectly to suppression of research on eco-friendly farming practices with less reliance on inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals. This has contributed to the failure of the current drive to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ because the researchers in the Department of Agriculture had not developed sufficiently effective alternative cultivation technologies when the ban came into effect. However, researchers in the universities and other research institutions (e.g. National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology) have carried out useful work over a prolonged period and developed useful technologies, which to a large extent, have been ignored by researchers in the Department of Agriculture and higher officials in the Ministry of Agriculture. Some of these technologies are: (a) biofertilisers and biopesticides developed from microorganisms isolated from local soils and plants; (b) chemicals which are generally regarded as safe to human health (called GRAS chemicals). These technologies and products that are already developed have to be up-scaled and commercialised with government support.

The level of inorganic fertiliser that needs to be used for viable crop production and the feasibility of organic agriculture depends on the soil fertility status of a land and the market needs for an organically-produced product. Therefore, a comprehensive survey of these aspects needs to be undertaken with a view to develop a rational mixture of conventional and organic agriculture in different regions of Sri Lanka.

The hard-core proponents of 100% organic agriculture should realise that it is just not biologically possible. It is turning out to be a costly experiment which is leading to a national disaster.

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