Fertiliser Fix
Posted on December 3rd, 2021

By Priyan R Naik Courtesy Ceylon Today

Fertiliser Fix

By Priyan R Naik

When the ship ‘Hippo Spirit’ departed from China in September 2021 carrying 20,000 tonnes of organic fertiliser for Colombo as the first of several consignments totalling 99,000 tonnes of organic fertiliser nobody would have imagined  something with the  shipment would go so horribly wrong leading  to a diplomatic tussle, a blacklisting of a bank and a group of unhappy farmers. 

Later in October 2021, the ‘Hippo Spirit’ moved away from Colombo harbour and reportedly sailed to Hambantota port. Meanwhile Sri Lanka obtained Nano Nitrogen fertiliser from the Indian Farmers Fertilisers Cooperative Limited (IFFCO), which was flown in by two Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft. 

In this column, I have no intention of going into the merits or otherwise of these incidents but will instead share my co-brother’s experience with  organic farming by avoiding chemical inputs that reduce soil biodiversity, avoid land degradation and curb chemical pollution. Compared to conventional farming, a lower cost of production and a higher price premium on farm products accompanied with health and environmental benefits on the face of it should actually be encouraging farmers to switch over to organic.  

 Organic farming uses fewer pesticides, reduces soil erosion, decreases nitrate leaching into both groundwater and surface water, aiding in recycling animal waste, but mineralisation is a problem. Unlike chemical Fertilisers that are already mineralised, nutrients are unmineralised and cannot be absorbed by the plants. Microbes are needed to break down organic matter and transform nutrients into a mineralised state. 

Yet when microbes are added to the soil, pest and weed control is now required. Both compost and manure do add beneficial microbes along with organic matter to the soil but it is difficult to completely replace synthetic fertiliser. Only a tiny amount of nutrients ends up as food eaten by cattle and an even tinier part will go into their dung. How can using cow dung for soil rejuvenation replace the nutrients sucked out by growing crops? 

Self-sufficient in food production today, nobody remembers India in the 1960s, when the situation was pretty bad with the risk of famine conditions in the background. Undeniably, India’s Green Revolution increased food production, alleviated extreme poverty and malnourishment helping feed millions of undernourished people lacking sufficient food to meet daily nutritional requirements.  An increase in consumption of chemical fertilisers was the mainstay of the green revolution. 

One frequently used fertiliser was the NPK fertiliser because of its ingredients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Many farmers in India, like my co-brother, in his agricultural estate in South India, swear by the  recommended level of NPK fertiliser and ensure their soil is rich with nutrients by trying to keep as close to the recommended benchmark as possible.

During and post the Green Revolution, it was chemical fertilisers that ensured food sufficiency and catered to the burgeoning population growth. Green Revolution crops became high yielding because they suck the maximum possible nutrients from the soil. This naturally depletes the soil and in the traditional low yielding pre Green Revolution era, farmers were required to keep the farm fallow regularly and recover some fertility. This lowered the grain production per acre requiring chemical Fertilisers to replenish soil nutrients. If the Green Revolution had not come to the rescue, foreign food aid and mass starvation would have been inevitable. 

Conventional farming everywhere is going through a very tough phase, gradually becoming unviable. Farmers are getting into a vicious cycle of debt due to high production costs, high interest rates for credit, volatile market prices of crops, rising costs of fossil fuel based inputs, and the cost of private seeds.  A new method, the  Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF –  ZB means not requiring any purchased inputs , while  NF refers to   organic farming using nature and without chemicals ) is spreading fast to various states in India with wide success rates in the state of Karnataka where it first evolved when Subhash Palekar, a strong advocate of organic farming implemented   ZBNF practices with the state farmers association, the  Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.  Farming the ZBNF way, promises to end a reliance on loans, to cut production costs drastically and end the debt cycle for desperate farmers, resulting in reducing cultivation cost, enhancing yields, increasing incomes and reducing risks.

But there are voices of criticism against the ZBNF method as well.  India’s experts from The Natural Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the country’s top body of farm scientists, calls ZBNF an ‘unproven’ technology that will not bring tangible gain to either farmers or consumers. Even Sri Lanka’s master tea maker Herman Gunaratne, one of 46 experts picked by President Rajapaksa to guide the organic revolution, fears that by going completely organic, the tea industry will lose 50 per cent of the crop, without getting a 50 per cent higher price.

Nevertheless today’s urban elite, concerned with their health and bothered about the environment do look out for new gastronomic experiences. This group is willing to pay higher prices for natural products if an improved product taste and nutritional value is guaranteed. Through natural farming they expect to benefit from food diversity, healthy products free of industrial pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers, chemical medications, hormones and growth-boosters that harm both humans and the soil. On the flip side, unfortunately, production volumes decrease, farming labour increases, frequent pest and weed control is now required and shelf life is shortened as natural organic food spoils faster in the absence of preservatives.

This is pushing organic farming to becoming a niche segment today. The rich are willing to pay fancy prices for organic products but the masses will continue to require food at lower prices, in turn needing chemical inputs for high yields.  This will be the challenge for the future of organic agriculture, increasing yields, and reducing prices while meeting the challenges of an increasing world population.  Fortunately there are several advantages addressed by organic farming, including environmental awareness, concerns with individual health and the absence of pesticide residue. In fact certain crops like legumes, peanuts and soybeans are able to fix their own nitrogen in the soil and are being grown organically free of chemicals.

A way forward is to withdraw the existing opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops. Via genetic engineering in the laboratory, crops are grown to be more nutritious, colourful, tastier, insect, and drought resistant, with a longer shelf life, engineered to fix their own nitrogen in the soil, like legumes can do in a natural state. However, if opposition to genetically modified crops continues, technology will have to evolve to break out of a small niche, not depress yields and not raise prices. My co-brother and other farmers in Sri Lanka and India know this very well. It’s consumers like us who need to grasp the reality. 

Priyan R Naik is a columnist and a freelance journalist living in Bengaluru, India. He appears in the Deccan Herald, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Hindu Business Line, Times of India, Navhind Times, Daily Star of Dhaka and on various on-line websites. 

E-mail: priyannaik211@gmail.com  Twitter: @priyannaik

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