Sri Lanka aims for food security after ill-fated fertilizer ban
Posted on October 24th, 2022

KANIKA GUPTA, Courtesy Nikkei Asia

As millions suffer from hunger, officials promise ‘gigantic’ farm modernization

A Sri Lankan farmer gestures to show the ideal height of the plants in his paddy in July, as growers struggle amid the economic crisis and the aftermath of a ban on chemical fertilizers.   © Reuters

COLOMBO — Sri Lanka’s cash-strapped government has vowed to build food security for the nation — a tall order for a country suffering from one of the world’s highest food inflation rates and still cursing the agricultural policy of the previous, unceremoniously ousted Rajapaksa administration.

The World Food Program estimates that more than 6 million Sri Lankans, or nearly 30% of the population, are currently “food insecure” and in need of humanitarian assistance. With the inflation rate for food reaching around 90% on the year in recent months, the WFP has said that as many as 86% of families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food and in some cases cutting back on meals.

At an event in Colombo to mark World Food Day on Oct. 16, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a video message that the country faces a “critical juncture” for feeding itself, while Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stressed the need to invest in modernizing farming, according to local reports. The “government is fully committed to achieving this gigantic task,” Gunawardena was quoted as saying. “Agriculture and food security remain a national priority.”

As foreign currency reserves dried up earlier this year, Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time. Amid worsening shortages of energy and other essentials, including chemical fertilizers, massive protests ultimately forced the downfall of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Now the immediate challenge for the bankrupt country is to secure cooperation from creditors, especially China, to restructure its debt and unlock a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

International assistance will also be crucial for securing the future of its farms, not only in the face of the economic crisis but also the threat of climate shocks.

A representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization told the World Food Day event that the United Nations body was working to provide agricultural essentials such as seeds and fertilizer “to boost production and help Sri Lanka move towards becoming a food secure nation,” reports said. In September, USAID announced $40 million in additional funding for Sri Lankan farmers, working with the FAO.

Also last month, Wickremesinghe said his government had “found” $200 million for the provision of fertilizers for the current cultivation season, according to a statement on his office’s website. The president spoke of the bigger picture, too, saying that modernization should be in full swing by the end of 2023 and that Sri Lanka should be looking to “earn foreign exchange from agriculture,” naming Saudi Arabia and Indonesia as potential export destinations.

It remains to be seen what form this modernization will take. But as Colombo attempts to look ahead, Sri Lanka and its farmers are haunted by the recent past.

A key tipping point in the economic crisis is widely considered to be former President Rajapaksa’s abrupt ban on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in April 2021, in favor of organic cultivation. Even proponents of organic farming shake their heads as they look back on the decision, which came when the economy was already on the brink due to COVID-19’s impact on tourism.

“The president’s committee of advisers to implement the new agricultural policy had no knowledge of organic farming,” explained Thilak Kariyawasam, president of the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement, a professional organization founded in 1994 to promote such farming. A 46-member task force charged with creating a road map had “no understanding of how organic agriculture works,” he argued.

“They couldn’t find adequate organic inputs for the upcoming season, which became a huge problem for farmers,” Kariyawasam said. “Organic farming doesn’t give results overnight. It needs two to three seasons to develop microbes that enhance soil quality. It is during this time that the farmers needed governmental support. But that support was missing.”

Sri Lankans shop for vegetables at a market in Colombo in July, amid accelerating food inflation.   © Reuters

While Rajapaksa sold the ban as necessary for health and the environment, many suspect he had a more pressing reason — to save the $400 million the country was spending every year on fertilizer imports.

“As an organic, passionate entrepreneur, I was delighted with the policy to create a national positioning strategy to become organic,” said Prasanna Hettiarachchi, founder of Saaraketha Holdings, Sri Lanka’s largest exporter and retailer of certified organic food products. “But on the other side, I was alarmed that the ban was imposed overnight. It was, in my opinion, a myopic decision influenced by the shortage of foreign currency.”

After the ban, rice production quickly fell to 2.92 million tonnes in the 2021-to-2022 season, from the previous year’s 3.39 million tonnes.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report in 2021 speculated that “the lack of organic fertilizer productive capacity, coupled with the absence of a formalized plan to import organic fertilizers in lieu of chemical fertilizers, raises the potential for an adverse impact on food security.” This is exactly what happened.

“We are a tropical country with favorable weather and sunlight. We had enough to eat, enough to resources to grow our own food. No one was dying of hunger. But the introduction of this policy destroyed that balance, and commercial agriculture was affected,” said Rajith Tennakoon, director general of community affairs in the Presidential Secretariat.

Tennakoon, who has years of experience in organic and conventional farming himself, said the fuel shortage left no diesel for watering fields, and many crops were destroyed by pests. “I had to lay off 30 farmers because I didn’t have any money to pay them.”

While the blanket ban was reversed in November 2021, the damage was done. The scale of production has yet to fully recover, as the sector remains under pressure from the shortage of foreign currency required to buy agrochemicals.

However, Tennakoon, who now works as a go-between for the public and the government, says efforts are underway to remedy to problem and cut red tape. “The only prohibition is now on certain brands of chemicals due to environmental issues, and not due to policy.”

Despite anger over the chemical ban, organic farming does have broad support. A survey by Verite Research, a Colombo-based think tank, in July 2021 found that 64% of farmers agreed with a full transition or organic agriculture, but 78% of those who supported the change said they would need more than a year to adjust.

The government is not giving up on organic farming. The Agriculture Ministry has recommended 70% chemical fertilizer use this season, with organic fertilizer making up the rest. The ministry says a subsidy of 20,000 rupees ($54) will be granted to those who apply for organic fertilizer for their paddies.

Despite the incentives, though, some experts see the previous policy as a “point of no return.”

The “organic brand has gained notoriety in the last one year, bringing negative thoughts in the minds of ordinary citizens who are not even involved in organic farming,” said Hettiarachchi. “We nearly went hungry because of this madness. In my personal opinion, it will be very tough to roll out this kind of program again, and I don’t think any other government would ever even try it, because it is political suicide.”

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