By R. M. Samanmalee Swarnalatha
The Sri Lankan government’s ill-planned organic farming policy that banned the use of chemical fertilizers on farms has upset farmers in this rice-growing heartland and a political stronghold of the ruling coalition. The policy has also drawn criticism from agricultural experts, who warn that Sri Lanka‘s food security is at stake.
Minneriya Integrated Farmer Organization Chairman Anil Gunawardhna says the government’s organic fertilizer program is a complete failure as it was announced without a proper program and work plan to achieve its goals.
“The government’s initial plan was to achieve this organic cultivation in ten years. However, without any discussion with the farmers, they banned the import of chemical fertilizers,” he complains.
write in The Sunday Times In May last year, just after the government banned chemical fertilizer imports, agronomist Saman Dharmakeethi criticized the decision, predicting it would lead to forest loss and a food crisis.
During his election campaign in 2019 under the theme “Views of Prosperity and Splendor”, President Gotabaya Rajapakse clearly mentioned that “to build a community of healthy and productive citizens, we must develop the habit of consuming food without contamination with harmful chemicals”. To ensure peoples’ right to such safe food, the entire Sri Lankan agriculture will be encouraged to use organic fertilizers within ten years, the election policy platform said.
When President Rajapakse banned the import of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in April 2021, he cited health concerns. The ban on its importation was imposed by an extraordinary notification in the Official Gazette on May 6and last year, following the Cabinet’s approval of the plan under the theme “Creating a Green Socio-Economy with Sustainable Solutions to Climate Change”. The document admits that the use of chemical fertilizers led to better harvests but also contaminated lakes, canals and groundwater.
For more than two decades, a mysterious kidney disease has been spreading among farmers in mainly rice-growing areas, baffling both hydrologists and medical experts. It is suspected that the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture could be the cause.
Weaning from “green revolution” technology
With many vested interests at work, the government is learning a bitter lesson that weaning farmers off the use of chemicals in agriculture is not easy. This requires careful planning and closer consultation with farmers.
The agricultural production system in Sri Lanka consists of two traditional and well-defined components. One is the plantation section, established during the colonial period, consisting of large units and producing perennial crops such as coffee, tea, rubber and coconut mainly for export. The other is the smallholder sector made up of small farms, which produce most of the country’s rice, vegetables, pulses, tubers, spices and fruits.
While fertilizers and pesticides have long been used for the production of plantation crops in Sri Lanka, until decades ago most small farms were operated with little or no input of agricultural chemicals. Large-scale use of chemical fertilizers was introduced in the country during the so-called “green revolution” in the 1960s-70s, alongside “high-yielding” seeds.
Costly fertilizer imports and subsidies
In 2020, Sri Lanka imported (both from the public and private sectors) foreign fertilizers worth $259 million, which is 1.6% of the country’s total imports by value according to statistics. of the Central Bank. Sources say the 2021 import bill could potentially be between $300 million and $400 million given current international prices. By restricting and/or prohibiting costly imports of foreign exchange depleting fertilizers and agrochemicals, the Sri Lankan government aims to generate significant savings on import costs.
But Professor Buddhi Marambe, former Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya, has warned in recent newspaper articles that an overnight switch to organic fertilizers could lead to crop declines which, at in turn, would lead to huge food shortages within months. “We spoke on the basis of science. Without moving towards evidence-based decisions, nothing will go right,” he argues, refuting government claims that they are being manipulated. “Food security is national security,” he stresses, adding, “we must have sustainable policies to ensure food security because there is no point in relying on food imports from outside.”
Rice Farmers’ Grievances
Some rural farmers have already decided not to grow Sri Lanka’s staple rice during the upcoming ‘Maha’ or ‘Yala’ growing seasons, due to the government’s inability to provide the necessary fertilizers. Farmers here are deeply unhappy with the sudden ban on the import of chemical fertilizers. They mainly grow paddy, lowland vegetables, cereals, seeds and onions. However, in this “Maha” season, they could not use chemical fertilizers. If the government promised to provide the required organic fertilizer, farmers say they did not receive it at the right time.
Rice farmers have therefore used different fertilizers which are normally used for tea, cinnamon and coconut. They say this season’s rice harvest is very disappointing with the resulting low incomes.
Piyarathna, chairman of Eksath Sulu farmers organization, representing farmers from Dehiyannewela, Divilunkadawala, Viharagama, Medirigiriya regions, told IDN that there are 142 farmers in their farmers organization and they are growing more of 190 acres using minor irrigation water. “Our farmers normally harvest 100 to 120 bushels (2,500 to 3,000 kg) per acre using chemical fertilizers. However, this time farmers cannot expect such a harvest due to improper use of fertilizers,” he says, adding that “farming is now a business enterprise, (and) farmers don’t cultivate not only for (their) consumption”.
Paddy plants take about 3 to 6 months to go from seed to mature plants, depending on the variety and environmental conditions. They undergo three general growth phases: vegetative, reproductive and maturation. “Our farmers cultivate two groups: short-duration varieties that mature in 105 to 120 days and long-duration varieties that mature in 150 days,” he explained. “They (the farmers) use hybrid seeds and not traditional varieties. These hybrid varieties need quality fertilizer to increase the harvest. By using organic fertilizers, farmers cannot expect a high yield”.
Piyarathna says farmers in the Polonnaruwa area have complained that the compost they have received is of substandard quality, with most of the compost purchased containing debris, seeds and stones.
Kapila Ariyawasnsa, a 38-year-old farmer from the Ekamuthu Bedum Ela farmers’ organization in the Mahaweli B river irrigation scheme, told IDN that he cultivates 8 acres of lowlands at a time during Yala seasons. and Maha – mainly paddy – and that there were also 206 rice farmers belonging to his organization. He thinks the proposed organic fertilizer program is not practical in their area.
“There are not enough resources to make compost in our village. Green vegetables can be grown with compost, not paddy,” he explains, because “there are no traditional varieties and there are only all the hybrid seeds (and) these hybrid seeds have need the fertilizer needed for a bumper crop”. Moreover, he said he had to spend Rs 23,000 ($115) to buy Yuria from the black market.
Ariyawasnsa, predicts that the rural economy will collapse after the next rice harvest. “Farmers won’t get the yield this time, they will only get 30% of the harvest,” he predicts. “Most of the people in the Mahaweli region depend on agriculture.” He added that not only Mahaweli B zone but most of the farmers in Polonnaruwa district would face crop failure due to the government organic fertilizer scheme. “The policy of the current government (was based on) unplanned political decisions,” he laments.
The farmer’s wait
Farmers are also increasingly interested in the production of organic food products and they understand the export potential. Some agricultural production units have already had considerable success in such ventures. The production and marketing of organic food could be greatly expanded in Sri Lanka. But research is needed to develop efficient, productive and profitable organic farming systems and practices. This is the criticism the government is facing right now.
Mr. G. Dayawathi, Chairman of Kalukele People’s Company, said the ban on chemical fertilizers has also affected their company’s microfinance system. “We have provided more than 52 lakhs (5.2 million) crop loans to 75 farmers for this Maha season. Unfortunately, the farmers would not earn the expected income and they are unable to repay the loans,” she told IDN. “Furthermore, farmers mortgage their gold and their vehicles to buy chemical fertilizers on the black market. They are trapped in a lending cycle. The government cannot expect improved livelihoods (among farmers) with this type of unplanned program”.