Inorganic fertilizers, ban on agrochemicals and fallacies of organic farming | Print edition


By Wicky Wickramatunga

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File photo of a farmer from Kilinochchi advised by a local official.

To the applause of the audience of senior officials, the President declared with determination that the import of inorganic fertilizers will be “banned” in the near future to “protect” Sri Lankans from the adverse effects of these chemicals on the world. “health” of the general population. . It was April 22. The Cabinet approved the president’s proposal to ban all imports of inorganic fertilizers and to go further, agrochemicals, with immediate effect on April 26. The president reconfirmed the ban at another meeting on April 29 and appointed a committee to implement his decision.

He further stated that organic / carbon fertilizers will be made available to the farming community as part of the fertilizer subsidy program and that any crop loss due to the adoption of organic farming will be compensated financially by the farmers. savings from the import ban on chemical fertilizers estimated at Rs. 80 billion. Well said! On page 39 of the “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” manifesto, it was stated that all Sri Lankan agriculture would be encouraged to use organic fertilizers over the next 10 years. It is now accelerated and a total ban on imports of inorganic fertilizers and agrochemicals is imposed with immediate effect. First country in the world to do so and the President seems proud of this “success”!

What is organic farming?

Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system that promotes and improves the health of agro-ecosystems, including biodiversity, life cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of non-agricultural inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to the use of synthetic materials, to perform any specific function within the system. (FAO / WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999).

Above is the definition of organic farming well described by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Share of organic farming in global agriculture and targets in Sri Lanka

IFOAM Organics International published in February 2020 that 71.5 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is organic. This is only 1.5% of the world’s agricultural land. The countries with the largest biological share are Liechtenstein (38.5%), a small country of 160 km² with a population of less than 40,000 inhabitants and a GDP per capita of US $ 98,500, Samoa (34.5 %), a land mass of 2,842 km² with a population of just over 200,000 inhabitants and a GDP per capita of nearly $ 6,000 and Austria (24.7%), a country of 83,879 km² with nearly 9 million people and a GDP per capita of over $ 50,000. In 16 countries around the world, including the three above, 10 percent or more of all farmland is organic. This is the result of the hard work done by these governments and organizations such as IFOAM over the past 3-4 decades. (IFOAM was established in 1972.) In the United States, the extent of organic farms is less than 1 percent.

Sri Lanka, with a population of nearly 22 million people and a land mass of 65,000 km2 and a GDP per capita of less than $ 4,000, can it be 100% organic overnight? A question to which the promoters of the campaign “Be Organic, Ban Chemical Fertilizers and Agrochemicals” should provide an answer.

Organic farming and its overall impact on crop yields

In 2019, Professor Holger Kirchmann from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala wrote in his article ‘Why organic farming is not the way forward’ that the yields of organically grown legumes were 20% and those of non-legumes 40% lower than those of conventional crops. For all crops, the difference in organic yield was 35 percent. Based on Swedish statistical data, the condition of compensating for a yield gap of 35 percent would mean an increase in arable land of around 50 percent. (His published article can be found at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0030727019831702.)

The statistics above come from research in Sweden, a temperate country where the relative humidity and temperature are much lower than in tropical Sri Lanka, which provides a breeding ground for pests and diseases due to the temperature. and high relative humidity throughout the year. Unless so-called organic crops are given a dose of inorganic fertilizers and agrochemicals “overnight”, the overall impact on yield in Sri Lanka could be 50% or more. Can Sri Lanka double the area of ​​cultivated land by 2.3 million hectares to make up for the 50 percent loss in yield by going fully organic overnight? On the other hand, a pest attack can have devastating results, even a loss of yield of 100%. As the President suggested, farmers will be financially compensated for the loss of yield. But what about food security? Will the country have enough food to feed 22 million people? Are the Rs saved. Will 80 billion be enough to import food and compensate farmers? Professionals predicted a bill of Rs. 800 billion to import food to fill the gap.

The real problem

Sri Lanka spends nearly Rs. 60 billion on fertilizer subsidy and import of conventional first generation fertilizers such as urea, triple super phosphate and muriate of potash cost the country nearly 300 million dollars per year. But second- or third-generation, quality-assured fertilizers, such as the compound, slow-release and controlled-release types, are hardly imported into the country. Almost one million tonnes of first generation fertilizers are imported into the country while only 35,000 tonnes are imported of second and third generation fertilizers. In addition, most of the first generation fertilizers are imported through tendering procedures, and the cheapest and lower quality fertilizers are supplied to the farming community under the subsidy program. Second and third generation fertilizers do not fall under the subsidy scheme and therefore a credible comparison between high quality fertilizers and conventional types cannot be made. In contrast, global agriculture is rapidly moving away from conventional fertilizers and embracing high-tech second and third generation fertilizers.

There is no doubt that farmers use excessive amounts of fertilizer for two reasons; on the one hand because it is given at a very subsidized price and on the other hand because the fertilizers supplied are of very poor quality. This prompted us to use 287.2 kg of fertilizer per hectare of cultivated land, the highest in the region. The problem lies here, not in the use of inorganic fertilizers.

In the case of agrochemicals, environmental pollution from overuse is due to lack of knowledge due to extremely poor agricultural extension service in the country. The farmer’s “extension agent” is the agrochemical retailer who either recommends a product cocktail or sells the product that earns him the highest sales commission.

Can organic / carbon fertilizers completely replace inorganic fertilizers?

So-called organic fertilizers are defined as organic manure due to their very low nutrient content. One kilogram of urea contains 460 grams of nitrogen or 46 percent while one kilogram of compost contains 30 grams of nitrogen unless the manufacturer “adds” a urea solution during the manufacturing process. The farmer must add 15 times more manure to obtain the same amount of nitrogen as that provided by urea. In addition, only 3 percent of the nitrogen applied as compost is readily available to the plant. The remaining 97 percent will need to be broken down by soil microorganisms and will be available within 12 to 18 months. The same scenario prevails with the other major nutrients, phosphorus and potassium. The best compost manure can have an NPK ratio of 3: 2.5: 1.5 unless inorganic fertilizers are added.

Can a farmer apply about 5-6 tonnes of organic manure to each hectare? Assuming this is done, the total annual organic manure requirement in the country will be 11.5 million metric tonnes. Can this be provided? The Minister of State in charge of fertilizers ensures “import” of organic manure in the event of a shortage. What about the pathogens that accompany imported organic manure? Another “disaster” in the making. Another relevant question would be the inapplicability of organic fertilizer in modern advanced technologies such as protected agriculture, drip irrigation, etc.

Solution

Much of the conventional fertilizer applied to crops is lost due to leaching, evaporation, runoff, etc. that pollute the environment. In developed countries and in many developing countries, the impact of inorganic fertilizers on the environment is stopped by introducing second and third generation fertilizers of guaranteed quality as well as advanced technologies such as fertigation (fertilization by fertilizers). drip irrigation systems), using artificial intelligence and drone technology to spot pests. diseases and crop deficiencies to minimize the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals by spot applications.

Therefore, the solution to avoid the environmental impact and health risks of the farming community and the general public of inorganic fertilizers and agrochemicals is not an arbitrary, sudden and malicious ban, but the introduction of high quality second and third generation fertilizers replacing first generation fertilizers by private and public sector organizations and streamlining the agricultural extension service to promote the judicious use of agrochemicals, possibly through a partnership public-private with like-minded private sector companies and institutions.

Going 100% organic is a populist idea and such a decision will gain instant and sensational support from the general public who are unaware of the short, medium and long term effects of such a decision. While no country has achieved 100% organic status, a small number of countries (16) that have more than 10% of their arable land under organic farming have taken decades to achieve this status.

The decision to immediately ban imports will have devastating repercussions and inevitable food security problems in a few seasons, possibly leading to famine in the country. The experts who promoted this would not be there to answer the public when it happens, and the government will be solely responsible for its decision.

(The author is Managing Director of Agriworld (Pte) Ltd and has broad
experience in the global and local agricultural sector. He is reachable
at [email protected]).


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