By R.M. Samanmalee Swarnalatha
Sri Lankan government’s badly planned organic farming policy that has banned the use of chemical fertilizer in 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.
Chairman of Minneriya Integrated Farmer Organization, Anil Gunawardhna argues that the government organic fertilizer program is an utter failure because it was announced without any proper program and work plan to achieve its aims.
“The government’s original plan was to achieve this organic cultivation in ten years time. However, without any discussion with farmers they banned the import of chemical fertilizer,” he complains.
Writing in The Sunday Times in May last year just after the government banned chemical fertilizer imports, agricultural scientist Saman Dharmakeethi criticized the decision predicting that it would cause loss of forests and a food crisis.
In his election campaign in 2019 under the theme of ‘ Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ President Gotabaya Rajapakse, clearly mentioned that “building up a community of citizens who are healthy and productive, we need to develop the habit of consuming food with no contamination with harmful chemicals”. In order to guarantee the peoples’ right to such safe food, the entire Sri Lankan agriculture will be promoted to use organic fertilizers within ten years, the election policy platform said.
When President Rajapakse banned the importation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in April 2021, he cited health concerns. The ban on its importation was imposed through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification on May 6th last year, following the Cabinet endorsement of the plan under the theme of “Creating a Green Socio-economy with Sustainable Solutions for Climate Change”. The document admitted that the use of chemical fertilizers has led to better harvests but has also contaminated lakes, canals and groundwater.
For more than two decades a mysterious kidney disease has been spreading among farmers in the mainly rice-growing areas, which has baffled both hydrologists and medical experts. It is suspected that the overuse of chemicals in farming may be the cause.
Weaning Away From “Green Revolution” Technology
With many vested interests at work, the government is learning a bitter lesson that it is not easy to wean away farmers from the use of chemicals in farming. It needs careful planning and closer consultations 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 comprised of small farms, which produce most of the country’s rice, vegetables, legumes, tubers, spices, and fruits.
While, fertilizers and pesticides have long been used for the production of plantation crops in Sri Lanka, until several decades ago, most of the smallholder operations were farmed with little or no input of agricultural chemicals. Wide use of chemical fertilizer was introduced to the country during the so-called ‘green revolution’ in the decades 1960-70 along with “high-yielding” seeds.
Costly Fertilizer Imports and Subsidy
In 2020, Sri Lanka imported (both state and private sector) foreign fertilizers worth $259 million, representing 1.6 percent of the country’s total imports by value according to Central Bank statistics. Sources indicate that the 2021 import bill could potentially total in the range of $300-$400 million given current international prices. By limiting and/or banning costly foreign exchange draining fertilizer and agrochemical imports, the Sri Lankan government aims to generate significant import cost savings.
But, Professor Buddhi Marambe, a former Dean of Agriculture Faculty at the University of Peradeniya in recent newspaper articles has warned that an overnight shift to organic fertilizer could lead to crop declines that in turn cause huge food shortages within months. “We have spoken based on science. Without going for evidence-based decisions, nothing will go right,” he argues, refuting claims by the government 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 relying on food imports from outside”.
Rice Farmers’ Grievances
Some rural farmers have already decided not to cultivate Sri Lanka’s staple rice in the ongoing ‘Maha’ or next ‘Yala’ cultivation seasons, because of the government’s failure to supply necessary fertilizers. Farmers here are deeply unhappy at the sudden banning of the import of chemical fertilizer. They mainly cultivate paddy, low country vegetables, cereals, grains, and onions. However, in this ‘Maha’ season, they could not use chemical fertilizer, If the government promised to supply the required organic fertilizer, farmers say they didn’t receive it at the correct time.
Rice farmers have thus used different fertilizer that is normally used for tea, cinnamon, and coconut. They say this season’s rice harvest is very disappointing with resulting low incomes.
Piyarathna, Chairman, Eksath Sulu Farmer Organization, representing farmers from Dehiyannewela, Divilunkadawala ,Viharagama, Medirigiriya areas told IDN that there are 142 farmers in their farmer organization and they cultivate more than 190 acres using minor irrigation water. “Our farmers normally harvest 100- 120 bushel (2500-3000 kg) per acre using chemical fertilizer. However, this time farmers can’t expect such harvest due to improper fertilizer usage” he says, adding, “farming is now a business enterprise, (and) farmers cultivate not only for (their)consumption”.
Paddy plants take around 3–6 months to grow from seeds to mature plants, depending on the variety and environmental conditions. They undergo three general growth phases: vegetative, reproductive, and ripening. “Our farmers cultivate two groups: the short-duration varieties which mature in 105–120 days and the long-duration varieties which mature in 150 days”, he explained. “They (farmers) use hybrid seed and not traditional varieties. These hybrids varieties need quality fertilizer to increase the harvest. By using organic fertilizer farmers can’t expect high yield”.
Piyarathna says that farmers in the Polonnaruwa area have complained that the compost they have received is of inferior quality with most of the purchased compost having debris, seeds and stones.
Kapila Ariyawasnsa, a 38 year old farmer from the Ekamuthu Bedum Ela Farmer Organization in Mahaweli river irrigation System B told IDN that he cultivate 8 acres of low land both in Yala and Maha seasons – mainly paddy – and there are also 206 rice farmers belonging to his organization. He thinks that the proposed organic fertilizer program is not practical in their area.
“There are not enough resources to make compost in our village. Greenery vegetables can be cultivated using compost, not paddy,” he argues, because “there is no traditional varieties and only have all hybrid seeds (and) these hybrid seeds need required fertilizer for bumper harvest”. Further, he said that he had to spend Rs 23000 (USD 115) to purchase Yuria in black market.
Ariyawasnsa, predicts that the rural economy will collapse after the coming rice harvest. “Farmers won’t have the yield this time, they would get only 30 per cent of the harvest” he predicts. “Most of the people in Mahaweli area depend on agriculture”. He added that not only Mahaweli B zone, but most farmers in the Polonnaruwa District, would face bad harvests due to the government’s organic fertilizer program. “The current government’s policy (has been based on) unplanned policy decisions” he laments.
There is also growing interest among farmers for producing organically-grown food products and they understand the export potential for it. Some farm production units have already experienced considerable success in such ventures. Organic food production and marketing could be greatly expanded in Sri Lanka. But, research is needed to develop organic farming systems and practices that are efficient, productive, and profitable. This is the criticism the government is facing at the moment.
M.G. Dayawathi Chairman of Kalukele People’s company said that banning of chemical fertilizer has affected their company’s microfinance system too. “We have given more than 52 lakhs (5.2 million) of cultivation loans to 75 farmers for this Maha season. Unfortunately, farmers would not make the expected income and they are not in position to repay loans” she told IDN “Moreover, farmers mortgage their gold and their vehicles to purchase chemical fertilizer in the black market. They are trapped in a loan cycle. Government cannot expect livelihood improvement (among farmers) with this kind of unplanned program”.