Mahindananda: acts like a cat on a hot tin roof.

The government’s decision to make the overnight switch to the use of organic fertiliser has seen the country traverse a seven- month long meandering and convoluted path through the wilderness. The volte face comes after weeks of confrontation between the government and farmers who have held unending protests and other cash crop growers having to endure weeks of angst


Earlier this week the government came full circle to lift its own ban on the import of synthetic fertiliser and agrochemicals. The proviso however was that the private sector will be allowed to import these products.

Announcing the reversal of the ban, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage emphasized there will be no change to the government’s pursuit of its green agriculture policy. In August this year, the government allocated 3. 8 billion rupeesto purchase organic fertiliser from local producers. Aluthgamage also said the government will support farmers to take on this endeavour by providing seeds and technology, a guaranteed price for paddy, access to markets and make the fertiliser subsidy available. Sri Lanka’s fertiliser subsidy which was started as a policy to provide low cost fertiliser to farmers as an incentive to boost agriculture production, has been in place for nearly six decades. It was started in 1962 and apart from a fouryear break between 1990 and 1994, has continued since then. In 2020 the government spent 0. 24 percent of its GDP on the subsidy which some would like to see scrapped and the farmer paid a higher price for his produce instead.

Justice C. V Wigneswaran told parliament that this decision by the government was aruse to avoid a poitically embasrassaing situation.  

It said that government subsidies and allied reliefs would hereafter be available only to users of organic fertilizers. That seems to have meant that anyone could import inorganic fertilizers or chemical fertilizers. But those who would use them would not receive any governmental subsidies or benefits. Instead of saying the government has changed its mind on account of the peoples protests, specially the farmers’ protest and therefore had allowed import of inorganic fertilizers, it has used this ruse to circumvent the politically embarrassingsituation! Now the law seems to be anyone can import inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, weedicides and so on, but the government will not give any benefits to those who use them. This means that the subsidies and other benefits given so far to the agriculture sector would be discontinued. All in the name of sustainable organic agriculture!But this could have been done right at the beginning instead of getting the masses to get agitated and demonstrate against the government.

The government’s decision to make the overnight switch to the use of organicfertiliser has seen the country traverse a seven month long meandering and convoluted path through the wilderness. The volte face comes after weeks of confrontation between the government and farmers who have held unending protests and other cash crop growers having to endure weeks of angst. While there is general agreement to the principle of using organic fertiliser, the impracticality of enforcing an overnight ban and transition is what has raised hackles. A World Bank study on how to move forward in the post Covid period identifies several key areas which should continue.  It recommended that food production and agricural practices should continue and that farmers should be encouraged to produce more.

Sri Lanka’s organic experiment started in April this year after the cabinet agreed to a proposal put to it by the president to ban the import of synthetic fertiliser and agrochemicals and followed it up with a gazette notice on 6th May. Soon after the president appointed a 46- member taskforce for a green socio-economy.  It comprised members of parliament, plantation sector personnel and businessmen and among its responsibilities was the preparation of a roadmap for the transition from synthetic to organic fertiliser. Later in August the cabinet approved the appointment of a committee headed by Priyantha Indralal Yapa, Professor of Environmental Agriculture in the University of Sabaragamuwa, to provide policy guidance for the transition. As the months wore on the government did a phased backtracking, gradually allowing chemical imports for floriculture, nano nitrogen and sulphate of ammonia which was seen as a vacuum filler.

The government’s justification for the transition is a fulfilment of its election pledges in its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour manifesto. This roadmap allows ten years for the conversion to take placewhich is a far cry from the overnight switch that the government is attempting to make. This haste has fuelled thinking that the transition is because of the forex crisis the country is faced with although the latest decision will not lead the country out of the woods either.

The road ahead will be a bumpy one not just for the for the agriculture sector but also for the country’s food security. Although agriculture minister Manhindananda Aluthgamage said imports will be allowed with immediate effect it will be another three months before the fertiliser arrives in the country. In the interim, it will not only be the maha season paddy cultivation, which is 65 percent of the total production, that will suffer without fertiliser but also vegetable production, especially those in the up country. The deepest crisis will be in the vegetable sector’, says Professor Aruna Kumara who is a specialist in crop science at the Ruhuna University. ‘It will be mainly because there will be no fertiliser and agrochemicals as in countrystocks dwindle. Up country vegetables such as beetroot, carrot, cabbage and knokhol will be particularly vulnerable because they are hard to grow without fungicides. Theconsumer will definitely have to depend on some imports like lentils and potatoes to avoid a shortage’.

According to Professor Aruna Kumara some 20 percent of farmers have given up farming because of the crisis. ‘We were expecting a 30 percent drop in production any way and together it will be about 50 percent’. During a survey of 1042 farmers from nine provinces between the 1st and 10th of July this year, around 85 percent said they expect a 47 percent reduction in their harvest if they are not able to use synthetic fertiliser to cultivate their crops.  The survey was commissioned by local think tank Verite Research.

The move will not be the panacea to the country’s economic woes as the cost of importing will be more because of the rupee devaluation and an increase in the price of these products in the world market. One ton of synthetic fertiliser which used to be around $397 is now being sold at nearly $1000, which is more than double the earlier price. Meanwhile China, which is the world’s biggest producer of urea, is cutting down it’s production.

The easing of imports will affect the existing fertiliser policy. Currently, the monopoly on fertiliser imports lies with the government and its two designated companies the Colombo Commercial Fertilisers Limited and Ceylon Fertilisers Company Limited. Based on the assessments done by government departments and research units, the Fertiliser Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture recommends thequantity of fertiliser that the country needs.

Announcing the reversal of the ban,Aluthgamage said it was ‘We are taking this decision to allow imports as a government which is sensitive to the needs of the people’ said Aluthgamage.The irony is that it took the government seven months to arrive at this realization.


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