President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructing officials, at a recent meeting, to step up the production of organic fertilizers as a national priority

The current administration has undertaken a high-wire politico-economic act without a safety net. It has banned chemical fertilizer imports. The Cabinet is reported to have approved a proposal for prohibiting agrochemicals such as weedicides as well. The country has come to be totally dependent on non-synthetic fertilizers. This is a leap of faith. Should the government’s organic fertilizer experiment fail, as predicted in some quarters, with farmers suffering losses due to poor yields and consumers facing a food shortage, the country’s food import bill would soar, worsening an already bad balance of payment situation, and there’d be hell to pay on the political front. But the government is determined to forge ahead, come what may.

Those who are supportive of the ban on syntheticfertilizers, pesticides, etc., maintain that these harmful chemicals cause serious diseases and birth defects among other health issues. Australia uses 68.1 kg of chemical fertilizers per hectare, Israel 280.7 kg per hectare and Sri Lanka 300 kg per hectare, they have pointed out. The general consensus is that agrochemicals are overused in Sri Lanka, and this practice has ruined the country’s soil and adversely impacted public health.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, on 29 April, 2021, that Sri Lanka would be the first country in the world to do away with chemical fertilizers and the governmentwould not reverse its decision under any circumstances. Sri Lanka spent USD 221 million in 2019 to import chemical fertilizers and this amount is expected to rise between USD 300–400 million with the crude oil price increases, he said, dismissing as baseless the claim that the chemical fertilizer ban would lead to a reduction in the national agricultural production. Promising that the government would ensure that adequate stocks of organic fertilizers would be available, and everyone would have enough food on the table, the President said government spending on treating several non-communicable diseases caused by harmful agrochemicals was extremely high.

So, the government is not likely to back down.

Proponents of the ban    

Prominent among the independent proponents of the agrochemical ban is the Movement for Land and Agricultura Reform (MONLAR), which represents the rights of small-time farmers and promotes eco-friendly agricultural practices. It has welcomed the chemical fertilizer ban wholeheartedly while being critical of the government over other environmental issues such as the destruction of forests.

MONLAR has, in a recent letter to President Rajapaksa, praised him for banning synthetic fertilizer, saying the use of agrochemicals has had disastrous consequences during the past several decades. The widespread use of these chemicals has contaminated the soil and water, directly causing an increase in the incidence of non-communicable disease such as cancer and renal ailments. The overuse of agrochemicals has also undermined food sovereignty, disturbed ecological balance, and led to the extinction of many animal and plant species, MONLAR has said, pointing out that since almost all agricultural inputs used by Sri Lankan farmers are imported, certain companies have formed oligopolies. Currently, agriculture amounts to about 7% of the GDP,but about 26% of the workforce is involved in agriculture. These workers are poor and receive government welfare assistance; most of them are malnourished and in the clutches of microcredit companies. MONLAR believes that promoting environmentally friendly agricultural practices can be a solution to all these problems.

Some of the main advantages of organic fertilizers area high capacity to retain water, non-toxicity, fostering sustainable ecosystem for plants organisms and improving plant structure, ability to break down contaminants, and simple production process, according to agricultural experts. The disadvantages, according to them, include difficulties in precise application, delay in yielding intended results, variation of nutrients and microorganisms in soil.


Opponents of the ban

However, the opponents of the government’s organic fertilizer programme assert that agrochemicals are not harmful if used properly, and the discontinuation of their use will lead to a decrease in the national agricultural production, and could even lead to a food shortage. They also argue that the switchover to organic fertilizer will make it necessary to bring more lands under the plough as the yield from the currently cultivated lands will decrease.Prominent among those who represent this school of thought are some Sri Lankan scientists such as Prof. Chandre Dharma-wardene, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI and later Chairman of Chilaw Plantation Ltd.), Prof O. A. Ileperuma Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), and Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna).    

Another expert who has questioned the government’s wisdom in banning chemical fertilizer is founder of the Canada-based Active AgriScience, Ranil Waliwitiya. He is of the view that the ban on chemical fertilizer importation and use should have been given more thought,considering the scientific evidence; the government must not take impulsive decisions which affect the entire nation and its food security. Scientific facts are critically important in taking a decision of this nature, and hopefully the decision taken will be reversed soon, he has said.

Prof Rohan Rajapakse, Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology, University of Ruhuna, and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy, has, in a recent article in The Islandnewspaper, suggested an alternative way of handling the adverse effects of agrochemicals without a total ban on them. He has made the following recommendations:

1. Stop imports of pesticides in categories 1A and1B highly hazardous category and allow the less hazard pesticides to safeguard the interests of farmers while the judicious use of pesticides is promoted.

2. Promote the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible.

3. Minimize the use of pesticides.

4. Ensure the proper use of agrochemicals by farmers.

5. Adopt Integrated pest management as national policy on agricultural production.

6. Develop a national level policy for correct pesticide use.

7. Promote production and utilization of organic agriculture, and bio pesticides.

8. Adopt strict plant quarantine measures.

9. Impose Laws and introduce guidelines for postharvest handling of agriculture produce without pesticide

The advantages of synthetic fertilizers have been identified as easy handling, precise application, fast results and low cost compared to organic fertilizers in the long term. Disadvantages are said to include toxicity mainly due to overapplication, most varieties not containing micronutrient organisms, overapplication or underapplication.





A via media

Besides the scientists and experts opposed to the ban at issue, there are others who are critical of the manner in which the government has chosen to prohibit chemical fertilizers; they are of the view that it should not have been hurriedly done. One of them is Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya, a power sector expert, who has pointed out that the country took as long as four years to switch over to square pin plugs, and the changeover was conceived and implemented by experts without any political involvement. He maintains that the switchover from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers should have been carried out in a similar manner.

Prof. Rajapaksa advocates that the best option available to the country is to use both chemical fertilizers and organic fertilizers in a systematic manner so as to reap the benefits of both of them and increase national agricultural output.

The political gamble

This comment does not attempt a detailed analysis of the merits and demerits of the ban on chemical fertilizers; it has only presented arguments for and against the ban to bring them to the attention of the readers, who can draw conclusions. Its focus is on the political implications of what may be called the government’s great gamble, and the political consequences of the ban in question in the event of the government failing to achieve its goal.

National policies are alien to Sri Lanka, where regime changes invariably cause policies to be upended or deep-sixed. In other words, a change of government leads to a complete policy reset; the new administration introduces new policies. Only the culture of impunity, corruption and abuse of power survives a change of government. Every vital sector is therefore in a state of flux eternally, and no programme introduced by any government yields desired results; nor can it be properly judged because it gets derailed when the government that formulates it falls. The continuity of policies concerning vital sectors is essential for a country to achieve its long-term development goals. India is similar to Sri Lanka in many respects, but it has achieved considerable progress thanks to the consistency of most of its policies, and robust systems underpinning the state machinery.

Thus, if it is the success of its organic fertilizer project that the government seeks, the SLPP leaders should not lose sight of the possible political fallout of their efforts,and should strive to ensure the continuity of its agricultural policy; in other words, it had better care toprevent its gamble from becoming its undoing because the next government is very unlikely to continue with the ongoing project. This is the danger of taking experiments to extremes.

Lessons from the disastrous political consequences ofthe SLFP-led United Front (UF) government’s import restrictions aimed at promoting local production and reduce the country’s foreign debt seem to have gone unlearnt. Its extreme actions influenced by the policies of the socialist bloc in the then bipolar world, and leftists within its ranks, created conditions for the mammoth victory of the UNP with a five-sixths majority and the abandonment of the UF’s economic model and agricultural policies after seven years in 1977. Had the UFgovernment been political wise enough to tread cautiouslywith its experiments without allowing scarcities to ariseand cause unbearable difficulties to the public, perhaps the country would have been free from the current debt burden, and local industries would have stood to gain.

The UF government was overconfident because the UNP was lying supine apparently with no prospect of making a comeback. The present administration apparently thinks likewise, given the situation the Opposition finds itself in.

What the current leaders are doing by way of their experiments with organic fertilizer is in fact undoing what they did while they were in power from 2005 to 2015; during that period they introduced a fertilizer subsidy, which is believed to have led to the over-application of fertilizer as farmers tend to use liberally what is inexpensive or free. They seem to have moved from one extreme to another.

Some experts have argued that it will take a few yearsfor the adverse effects of the discontinuation of the use of chemical fertilizers to be felt because agricultural fieldscontain high amounts of nutrients due to years of overapplication of synthetic fertilizers, and the soil will remain fertile during the next few cultivation seasons. The government may be trying to make use of this gap to overcome teething problems being experienced in the process of producing and/or procuring enough organic fertilizer. Whether it will succeed in its endeavour remains to be seen.

Politics of food

The popularity of any government hinges on its ability to keep staple food prices low. One of the main reasons for the fall of the UNP government in 1956 was an increase in a measure of rice and the resultant public protests. Politics of rice is such that in 1970, the SLFP-led United Front government came into power promising freerice among other things. The UNP government did away with the rice ration book, having won the 1977 election, promising to give eight pounds of cereals, which became pie in the sky. It, however, did not fall because the SLFP was too weak to challenge it, and former Prime MinisterMrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, deprived of her civic rights,could not contest the 1982 presidential election, which President J. R. Jayewardene won to secure his second term; that administration avoided the general election due in that year with the help of a referendum, which was heavily rigged.

The present government has not been able to live up to people’s expectations, which its leaders raisedenormously through various promises while they were inthe Opposition. This may be mostly due to the unforeseen problems it is beset with. It is struggling to contain a fast-spreading pandemic, which is likely to go out of control unless the ongoing vaccination drive is ramped up to bring about herd immunity through inoculation. This is a formidable task that even the developed countries have not been able to accomplish properly. If the government’s fertilizer ban backfires, causing the national agricultural output, especially the food production, to drop, it will find itself in an even more unenviable position. Imprudence is something to be avoided in politics.


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