The current shortage of fertilizer should ease within the next ten days or so, with the arrival of the first of three shipments by end of May, says the Director of the National Fertilizer Secretariat, Mr. Mahesh Gammanpila.
Mr. Gammanpila told Counterpoint that though each year a projected estimate of the required tonnage of fertilizer is calculated, a variety of factors had affected the easy availability of the products this time around.
This year, the expectation was that 523,000 hectares would go under the plough requiring 150,000 metric tonnes of fertilizer in the combination of 97,000 tonnes of Urea, and one third each of that volume in Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) and Muriate of Potash (MOP).
‘But COVID-19 got in the way and hampered imports and smooth distribution, while farmers also resorted to panic buying of fertilizer,’ he said, explaining that, the spread of the Corona virus in the country was not the only factor creating the shortage.
Owing to the health risks associated with TSP, Mr. Gammanpila said that a decision had been made to reduce the use of this product by 50%, therefore, less than the usual quantity has been released to the market.
TSP contains heavy metals that contaminate the soil and is associated with cancer. Realistically speaking, TSP must be banned completely, he said, but agreed that more awareness on the harmful effect of the product could have been carried out amongst farmers before reducing the volume available in the market.
Farmers have been complaining about the non-availability of TSP, as they have not been brought up to speed about the dangerous health risk it poses, he said.
While the excessive use of urea too needs to be discouraged, farmers are in the habit of using more of it on their crops to obtain a better yield, explained Mr. Gammanpila. Paddy farmers and tea growers tend to use more urea, resulting in those cultivating other crops getting less of that fertilizer.
As well, the advocates of the grow your own food campaign which gathered momentum when the country was under curfew, had hoped that home owners and gardeners would use refuse from their kitchens as organic fertilizer, but the opposite had occurred, with these people too buying fertilizer meant for regular farming.
Another issue that has cropped up is the purchase of fertilizer from dealers by unscrupulous persons who then sell the stuff on the sly. The Secretariat is taking action to arrest this trend and is asking all registered sellers of fertilizer to keep track of the buyers, check NIC’s and quantities bought he said.
Meanwhile in a statement to Counterpoint, Rohini Wijeratne, the Matale candidate of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya revealed that Tea, Paddy and Vegetable farmers across the country are facing a precarious situation owing to the non-availability of fertilizer.
“The Agrarian Service Centres in Matale District give 7 kilos of urea and 9 kilos of ‘Mada Pohora’ (TSP) which is insufficient to cultivate even an acre of land. However, other than in Yatawatte and Ukuwela, Provincial Secretariats in other areas have recommended 190 kilos of urea, but the reality is that farmers cannot find fertilizer even to purchase it on the open market.’
In the Matale district for example in the Mahaweli catchment areas, to cultivate a hectare, farmers need 215 kilos of urea, 50 kilos of TSP and 55 kilos of MOP, she states adding that Tea Small Holders too are affected owing to the non-availability of fertilizer.
The situation is the same everywhere, she points out, not only in the Matale and Kandy areas but in places such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa too. The situation is worse because, most farmers were also unable to sell their produce earlier this year. “Their produce such as tomatoes, pumpkin, brinjals and cucumber were simply left to rot,’ she said.
The Dambulla Economic Centre is not functioning as expected, and farmers who were promised fertilizer at Rs. 700, or even for free, now cannot find enough to even to purchase, she added, stating that they are now in a terrible plight; ‘They were unable to sell the produce from the previous harvest and now they are facing a shortage in fertilizer to successfully cultivate crops in the new season.”
National Organizer of the All Ceylon Farmers Association, Namal Karunaratne blamed the government for being unprepared to face the new farming season (Yala), stating that it is blaming the farmers and COVID-19 to cover up their bad planning.
The two State run fertilizer distributors, Colombo Commercials Fertilizer Ltd. and Lakpohora handle the distribution of 4% and 6% respectively of the fertilizer, while the rest is handled by the private sector, he explained.
‘A month ago, the Agriculture Minister said there was no shortage in fertilizer, soon after that the State Minister in charge of the subject admitted there was a shortage but said it was because of COVID -19. Now they are accusing farmers of indiscriminate use of fertilizer. Government should have ensured stocks were ordered on time and made distribution of fertilizer an essential service owing to COVID-19,’ he told Counterpoint.
Though the price of urea has been fixed at Rs. 1000 for a 50 kilo bag, it is actually sold at Rs. 1150, and to make things worse, the sellers have made it mandatory that farmers also purchase 10 kilos of mixed fertilizer, at the rate of Rs. 165 a kilo, he told Counterpoint. This is day light robbery, and the farmers will purchase the fertilizer at any cost, because it is essential for them, he added.
Mr. Gammanpila acknowledged this practice adding that the Secretariat is taking strict action against dealers flouting the regulations. He had shut down four such outlets in Tissamaharama. However, he is restricted in acting, because farmers are not in the habit of obtaining a receipt for their purchases, making it difficult for the Secretariat to get proof to prosecute.
In fact, in a media release issued in early May the Secretariat warned that subsidized fertilizer is a ‘public property, and any offense involving subsidized fertilizer could be punished under the Public Property Act.
While the Secretariat has instructed private companies to cancel the dealership of those selling fertilizer above the controlled price, the media release pointed out that prices are printed on the pack. In association with Agriculture Instructors and the Agrarian Service Centres, the Secretariat has made arrangements to sell chemical fertilizer for fruits, vegetables and field crops at subsidized rates. The media release also informed the public that complaints of any wrong-doing could be lodged with the media division of the Agriculture Ministry on phone numbers 0110340 3931/3794.
Use of mixed fertilizer also poses the danger that the crops will not get the manure in proportion to the nutrients in the soil. Both Gammanpila and Karunaratne agreed that fertilizer must be applied in keeping with soil conditions, and this varies from one area to another. Applying mixed fertilizer, without following the correct ratio will also negatively impact the fertility of the soil, they pointed out, and unscrupulous dealers insisting that farmers also buy the mixed variety will result in further problems.