By Dr Hemakumara Nanayakkara
As of April 2021, Sri Lanka’s agriculture and plantation sectors have been in needless hardship following an announcement, apparently made on a whim, that Sri Lanka would switch to fully organic farming – with immediate effect.
In so doing, the government has discordantly halted all progress in efforts to develop these critical sectors, pushing back many steps the entire country in the decision to ban the import and use of all agrochemicals and inorganic fertilizers.
A conflict of intentions and ego
By issuing such an extreme proclamation without any scientific analysis on how these concepts might be implemented in practice in Sri Lanka, they have done more harm than good to the expansion of true organic agriculture.
This is unfortunate because, as a concept, organic farming has many advantages. However, contrary to what has been described, it is not simply a question of going back to “old practices”. There is a deep and complex science to organic farming.
None of these complexities were understood or considered when the reckless decision to ban all inorganic inputs was first announced. The assumption that “organic” is simply to add compost to the soil has been to the detriment of the directive. Therefore, it was decided that the imported chemical inputs were not needed, not because organic farming is convenient, but because the imports force the government to spend more of the country’s foreign exchange reserves, which are currently decreasing.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
In the months that followed, everyone from academics to industry experts and farmers on the ground expressed frustration with the total collapse of their regular farming practices due to this dangerously unscientific approach to farming. agricultural reform.
After many condemnations, it was finally announced in early August that the government was reversing its position. While not admitting it and maintaining that the ban is still in effect, presumably to save face, the fact that they forgo importing chelated minerals, fertilizer blends and micronutrients for specialized applications, including for hydroponics and floriculture ”, although temporary, is a slight relief.
Presumably, the technical details of the meaning of these terms may be enough to deter the audience from asking too many questions. But anyone with a passing knowledge of agriculture would understand that chelated minerals and fertilizer blends contain exactly the same inorganic inputs that the government openly claims to ban – namely: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). . These are essential elements for plant nutrition and growth.
Prior to the invention of techniques for producing synthetic fertilizers in the early 1900s, guano – the accumulated droppings of seabirds and bats was the only known reliable source of fertilizer with NPK suitable for agriculture. commercial at that time. This pressing demand for fertilizer has led to many predictions of massive famine, and it would have happened without the invention of the Haber-Bosch technique for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
Although it is possible to obtain phosphorus locally and organic potassium can be imported from natural mines – leaving aside the fact that supply chains are not in place to meet all national needs – nitrogen supply is much more problematic. This is because it is extremely difficult to obtain N from plant or animal sources at the levels necessary for agriculture on a commercial scale.
Currently, we use urea for tea and rice, which contains around 46% nitrogen. In contrast, organic sources like Gliricidia only offer 4%, while cattle dung contains 3.5% and poultry dung – with 4.5% nitrogen per composition.
Before the ban, NPK was used in paddy, tea, rubber and coconut, and after the last easing the same inputs are still used, so in practice the government took 3 months to make a bad decision and then reverse it – while mistakenly maintaining that inorganic NPK is not acceptable.
Had the government been content to consult with relevant experts in the field in an open and transparent manner, they could have avoided all the negative effects that resulted from this disastrous decision. Although there was initial mention of a “Presidential Working Group for a Green Socio-Economy”, they did not share their logic or approach in any public forum.
We know there is one person in this task force who was billed as a professor who made the ridiculous claim that algae as tall as coconut palms can be harvested from the ocean and used as organic fertilizer. While it is true that such algae growth does exist, it is only found near the North Pole, so it has nothing to do with Sri Lanka. We offer this example in order to highlight the absurd and total lack of credible scientific information behind political decisions at the highest levels of this government.
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it
If we continue to allow the state to step in and interfere with the fundamentals of agriculture in Sri Lanka based on the whims of these individuals, what could be worse? Previously, we were told that the import and use of all agrochemicals would be immediately banned. Subsequently, the deadline was extended to a period of 3 months – 1 growing season. Now, they have temporarily reverted to allowing agrochemicals, but it is implied that these imports could be banned again at any time.
In the meantime, the solution currently proposed is a “nitrogen extract” which will be used as a spray. No further details were provided. We don’t know if this extract is organic, inorganic, from the moon, or even from Mars. All we know is that the only high percentage nitrogen extracts possible can only be obtained from a chemical base. If the government tries to fool people, they can use chemically extracted nitrogen, which in turn could be sprayed on organic manure and distributed to farmers.
Indeed, the government refuses to reveal what exactly we will add to our soil through such extracts. In the meantime, we must continue to call for more clarity and transparency. This is particularly crucial for all agricultural exports – especially tea – whose buyers are sensitive to Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs).
Another fact to consider: no country in the world has ever managed to become fully organic. There are, however, a few warning examples from the history of those who have tried. The example of Bhutan has been cited often in recent months. There, it was announced that over a 20-year period, Bhutan would systematically phase out inorganic inputs. Even after careful and intensive planning with wide consultation and preparation of stakeholders, the country has only been able to convert 10% of its arable land to organic farming after 30 years of efforts in total.
The author is a former Minister of State for Agriculture, former Governor of the Southern Province and the only holder of a PhD in Organic Agriculture from Sri Lanka from the University’s Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture. of Peradeniya.
To be continued