Colombo, June 5: Two weeks ago farmers in the town of Medirigiraya, in the Polonaruwa district, were protesting. They had not got their quota of fertilizer to cultivate their fields from their local agriculture office and it was going to affect their crop yield, their finances and the country’s food supply. These farmers also have a proud agricultural heritage stretching back to the days of King Parakramabahu when Polonaruwa, the country’s second most ancient kingdom, was self- sufficient with food. The current forecast is not rosy. The growing scarcity of fertilizer is beginning to tell as the government’s ban on its import gradually chokes the agriculture sector.
Despite warnings from agriculture sector experts and practitioners and with the writing on the wall, the government is bulldozing its way through with the decision to convert from chemical to organic fertilizer for farming.
‘The government is hell bent on pushing through with its decision’, said an aide who is advising it on the transition from chemical to organic fertilizer. These experts have laid bare a multitude of reasons for their fear of the conversion. They explain how Sri Lanka will not be able to produce the volume of organic fertilizer that is required for the change and the stark lack of preparation for it which they say will need a minimum of two years. They predict that among the cumulative effects of a sudden transition which has not been thought through and prepared for, is a drop in food production and a resulting food shortage.
Sri Lanka is not the first country in the region which wants to convert fully to organic farming. Sector experts flaunt the example of Bhutan, which in 2014 committed to convert to organic farming by 2020. Even with years of advance preparation Bhutan was not able to meet its target which it extended to 2035. By 2019, Bhutan had converted only 1. 3 percent of its total arable land to organic farming. With more and more abandoned agriculture land and a drop in yield, it did a volte face when it was confronted by looming food shortages. In 2018,Bhutan imported 63 percent of its rice requirement and 21 and 23 percent respectively of its maize and vegetable needs. To avoid the inevitability of a similar fate, experts are urging the government to rethink its decision.
‘Going 100 percent organic cannot be achieved at any cost’, says Professor Buddhi Marambe. He is a scientist in the Department of Crop Science in the University of Peradeniya. ‘It cannot be done, not in the short, medium or long term. This is one point in a 20 point plan the government wants to pursue for a greener socio– economic policy. The total ban on chemical fertilizer is not compatible with the other 19 points for the government to achieve this objective’.
Professor Marambe takes the example of Europe which as a part of its green deal committed to convert only 25 percent of its agriculture land by 2030. Yet, it is struggling to meet this target which has now been extended to 2050. ‘Despite its technological advancements, Europe was not going 100 percent organic at once as this would have jeopardized its food security.
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) sets standards for organic agriculture. It releases a comprehensive report every year. According to its latest report in 2019 from only 1.5 percent of the total global extent of agriculture land is limited to organic cultivation. Globally, this equates to only 71. 5 million hectares and just 2. 5 percent of Sri Lanka’s arable land.
The crux of the issue with fertilizer, be it chemical or organic, is to do with one of its key nutrients which is nitrogen and without which the leaves of the plant turn yellow. Fertilizer has 18 macro and micro nutrients. In addition to nitrogen, among the other main nutrients are phosphate, potassium, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. While the hydrogen and oxygen requirement is provided by water, the other nutrients have to be added especially since years of cropping and re cropping have depleted nutrients in the soil.
‘People ask me why we don’t add fertilizer to the soil in the Sinharaja forest reserve and I tell them that the land there doesn’t need replenishing because nothing is taken out of it. Therefore it keeps regenerating itself’, explains Professor Marambe.
The main source of nitrogen in chemical fertilizer is urea, which is a petroleum by product and releases nitrogen fast. One hundred kilograms of urea produces 46 kilograms of nitrogen. With organic fertilizer which consists of plant and animal matter such as cow dung, the nitrogen percentage is between 1 and 3. 5 which gives a scale of the nitrogen which is needed to provide the nutrients the plant needs. Nitrogen is also a difficult nutrient to manage. Its application has to be controlled and done at the right time for the plan to absorb it from the soil.
According to the Agriculture Department, if cultivating is to be exclusively organic, the quantity of organic matter which will be required will be ten times more per hectare.
A happy medium to maintain both high crop yields and soil fertility is to use a mix of chemical and organic fertilizer. According to astudy carried out by the Rice Research and Development Institute in Batalagoda during eleven consecutive yala and maha seasons, the highest yield was produced by plots with a mix of the two fertilizers. The field research which was carried out between 2003 and 2014 involved the application of chemical fertilizer and organic fertilizer on its own, a mix of the two and not using any fertilizer at all. The quantity of chemical fertilizer that was added was what is recommended by the Department of Agriculture and the organic fertilizer that was added was at the rate of 10 tons per hectare. At the end of the study period, the average yield which was generated with the use of organic fertilizer only was 30 percent higher and was over 70 percent with the exclusive use of chemical fertilizer. It was 92 percent and at its highest when both chemical and organic fertilizer was used on the plot. The study also found that the soil fertility in plots which had been applied with organic fertilizer had a high level of organic matter and had nitrogen in it.
‘Food security is national security’, explains Professor Marambe. ‘We must have sustainable policies to ensure food security because there is no point relying on food imports from outside’.
The points which guarantee food security requires easy access to it in the right quantitiesand with the right nutrients at all times. Currently, Sri Lanka produces more rice than what can be consumed. The country’s per capita consumption rate is 115 kilograms per annum of which 107 to 108 kilograms come from grains such as rice and the rest from rice by products like rice flour. Sri Lanka feeds this need by producing at least 2. 4 metric tons of rice per annum, about 200, 000 MT a month. It has done this by increasing land productivity using high yielding varieties of paddy and increasing the area which is cultivated. Farmers have also adopted new technologies. In fact, more than 98 percent of paddy land is cultivated with high yielding varieties of paddy. The yield per hectare is 4. 8 tons, which is an average of a 7. 4 fold increase compared to the yield in 1940 which was .56. At the time, the country had to import 60 percent of its rice requirements for a population of six million people. The population today is 21. 8 million.
One of the drivers for the conversion is the scare that nitrogen concentrates in the soil leads to Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). ‘The carry over effect of nitrogen from one season of cultivating to another will not be mote than between 1- 1. 5 percent if at all’, says Professor Marambe. Recent findings by the National Research Council also appear to confirm that such concerns can be unfounded. Their study into the link between CKD in farmers and groundwater contamination reveal the main reason is because farmers don’t drink enough water when they work in their fields.
Professor Marambe’s recommendations to overcome the current impasse is not to ban the import and use of chemical fertilizer. He advocates to implement proactively, the certificate program in Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) which promotes the use of the integrated plant nutrient system. The programwhich was launched in 2015 to build consumer confidence in food safety did not have many takers when it was launched in 2015. The growing number its subscribers, which his at around 400 now, is a reflection of the reality of the need for food safety.
For the government to implement this program efficiently, he recommends that it issues a directive to all farmers to register for GAPcertification and to give them time until 31 December 2022 to do this. The next step which he suggests is to direct all supermarkets to begin marketing and selling GAP certified products by 1 January 2023. ‘This will definitely help the government to achieve its overall objective of the green socio– economic policy and also not compromise food security’.