Sri Lanka eyeing green agriculture

A task force will look into the quality of organic fertilizer produced in the country

October 16, 2021 10:45 pm | Updated 10:45 pm IST - COLOMBO

A tea picker works on a plantation in the southern district of Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. Agriculture experts have slammed the move of Sri Lankan government banning chemical fertilizers, calling it ‘unscientific’. File

A tea picker works on a plantation in the southern district of Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. Agriculture experts have slammed the move of Sri Lankan government banning chemical fertilizers, calling it ‘unscientific’. File

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a task force on ‘green agriculture’, his office said on Saturday, while Sri Lanka’s farmers continue protesting his government’s abrupt ‘organic fertilizer only’ policy shift since May this year.

The ‘Presidential Task Force’ will be responsible for looking into the requirement of fertilizers and improving the quality of organic fertilizer produced in the country, a statement from the Presidential Media Division said, listing the panel’s 14 members, a majority of whom are private sector representatives. No farmers’ organisation was part of it.

The move comes about five months after the government banned all chemical fertilizers, shifting immediately to organic fertilizers. Agriculture experts have slammed the move as “ill-advised” and “unscientific”, while farmers anticipate that the drastic policy change could slash their yield. Paddy farmers anticipate a 25% production slump, while growers of tea, which is a key foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka, fear a likely 40 - 60% fall in output.

Import bill

The ruling administration sought to justify the decision by citing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s poll pledge in 2019, and an urgent need to bring down the country’s import bill as the economy reels under the impact of the pandemic. Until now, Sri Lanka spent an estimated $300-$400 million annually on fertilizer imports.

If the government’s policy shift took the country by shock, the newly appointed panel has drawn attention for its composition. “It is striking that even now the task force has no scientists who study and research agriculture,” said Saman Dharmakeerthi, Professor of Soil Fertility and Nutrient Management at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya. The “danger” with the heavy private sector presence is that “they might promote anything they produce and insist that farmers use them,” he added.

Describing the government’s fertilizer ban “a blunder” that threatens food production in the country, the soil scientist told The Hindu : “It is a contradiction because our import of organic fertilizer [ that continues] will still keep the import bill high, and if we don’t have enough produce, we would be forced to import more food items from other countries, which will also be expensive.” The government must instead go in for an integrated plant nutrient management scheme, combining chemical and organic fertilizers, in Prof. Dharmakeerthi’s view. Sri Lankan scientists are also concerned about the limited availability of organic sources in the country, he said. “You just can’t convert all garbage into compost without proper segregation of waste at source. It has to meet a certain standard to be effective.”

Organic fertlizers, whether produced locally or imported, are subject to quality checks by authorities. Last month, Sri Lanka halted a 96,000-tonne shipment of fertilizer from a Chinese company, citing poor quality. In a tweet on the development, the Chinese Embassy said the Sri Lankan authorities’ “hasty conclusion” lacked scientific basis and was “questionable”. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is mulling importing liquid nitrogen from China and India, even as the country’s second major agricultural season, the ‘Maha season’ began on October 15.

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