Chemical Fertiliser Ban the cause of low production?

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The problems for Sri Lankan farmers began in May 2021, when then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was later ousted, imposed a sudden ban on chemical fertilisers.

There was no fertiliser available to provide for crops in the following Yala and Maha seasons, and as a result, paddy and other crops suffered. Chemical fertilisers were illegally imported into Sri Lanka and sold at exorbitant prices.

Despite the fact that it was stated that organic fertilisers would be used instead of chemical fertilisers, not enough fertilisers were received. The use of organic fertilisers instead of chemical fertilisers reduced yields by approximately 50 per cent, resulting in a food shortage.

Farmers had decided to avoid paddy cultivation because no fertiliser was provided for cultivation in the previous crop season. Crops like vegetables and maize did not produce as expected. As a result, the prices of paddy and rice have both increased significantly. Rich Colombo residents travelled to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Hambantota to purchase bundles at higher prices.

Creating of Black Market

A kilo of paddy cost Rs 300, and wealthy people were enticed to buy at even higher prices. Paddy prices rose due to lower yields and a kilo of rice regularly cost more than Rs 200. Due to this decision, approximately 40 per cent of the expected rice harvest in the high season was lost, causing the farmer to lose income and the consumer to lose the ability to buy rice at a low price.

Farmers engaged in protests due to a fertiliser shortage. People were in a lot of trouble as a result of all of this, and those who praised organic fertilisers fell silent in the face of the farmer’s problem.

As the economic crisis worsened, a heated political situation arose. The people drove the country into conflict. The food shortage caused by the fertiliser problem was the root cause of today’s economic crisis. As a result, a large sum of money had to be diverted for the importation of rice. There would be no need to import rice if fertilisers were brought in for a certain amount of money.

Lifting the ban on fertilisers

Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed President in the midst of a political crisis caused by the worsening of the economic crisis. Then, he appointed MP Mahinda Amaraweera as the Minister of Agriculture.

The Prime Minister also warned the public to brace themselves for a food crisis that is looming. When Rajapaksa was President, secretaries who warned of a food crisis were fired.

As paddy cultivation for the Yala season began concurrently, a discussion began about the import of fertiliser for the Maha season. Amaraweera suggested at the time that we try to provide fertiliser for the start of the Yala season as well.  As a result, the opportunity to import fertiliser for the Yala season arose as a result of the Indian government’s loan support. Amaraweera said even though not all farmers could be given fertiliser, they were able to improve production significantly as a result of the effort.

At the time, the government imported only the amount of fertiliser required for the Yala season. The Ministry of Agriculture’s biggest challenge at the time was the people’s reluctance to work in the fields. Farmers who were hesitant to go to the fields despite having purchased fertiliser became involved after Prime Minister Wickremesinghe announced that there would be a food shortage. As a result, farmers were forced to go down to the fields for fear of running out of food.

Cultivation unsuccessful

There was a plan to cultivate 275,000 hectares during the Yala season, but it was not successful, and approximately 200,000 hectares had been cultivated, but the remaining portion was delayed or ready to be started by farmers on the assumption that chemical fertilisers would be available.

The plan to cultivate 275,000 hectares of rice was increased to 500,000 hectares on the assumption that fertiliser would be available. The government took steps to begin importing 65,000 metric tonnes of urea fertiliser from India, with 25,000 metric tonnes distributed for the Yala season.

Farmers complain that due to the fertiliser shortage, many crops, including maize, failed, with only 17% of the maize planted last season. As a result, animal feed production fell.

The main issue that arose as a result of it was the rapid increase in the price of eggs and poultry. The Ministry of Agriculture has now decided to make chemical fertilisers available for maize cultivation. Maize cultivation was supposed to be limited to 20,000 hectares, but the Ministry of Agriculture has instructed farmers to expand it to 60,000 hectares.

Starting cultivation activities, including paddy cultivation, has the potential to save money on food imports, and these fertilisers are imported from India. Minister Amaraweera stated that if maize cultivation is successful, the increase in production related to the poultry industry will naturally provide an answer to the people’s malnutrition by lowering its price.

Alarming situation in poultry

All Island Poultry Association said chicken meat production has decreased by 30 per cent and egg production has decreased by 40 per cent as the currency collapse has increased costs and feed imports have been hampered by foreign exchange shortages.

According to Ajith Gunasekera, President of the All Island Poultry Association, small and medium farmers are leaving the business due to feed shortages and the discontinuation of buy back schemes by large poultry companies. Broiler meat output has dropped 30% to 12,000 metric tonnes per month from 18,000 metric tonnes, and prices have risen. “A kilo of chicken now costs around 1,200 rupees, up from 460 rupees before economists began printing money to target an output gap by mis-targeting interest rates, and official inflation rose 39 percent in the year to May 2022,” he said.

Dairy farmers also faced a crisis due to a lack of fertiliser, because the production of hay for dairy cattle requires urea fertiliser, and because pasture land is limited, dairy farmers are used to preparing pastures with manure.

No need for  rice importation

Agriculture Minister Amaraweera also claims that there will be no need to import rice after the season ends next month, because fertilisers can be prepared as needed.

Meanwhile, Opposition members accuse the government of destroying the country’s soil by bringing in inferior fertilisers.

Chemical fertiliser distribution

The ban imposed on agro -chemical glyphosate will be lifted within the next two months if agricultural experts and other stakeholders recommend such a move, Amaraweeera said.

He added that several are of the opinion that in order to get a proper harvest from crops such as maize, tea, paddy, and chilli, the ban on chemicals presently imposed for weed control should be removed.

Amaraweera also said scholars, farmers’ representatives, farmers’ organisations, and several other stakeholders have also submitted their ideas and suggestions.

Amaraweera further said although a ban on glyphosate is in place at present, some have smuggled it from India and sold it at an inflated price of Rs 12,500 for four litres, adding thereby that experts on the subject of agriculture and several other are presently being consulted to lift the ban. He said following receiving the recommendations, a Cabinet Paper will be submitted if a decision to lift the ban is arrived at.

The Ministry of Agriculture also decided to provide a 50kg bundle of urea fertiliser for potato, maize and tea cultivation at a price of Rs 15,000.

“Certain Politicians had claimed that the urea fertiliser provided by the Indian Government is of inferior quality and is toxic while also alleging that the Biurate percentage of this fertiliser is more than 1.5 due to which paddy saplings will be burnt and destroyed,” Amaraweera said adding however that farmers, through application to their crops have acknowledged that the fertiliser is of the highest quality.

He noted thereby that there has been an increased demand for this fertiliser for every crop adding thereby that the fertiliser reserves will be distributed for cultivation during the Maha harvest season.

By 3 August, we have distributed 30,000 MT of imported urea fertiliser and most of it has been given to the North-Central Province, he said. While the urea fertiliser has been distributed for maize, paddy and tea crops, requests have been made to provide urea fertiliser to farmers who cultivate potatoes, due to which a bundle will be provided, he added.

By Thameenah Razeek