Agriculture Department DG says: Indian Nano Nitrogen Is Neither Synthetic Nor Organic
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Director General of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Ajantha de Silva is busy, sorting out the crucial agrochemical issue in the country and trying to pacify farmers who are protesting over lack of fertiliser, as the Government’s plan to introduce organic farming turns sour.
Amid this crisis, the Chinese bulk organic fertiliser cargo dispute is sending mixed signals between China and Sri Lanka. Dr. de Silva says the decision of the Government to go organic is based on the mandate the President received from his voters, hence it was not rushed. He also explains that fertiliser would reach the farmers on time and there is no need to panic. Following are excerpts of the interview:
Was the Government misled in introducing organic farming amid the pandemic, that has now caused a severe damage to the Government’s reputation?
A: The move was according to the manifesto the President had presented and he received the mandate of the people under his ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ programme. He spoke about organic cultivation and how to systematically restore it. True, there was a timeframe mentioned. However, the President said he would take that path. So, it is by no means rushed.
How do you react to the farmers’ continuous protest on the shortage of fertiliser in the country that has not been solved as yet?
A: If you take the Maha Season, it usually starts with the inter-monsoon rains, with the rain filling irrigation areas and opening of the sluice gates for the season. These two are the main factors that govern the seasons. Usually, the intermonsoon season starts just after 15 September and continues up to 8 October or so. We have received some of the rain. With that, what we have to see is the maize cultivation starts around this time too.
Also, the land preparation for rice usually coincides with this. If we take rice, 30 to 35 days is needed to prepare the land. Cultivation starts thereafter. In that sense, the real fertiliser need arises mostly close to end of October. I sense that people are thinking there is no rescue operation on this and now they don’t have work to do and they fear aboutthis situation.
We have taken Nano Nitrogen from India and potassium chloride from Lithuania and given funds to prepare for organic farming. We have given the greenlight to start that work. The Government has undertaken all the initiatives. Some people are wondering whether they are really going to get the fertiliser they require and that was their focus. The other groups’ demands are alleged to be with ulterior motives.
What do you mean by ulterior motives?
A: Could be political and those who don’t want to go ahead with organic farming are protesting. I can’t say exactly, but we sense there are genuine persons protesting alongside with those who are politically motivated.
The Gazette banning chemical fertiliser imports was based on wrong advice according to the Agriculture Ministry Secretary. What’s your opinion on the banning of chemical fertiliser?
A: I had a chat with him. He has a vast knowledge about agriculture. He told me the interviewer had misinterpreted what he had actually said. He said organic farming is a good move. He wanted to say something else and a ‘politically motivated’ statement had appeared at the end.
So, what is your opinion about banning chemical fertiliser?
A: This is a challenging move. I cannot say good or bad about it, but we can go ahead with some positive actions and do something good for the Sri Lankan agriculture sector.
Are you saying both organic and inorganic should be used, side by side?
A: No. But, as a government organisation, we are obliged to initiate whatever the Government has proposed. I have to carry out the Government’s directive. In that sense, I will be doing all my best possible work for the Government to launch this programme. I have all the strategies, action plans and the technology inputs either from locals or from overseas and supports it to happen.
Do you think it would be a successful move?
A: Why not? That is what I am working on those lines.
The Government was very clear that synthetic fertiliser is not imported. But urea is synthetic and more importantly Nano Urea is synthetic. What is the reason for this change in stance?
A: Urea is actually synthetically produced. That is correct. But if you look at the Nano Nitrogen from India, it is a Nano product. There is a specialty in this. So, we cannot say it’sneither kind of an organic product nor synthetic. We cannot put it in those categories. It’s a special category. If you take the fertiliser category, it is known as a special category.
Urea is one of the safest fertilisers in the world. Why do people say it should not be brought in? If urea is toxic, why is Nano Urea allowed?
A: If you take urea, it is about the way it is used in Sri Lanka. Urea has been indiscriminately used. It is overused and everywhere. On the other hand, the overused urea is getting mixed with water bodies and polluting the water as well as the farming soil. Research shows it is polluting the soil and in return people’s health is at risk due to overuse. It shows the efficiency is very low. Therefore, one of the ways should be to follow the use of efficient fertilisers, or change the directions. That was the move taken by the Government.
Ceylon Fertiliser Company Ltd told the Chinese company Qingdao Seawin that the stock of fertiliser of 12,150MT in the vessel MV Hippo Spirit is not in conformity with the conditions of the contract. It seems the import permit has been issued to this company despite you reiterating that the fertiliser order was cancelled after the samples tested positive for contamination twice. Can you tell us what exactly happened and who issued the permit for shipping of this cargo to Sri Lanka?
A: Nobody has issued the bulk organic fertiliser permit to the Chinese company. I can assure that nobody wrote to me asking for a permit. What I gather is that they have made their own decision. The National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS) had sent the letter to the investor stating that this cargo has microbes and is not in compliance with the Transportation Ordinance. Therefore, we will not be able to give a bulk service.
Based on this, the National Fertiliser Secretariat (NFS) had also spoken to the fertiliser company in China. The local agent of the Qingdao Seawin company had told their Head Office not to initiate the transportation of the cargo. Irrespective of that call, the Chinese company tried to send the bulk shipment to Sri Lanka, which was not the right move.
Is it true the ship is not on the way to Sri Lanka?
A: That is what I heard, but I don’t have any conclusive evidence it is coming here. I have not been officially informed about it.
China claimed it was a hasty decision by the NPQS to say the organic fertiliser sample is contaminated. There are suspicions the testing was not accurate, China said. Is that possible?
A: Not at all! If there are disputes regarding that, they can take the case to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation under the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) that governs the national plant quarantine system. They cannot bring this dispute to Sri Lanka.
There was a commotion whether the imported potassium chloride from Lithuania, was organic or chemical? What is it?
A: Usually, potassium chlorideis a natural mineral which can be used either in organic farming situations, or inorganic farming situations which we were doing previously. If you want to really purify, there is another way. We can remove the potassium chloride or we can use it as a mineral (as it is).The NFS procurement was for natural mineral potassium chloride which can be used for organic farming and that is what we had received.
So, it’s not synthetic?
A: In this case, no.
Why weren’t the two fertilisers from Lithuania and India tested before distributing to farmers, as any new fertiliser has to undergo two seasons of trials in Sri Lanka?
A: Who said that two season testing should be done? The samples were tested. Potassium chloride was tested in Sri Lanka before it was imported. The Agriculture Department did that many times.
What about the Lithuania fertiliser which was directly transported to the Eastern Province?
A: It was tested.
What is the percentage of nitrogen in this Nano Urea?
A: It is 4 per cent.
What is the percentage of potassium in the so-called organic potassium that they imported from Lithuania?
A: I have not gone through that.
Is Lithuania producing potassium chloride?
A: Yes. They do.
Why did we import potassium chloride from a Singaporean company at a price of US$ 478.50, whereas the same or better product is available in the world market at prices less than US$ 300 per MT?
A: If the particular companies appeared in the procurement selection procedure, then we would have selected. The selections are based on whether they comply with the technical and financial evaluations. If those companies did not get into the procurement, then how can we select?
Do you know when this fertiliser crisis will end, as people’s agitation is escalating. Can all of them be assured that fertiliser would reach them on time?
A: Within one or two weeks, we may be able to sort it out. As you know, Nano fertiliser has arrived. We will be getting 3.1 million litres of Nano Nitrogen batch by batch. We will also distribute potassium chloride in the same way. We will be completing fertiliser distribution within the next week or so.