Can Sri Lanka Fully Embrace Organic Farming?

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

‘Go chemical fertiliser, come organic food’ is one of the goals of the Government’s ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ national policy framework and with the world looking to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, the shift can be seen as one in the right direction. However, to introduce organic agriculture nationwide and ban chemical fertilisers without introducing a proper roadmap would doom the goal of sustainable development where food security issues are likely to affect the country immensely.

Importing chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals was banned on 29 April 2021 in an attempt to replace it with organic agriculture. It became a sensational issue since nowhere in the world could a country go fully organic, that too in this speed.

The focus is on growing sustainable food products in soil regenerated using organic matter that have been repurposed with a variety of materials, it does not involve merely dumping imported organic fertiliser into the soil.

The bacteria in one person can be harmful to another; likewise each countries’ soil is unique with features that are not adoptive elsewhere.

No proper roadmap

Organic farming methods however produce varying results as the process is complicated; leading to inconsistent end results.

So far the Government has not created a roadmap to introduce organic fertilisers and reduce non-organic fertilisers. This ad-hoc decision to ban chemical fertilisers had dealt a severe blow to farmers.

The Fertiliser Secretariat faced a lack of manpower and transportation issues due to the curfew and was not able to distribute the available stocks to the farmers on time. The All Island Farmers’ Federation (AIFF) National Organiser Namal Karunaratne, noted that the Government has been misleading farmer communities for a very long time.

He reiterated that the Government had failed to ready the necessary fertiliser stocks for the Yala season.

Some soils can be easily converted within three seasons. However, in any international standard of organic farming, two years is the minimum for the conversion period. That is where you are building your soil.  It is only after that can a farmer expect the same yield as you would have got with chemical fertilisers, Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) President Thilak Kariyawasam told a local newspaper.    

Last week the local Media reported that three 40 foot containers of organic fertiliser had arrived in Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu and that the material is being tested. The containers were brought under the Exports and Imports Control Act, officials said and it seems like no approval was obtained from the Director General of Agriculture for their import. The consignment arrived under a special category, the Government later said.

According to protocol, respective officials must issue their consent before the Director General of Agriculture can approve the permit to import organic fertilisers. The Government said they are going to amend this particular law but it hasn’t been done yet.

A tremendous amount of testing is needed before organic waste can be imported; experts need to test samples before they are imported and not after it arrives in bulk.

At a time when a pandemic is rocking the world it would be a grave mistake to import compost from another country in this manner. Organic matter that makes up compost consists of animal manure, plant residue and straw, therefore the population of microorganisms present in foreign compost is completely different to native ones. Introducing foreign microorganisms to the Sri Lankan environment may cause an outbreak of diseases causing major issues to local agriculture. 

Managing Director, Agriworld (PVT) Ltd Wicky Wickramatunga who has wide experience in the global and local agriculture sector pointed out that converting a country from conventional agriculture to a fully organic one overnight is a certain impossibility. It has to be a gradual process that can take 10-20 years or even more. No country in the world has done such a miraculous transition and there will not be even in the future. He quoted Bhutan as a good example of this type of failure.

“In 2012 they decided to be fully organic by 2020. Even today their share of organic agriculture is just a mere 1.3 per cent while Sri Lanka has a 2.5 per cent share, according to Statistics from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)”.

On the question of whether we have all the know-how to introduce proper organic food farming in Sri Lanka, he said that yield losses can be expected by converting to organic farming for some selected crops that are given below:


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“Having the expertise for organic farming is not the issue. The main issue is how and who is going to compensate for the lost food in the country, not the knowledge. We are heading for a certain food scarcity within the next few months,” he stressed.

“Market for organic produce in the world is very limited due to the price factor. Organic produce is at least 100 per cent more expensive than the conventionally grown product, if not more. So, it is a very niche market in the whole world.”

The extent of land under organic production in the whole world is just 1.5 per cent, he said.     

Local production        

A few months ago the Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage said organic fertiliser requirements will be supplied to all farmers on subsidised basis from June for the Maha Season and that financial support will also be given to organic fertiliser producers.

Locally produced organic fertiliser is to be purchased by State companies, said Aluthgamage and further added that whatever challenge it might encounter, the arduous task of building the country will be overcome with the use of eco-friendly fertiliser. Issues pertaining to production and organic fertilisers will be overcome by utilising local raw materials and technology.

“Considering available facilities for the production of organic fertiliser in the country, we will not resort to importation in the future. The matter of which we are discussing at present,” the Minister further said.

Prof. Nimal Sanderatne, who specialises in agrarian economics, spelt the danger of banning chemical fertiliser. “The economic consequences can be horrendous he noted and it would reduce the production of both food crops and export crops, impoverish farmers, decrease food availability, increase food prices and reduce the accessibility of those with low income to get adequate food, threaten food security, increase import expenditure, reduce export earnings and worsen the country’s weak external finances,” he told a local Media recently.

There are many studies that prove organic fertiliser alone cannot supply the food demand as the world population is growing faster and by 2044 it would reach around nine billion. 

A consultant to a Japanese company JIMA Co. Ltd, Sashi Dhanatunge said that by allowing farmers to produce compost themselves, with special equipment or by using the equipment they already have, the organic fertiliser needed for a small plot of 10 acres can be made within three months.

Secondly, the compost needed for commercial farms can be obtained by dedicated companies. This requires composting machines that can make large quantities cheaply.

Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform believes that promoting environmentally friendly agricultural practices can be a solution to a host of issues. They made several proposals to help realise the goal of making Sri Lanka the first nation to succeed without the use of agrochemicals.

They suggested a solid policy decision a reality at the grassroots; by presenting a solution to practical challenges that might come up and drawing lessons from local and international experiences.

In the meantime, the overuse of chemical fertiliser have given rise to a multitude of health issues and is the cause of the rise in kidney diseases in Sri Lanka. The Agriculture Ministry said that the excessive use of agrochemicals has led to birth defects while medical surveys reveals that 30 children are born blind every month in Sri Lanka.

Alternatives 

In a Nikkei Weekly article published in August 2019, mentions a company known as Iotech.Co, which provides consulting services to the food industry on quality issues, having developed a technology that neutralises more than 50 per cent of substances found in agro chemicals.

The technology involves ionising calcium and other minerals and causing these to react with components, thereby neutralising them. It could be used to remove farm chemicals that have soaked into the soil.

The method utilises unique technologies in which seeds from Iotech such as peach are fermented; ionising minerals contained in the seeds and the results is then blended in water.

The technology’s efficacy was tested by spraying a solution containing the ionised calcium and other minerals onto Chinese cabbage imbued with agricultural chemicals.

The test was conducted on-farm chemical components used such as insecticides and herbicides.

The agro chemical resides contained in the Chinese cabbage on which the solution was sprayed was then compared to plants that had been treated only with the farm chemicals.  Of the 32 types of farm chemicals tested, the content of a total of 11 including naproamide and metalaxyl was reduced by more than 50 per cent.

The company says the ionised calcium binds with the carbon and chlorine radicals in the components, neutralising their toxicity.

The company expects the same effect to be obtainable in soil and is planning to sell the technology to companies’ engaged in growing crops with reduced or no farm chemical use.

Sri Lanka is planning to import organic fertilisers for 500,000 hectares of paddy land and 600,000 hectares of other crops for the next season. Following the ban on chemical fertiliser and it has to be clear how this will be introduced.  

In Australia, only about 50 kg of chemical fertiliser is applied per hectare. In Sri Lanka, 300 kg per hectare is applied which is alarming.  

Initially, it has been planned to apply 70 per cent of chemical fertiliser and 30 per cent of organic fertiliser. This trend couldn’t be changed abruptly. Sri Lanka aims to promote organic fertiliser use gradually up to the point where 100 per cent of organic fertiliser is used, the Agriculture Ministry noted.

The year 2020 will be remembered for the global COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of which is likely to be felt for a much longer time, writes Louise Luttikholt, executive Director of IFOAM – Organics International.

According to her, the crisis revealed the vulnerability of global food systems and that the transition to sustainable and resilient food systems is needed. In COVID times, it almost looked as if the food was regarded as medicine. It remains to be seen if the 2021 United Nation’s Food Systems Summit, aiming to ‘launch bold and new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food’, will take these signals seriously. 

The IFOAM report, which looks at the consolidated data from 2019, shows that once again, increasing demand for organic products stimulated growth in the industry with organic food sales heading towards the 110 billion Euro mark.

Double-digit growth rates were recorded in many advanced markets for organic products. The production side is also keeping pace: The latest data shows that organic farmland grew in many countries, and that total organic farmlands increased to more than 72 million hectares, representing 1.5 per cent of agricultural land worldwide, managed by more than three million producers.

There were more than two million hectares of certified organic agricultural land in Africa in 2019. Compared to 2018, Africa reported 177,054 hectares more, a 9.5 per cent increase.

The total area dedicated to organic agriculture in Asia was more than 5.9 million hectares in 2019. There were 1.4 million producers, most of which were in India. The leading countries by area were India (2.3 million hectares) and China (over 2.2 million hectares).

As of the end of 2019, 16.5 million hectares of agricultural land in Europe (European Union: 14.6 million hectares) were managed organically by over 430’000 producers.

Scientists and engineers should develop strategies aimed at the progress of mankind rather than banning a process currently in practice. What is needed is to place the onus on chemical fertiliser manufacturers, importers, distributors and users and impose fines if they are engaged in environmental destruction. Educational programmes are needed as well as long term plans to help people looking to buy organic produce. This is not like banning the import of turmeric or vehicles, it is a science.

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CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021

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