Contamination Issues Raised in US$ 400 M Organic Fertilizer Import
By Paneetha Ameresekere
The State-owned National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS) has confirmed that samples of imported organic fertilizer from China have tested positive for gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, as well as a specific harmful pathogen, the Sri Lanka Agripreneurs’ Forum (SLAF) alleged on Wednesday. Gram bacteria are known as pathological causes of disease in humans as well as plants. Such pathogens increase the likelihood of hazards during handling and there is a risk of water sources being contaminated by such harmful bacteria, it said.
As the current foreign exchange reserves of Sri Lanka are haemorrhaging, the agriculture industry questions the motives behind spending an amount as high as US$ 400 million to import organic fertilizer. The view of SLAF and industry experts is that this value is costlier than what Sri Lanka previously spent for importing synthetic fertilizer, SLAF said. According to guidelines from the National Fertilizer Secretariat (NFS), importing any fertilizer including organic ones are clear – first samples of the fertilizer of choice needs to be tested in Sri Lanka by the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) or SLSI advised testing lab, said SLAF.
If the samples are declared clear, then the importer can progress towards importing commercial quantities, which will then again be subjected to further random testing to further establish purity and quality. However, the prescribed process declared by the NFS to import organic fertilizer has not been followed. According to Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, even though the sample that’s already here in Sri Lanka tested positive for contaminants, the commercial shipment will be cleared into the country and then go through further testing, alleged SLAF. “SLAF is deeply concerned that such breach of protocol could lead to foreign microorganisms being released unwittingly to the environment, which could cause irreversible damage to our natural ecosystems, with far-reaching implications for the agriculture sector,” it said.
Secondly, the Forum is concerned about the lack of disclosure and lack of stakeholder engagement by the authorities in this regard, beyond an acknowledgement that the samples contained contaminants. As this decision to bypass safety protocols impacts the whole country’s health and environment and over 30 per cent of the population’s livelihoods in agriculture, SLAF would like to stress the importance of transparency to the relevant authorities and note with concern the vagueness of the information shared, SLAF said.
Thirdly, according to the official statements, this individual sample of organic fertilizers was supposedly tested by a Chinese testing laboratory. However, in subverting the nationally accepted standards of due diligence in Sri Lanka, this decision sets a dangerous precedent where greater reliance is placed on dubious reports forwarded by suppliers from tests conducted by non-accredited labs, which may not be independent, it said. SLAF questions the approach of relevant authorities on accepting such unreliable test reports submitted by the suppliers and then finding that the samples are contaminated once they arrive at the port, only to let additional consignments to be dispatched to the country, despite the issues being observed.
Considering the practicality of ensuring that a sample of a few kilogrammes to be representative of thousands of tonnes (96,000 tonnes in this case) to be imported, the fact that even such a small sample has shown presence of harmful bacteria should ring a loud alarm on the adequacy of even the declared procedure, which too has been flouted, said SLAF. Therefore, unless and until this matter is resolved in a manner to ensure that there is no possibility at all of contamination with any biological matter considered harmful or not, as specified in the SLSI Standard 1704 that governs the quality of solid organic fertilizer, a decision to allow the shipment to arrive in Sri Lanka would be illegal, it said.
“We therefore strictly recommend that the shipment should not be allowed at this point of time until due measures for national safety can be assured not by mere statements by the Minister,” said SLAF. The Minister has announced that the Ministry of Agriculture has granted the approvals to two Stateowned companies to import organic fertilizer from 16 September 2021, for tea, coconut, rubber and other crops. On the contrary, according to the Minister's statement in July, there is enough locally manufactured organic fertilizers for all crops.
Many individuals and organisations have invested and engaged to locally manufacture such organic fertilizer, but there has been no attempt to ascertain the success of such steps and the adequacy or otherwise of these endeavours to meet the national fertilizer requirements, said SLAF. Without that initial step, this hasty decision to import organic fertilizer already proven as potentially contaminated is a big deterrent to local manufacturers. The incongruity of these statements implores the motives of the change in decisions within a span of two months, said SLAF.