Inorganic Shift to Organic Farming

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021

In April this year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that Sri Lanka would completely ban the import and use of chemical fertiliser, stressing that ‘… lives are more important than high yield’. A few days later, on 27 April, Cabinet banned the import of 600 items, including chemical fertiliser, making Sri Lanka the first and only country to impose a blanket ban on chemical fertiliser overnight. The plan was to shift completely, to organic fertiliser. 

One of main arguments against the use of chemical fertiliser, from as far back as in the 1990s, is the correlation between the excessive use of chemical fertiliser in crops such as paddy and tea, and the increasing number of patients with the chronic kidney disease of unknown aetiology, particularly in the NorthCentral region of Sri Lanka. The President, in his announcement said, “The usage of chemical fertilisers leads to a better harvest. 

However, the negative consequences caused on human lives through pollution of lakes, canals and groundwater due to the chemical fertilisers outweigh the profit. The health sector has pointed out that the effects of chemical fertilisers have led to a number of non-communicable diseases, including kidney diseases. The expenses to treat these patients and the impact on human lives caused by these chemical fertilisers remain high.” However, Sri Lanka’s sudden shift from chemical to organic fertiliser has been anything but organic. The overnight ban on the import of chemical fertiliser plunged the farmer community in the country into distress. 

Making matters worse, the ban also triggered hoarding of chemical fertiliser and pesticides by traders and companies. This in turn led to widespread protests around the country by farmers who complained of a fertiliser shortage. The shift towards organic farming should have taken place over a period of time, like what is happening in a number of countries at the moment. Starting from farmer awareness, to infrastructure development to production and distribution of organic fertiliser should take place in phases. Vineet Kumar, in his article titled ‘Sri Lanka’s inorganic transition to organic farming’, on popular environment blog Down to Earth says, “A smooth transition from chemical-based farming to organic or natural farming needs a well-thought plan. 

Sri Lanka lacks a roadmap and transition plan, and it seems that the decision to shift to organic farming has been taken under economic compulsion.” He also says a majority of Sri Lankan farmers are yet to learn and start organic farming. “Only 2.8 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total agricultural land is organic, according to World of Organic Agriculture 2020 published by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement.” The future of the world food culture is organic. The more we are aware of the harmful effects of chemicals used in fertiliser and the large amount of pesticides used in food crops has risen to alarming levels over the past few decades. Not just kidney diseases, but a number of other on-communicable diseases are directly linked to the excessive use of chemical fertiliser on food crops. 

On the other hand, there is a growing demand for organic produce among health-conscious and environmentally-conscious consumers. Although many are deterred by the high cost of organic produce, if given the choice the vast majority would opt for organic produce rather than chemical-laden produce. Therefore, the plan to shift towards organic farming is not just timely but an extremely necessary one. However, unfortunately, where Sri Lanka has failed, and failed miserably at that, is the sudden shift from chemical to organic fertiliser, where neither the farmers nor the consumers had been properly educated on the shift towards going organic. 

The Government is offering a range of incentives to farmers who engage in organic farming. Financial incentives of Rs 12,500 per hectare up to a maximum of two hectares will be provided to farmers to encourage organic farming, steps have been taken to import organic fertiliser if the quantity of fertiliser produced locally is not sufficient and the Government has allocated Rs 3.8 billion for the purchase of organic fertilisers in the coming season. However, Vineet Kumar writes, “…transition is not only about providing subsidy or organic fertilisers; focus need to be on capacity building of important stakeholders like farmers, agriculture department officials and scientists.” 

He also says, quoting S. Anbalagan, CEO, Organic Mission, Sikkim, the first State in the world to become completely organic, “It also requires hand-holding, quality organic inputs and support for transition losses. We started with small initiatives around organic farming in 2003 and became 100 per cent organic farming State in 2016. The transition from chemical farming to organic takes time as one has to overcome several challenges.” Unfortunately, even an issue as serious as harmful effects of the use of chemical fertiliser on food crops requires baby steps. A sudden, blanket ban can cause nothing but chaos and mayhem in the lives of not just the farmers but also the consumers.

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021

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