Playing with Fire
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
If you did a quick search on the internet, you would find out that ‘playing with fire’ is an idiom for doing something dangerous that may result in great harm later. While there are plenty of experienced and well-trained performers who indeed do play with fire, it doesn’t change the fact that one slip-up could lead to serious harm.
That is exactly why parents teach their children, not to play with the fire. Even so, I’m pretty sure more often than not, we have ignored this warning and touched the flame, only to get burnt in the end; lesson learnt. Under his presidential campaign, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ National Policy Framework statement, which outlined many promises made by the president during his campaign for the election.
There, it states in page 39 that, “The entire Sri Lankan agriculture will be promoted to use organic fertilisers during the next ten years. For this, production of organic fertiliser will be accelerated. “In the new system, the inorganic and organic fertiliser both will be provided free of charge to farmers. They will be promoted to shift gradually into a complete system using entirely carbonic fertiliser. “A system of assistance will be introduced to convert traditional farming villages into users of only organic fertiliser.”
I urge you to note the key words here, highlighted in bold letters for your benefit. Going through this statement, it is clear that the implied meaning is a gradual shift from chemical-based fertilisers to organic fertilisers. A few weeks ago, cabinet approval was received for the President’s proposal to ban the import of chemical-based fertiliser,with a list of many reasons including the harm they bring upon the ecosystem, the people of the country (through various diseases such as chronic kidney disease (CKD)) and not to mention the annual sum of US$ 400 million spent on fertiliser imports spent by the nation each year.
Although criticism was made, many claimed that this was made in accordance to the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ statement, and that Sri Lanka can make the move to use only organic-based fertiliser and succeed, including Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Wanting to know if this decision was made with any actual scientific backing, and if Sri Lanka can in fact succeed in the move to go ‘fully organic,’ Ceylon Today reached out to Senior Professor Buddhi Marambe from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya.
A good concept, but bound to fail
“I believe that the intention to create a healthy generation is highly commendable,” Prof. Marambe exclaimed. “But this is a decision that will inevitably fail. If we are operating with the goal for us to produce the food we need for ourselves, then it will fail.” Prof. Marambe explained his reasons. “A fertiliser is merely as source of nutrients a plant needs to grow. It doesn’t matter whether it is made with or without the use of chemicals. This can be artificially made or sourced from minerals mined from the earth, or made with organic materials (animal or plant matter) that are prepared for use as fertilisers,” he said.
“Because fertilisers made by humans artificially, we are able to have a clear understanding of the nutrient content of the fertiliser. For example, no matter where we get urea from, we know that it will have 46 per cent nitrogen, the main plant nutrient found in it. The same can be said of triple super phosphate and other fertilisers. “However, when it comes to organic fertilisers, the amount of nutrients contained in it can differ greatly.
There is no clear way to identify the nutrient content. Also, while chemical fertilisers can disperse nutrients into the soil efficiently and at a more rapid pace, organic fertilisers release their nutrients into the soil at a much slower rate.” Prof. Marambe explained that just like a human, a plant has specific nutrient needs at each stage of its development. If the proper nutrients are not provided, it can greatly affect the yield and development of a plant. Taking rice and the use of urea as an example, he explained further.
“If a farmer wishes to harvest 5 tonnes of rice per hectare of cultivated land, the Department of Agriculture recommends the farmer to fertilise the land with 105kg of nitrogen per hectare throughout the various stages of the crop’s development,” he explained. “In accordance to that, it is recommended to use 225kg of urea (if that’s the fertiliser being used), which will provide the adequate amount of nitrogen for the plant since urea has a 46 per cent nitrogen content. This recommendation being a result of years’ worth of research.”
Why fertilisers in the first place?
Prof. Marambe explained that in a natural environment, fertiliser is of no use, since the leaves, fruit, and other plant material is not taken away from the habitat, it cycles through the ecosystem and plants will always have the necessary nutrients readily available. This is in stark contrast to a land used for agricultural purposes, where crops and sometimes the residue plant matter is removed from the ecosystem. Without replenishing the soil with the specific nutrients absorbed by the crops previously, a farmer cannot gain a successful yield and therefore, nutrients must be artificially introduced to the system, through fertiliser.
The organic problem
“An organic fertiliser is defined as one that is made out of organic (plant and animal) material,” Prof. Marambe continued. “A normal organic fertiliser would only have a nitrogen content of 1 – 2 per cent at the most. That’s just how it is naturally.” If you were following the numbers, you would have realised already why using organic fertiliser only will be a doom to paddy cultivation alone. Prof. Marambe explained further. “Let’s say that we were able to bring this up to 5 per cent in nitrogen,” he said. “A Cabinet decision was recently made to manufacture the organic fertiliser needed to cultivate 500,000 hectares of land for rice paddy. Remember that the amount of fertiliser doesn’t matter. What’s important is the amount of nutrients being introduced. “In order to provide the nitrogen demand for cultivating paddy for this land, you would need to supply more than 52,500 tonnes of nitrogen alone to the soil. If we used urea for fertiliser, we would require 115,000 tonnes of it for that purpose.
“If we were to use only organic fertiliser alone, we would need to manufacture almost a million tonnes of organic fertiliser to fulfil the nitrogen demand for rice paddy cultivation alone. Not only that, the delivery of these nutrients to the soil happens at a very slow pace in organic fertilisers.
If the proper amount of nutrients aren’t available for absorption at the right time, then there is no point in introducing fertiliser in the first place.” He went on to explain that even if foreign bacteria is introduced into the soil to promote nitrogen dispersion, it cannot meet the demand for nitrogen as effectively or as efficiently as urea and other chemical-based fertilisers.
By using only organic fertiliser, the entire collective of farmers in Sri Lanka have to use more than a million tonnes of fertiliser for an 115,000-tonne job. Remember, this is only for nitrogen. More fertiliser needs to be used for meeting potassium and phosphorous needs of rice paddy. This brings up the question, ‘can Sri Lanka produce the needed fertiliser for this job?’ “The recent Cabinet decision was made because we usually cultivate 800,000 hecatares for the upcoming season, the maha kanna. According to our country’s statistics, we are able to manufacture organic fertiliser for 300,000 of those hectares at the moment,” Prof. Marambe informed Ceylon Today.
Needless to say, this means Sri Lanka has to produce or import the additional a million tonnes of organic fertiliser needed in order to produce adequate nitrogen alone. In addition to that, farmers have to add many other nutrients in order for rice paddy to be adequate for our country’s current needs.
Importing organic fertiliser = importing poison
If you’ve been following the numbers, it would be clear that Sri Lanka cannot produce adequate fertiliser for cultivating adequate rice in the upcoming kanna through organic fertiliser alone, meaning that importation of more fertiliser is an inevitability. However, with the current ban, Sri Lanka only has the option to import organic fertiliser, which can possibly do more harm than good. Prof. Marambe explained further. “There are standards for the importation of fertiliser from overseas,” he said. “The heavy metal content of these fertilisers is of high importance when considering these standards.” For those who don’t know, heavy metals consist of elements such as lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), arsenic (As) and many others. These are high in toxicity and can easily destroy ecosystems, poisoning the animal and plant life. Not only that, it is indicated that these heavy metals do play a role in CKD that is prevalent among the farming community. “Every organic and chemical fertiliser has some amount of heavy metals, and standards are observed when importing fertiliser,” Prof. Marambe said. “When considering urea, the maximum amount of heavy metals there can be found is 0.1ppm cadmium, 0.1ppm arsenic, 0.1ppm Lead and other heavy metals in such miniscule amounts. However, organic fertiliser can have up to 1.5ppm cadmium, 3ppm arsenic, 30ppm lead among others.” To break things down easier, if the Government imports the million tonnes of organic fertiliser needed for the upcoming kanna alone, there will be 1.5 tonnes of cadmium, 3 tonnes of arsenic and 30 tonnes of lead included in the fertiliser itself. A major argument towards moving to organic farming was to reduce the prevalent CKD susceptibility of the farming community. However, by importing organic fertiliser, not only will we have lower yields in crops, but also higher levels of toxins introduced into the land. When using locally-produced organic fertiliser, you are recycling elements prevailing in the country. However, by importing, more foreign elements are introduced each time, interfering with the prevailing natural balance. We would basically be adding more poison than we have ever had into our lands, which would only aggravate the prevailing CKD problem.
Not only for rice
And this is only for the agricultural needs of rice. Imagine the amount of fertilisers when including Sri Lanka’s tea, coconut, rubber, sugarcane, corn, and other agricultural industries. Not only that, greenhouse-related cultivation, exotic flower exports, landscapers, and those who engage in aquaponics and other specialised cultivation technology will suffer greatly as a result of this decision.
Problem with a capital tea
“In tea cultivation, tea leaves are harvested every 5-7 days. Fertiliser needs to be used to replenish the nutrients we remove from the soil and tree for the plant to be able to grow,” he said. “In a rough estimate, to make 1kg of the ordinary tea we consume, around 4.65kg of raw tea leaves need to be harvested. When producing 100kg of tea fit for drinking, around 10kg of nitrogen is removed from the soil. Sri Lanka produces up to 300 million kilograms of black tea a year.” I’m sure you can imagine the amount of fertiliser you would need to satisfy only the nitrogen demand.
Not the only problem
This is not considering the chance of bringing in parasites and microorganisms foreign to our country. Introducing these foreign microorganisms will change the natural balance of the soil in Sri Lanka, which will very likely be irreversible. Entire ecosystems can be threatened by such an act. The alternative would be to disinfect all the organic fertiliser being imported. But we are talking about millions of tonnes worth of it. This would only be an added expense that will have very little efficacy, not to mention the fact that many of the disinfectants would be harmful for the soil anyway.
Failure is already proven
“There is an argument that the technology to make this happen is there. But if that is the case, why hasn’t anyone succeeded before?” Prof. Marambe quoted the latest statistics from the international authoritative body for organic farming which revealed that only 1.5 per cent of the entire world’s agricultural area has engaged in organic farming. He also revealed that Sri Lanka isn’t the first country to announce the move to becoming ‘fully organic.’ “Bhutan was the first country to announce that it will become a fully organic State. This was announced in 2014 with the hopes of achieving this goal in 2020. However, this plan was reversed by their Government in 2018.” Prof. Marambe points out that with unsatisfactory yields each year, “Bhutan became a country that imported food more than ever before,” with 63 per cent of the country’s rice, 21 per cent of its corn, 23 per cent of its vegetables being imported.
Research has proven it
Not only is there a proven track record of this decision failing, there is scientific evidence of its imminent failure. “There is eleven-years-worth of continuous research conducted on the use and effectiveness of fertilisers that is still ongoing, where rice was cultivated in land with no use of fertiliser, one with only chemical fertilisers, one with only organic fertilisers and one which uses both chemical and organic fertilisers.
Throughout the eleven years, the field that uses a mix of organic and chemical fertilisers bring the best yield, with chemical fertilisers falling second and organic only falling in third, with the difference in yield falling from around 31 per cent to 21 per cent.” Prof. Marambe continued to explain that this scientific research conducted by local scientists in Sri Lanka for more than 11 years and counting, using real data from harvests is proof that the decision to stop importing chemical fertilisers will result in Sri Lanka losing its current agricultural capacity and food security.
What is the solution?
As the research data suggests, the most effective way to increase crop yields is the use of both chemical and organic fertiliser in agriculture. That way, proper nutrients will be supplied to the plants being cultivated and excess nutrients are locked into the soil, protecting its quality. The current Governments’ decision will undoubtedly result in a national food shortage and crisis, costing us more foreign exchange to import food while we would already spend copious amounts to import adequate fertiliser.
Not only that, we would be increasing the amount of highly toxic heavy metals in the soil and introducing foreign pathogens to our local ecosystem. Prof. Marambe agrees that this decision clearly hasn’t been made with the consultation of actual scientists who have already conducted research regarding this many years ago. Since the only ban is for the importation of chemical fertiliser, the only alternative is to manufacture chemical fertiliser within the country itself.
However, is there actual infrastructure in place? Just as a little child plays with fire in complete ignorance of advice and instruction from those with the experience and knowledge around them, the decision being made by the current regime, not even in accordance to their own policy statement will result in what can possibly be called a catastrophe, unless they are able to pull a miracle out of nowhere. However, the question remains, will those who made the decision be the ones who will end up with burnt fingers, or will it be the innocent farmers of the country, who are completely at the mercy of the Government?