Third Sample Test Allowed for Chinese Company Will Raise Eyebrows – Professor Marambe

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:20 AM Oct 16 2021
Focus Third Sample Test Allowed for Chinese Company Will Raise Eyebrows – Professor Marambe

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan 

Sri Lanka has a history of producing excessive amounts of rice for local consumers, but now the country has plunged into the biggest rice crisis of all time, and the chaos and confusion continue unabatedly. A rift over organic fertiliser imports from China’s Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co., Ltd, local politics, uncontrolled paddy and rice hoarders, lack of basic knowledge on fertiliser and importation have added to the current crisis. China is making its third attempt to push its organic fertiliser on Sri Lanka after sending samples of contaminated products twice. 

In the backdrop of the Government’s banning of chemicals without proper scientific examination, how could organic fertiliser be promoted instantaneously? Its local agent, Chelina Capitol, has been silent over the issue while the Chinese Embassy in Colombo began mediating between the Government of Sri Lanka and the private company, Qingdao Seawin, after the local testing agencies rejected the organic fertiliser samples twice, citing that they had bacteria. It was late August and, through a tender process, Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co., Ltd. was selected for the importation of organic fertiliser, and the permit was issued by National Fertiliser Secretariat (NFS) for the importation. 

The tender called for the import of 96,000 metric tons of organic fertiliser granules containing 10% Nitrogen. There was also an order for 3,000 MT of a powdered form of organic fertiliser that would contain 15% of Nitrogen for a total value of US$ 42.8M. The Plant Protection Act No. 35 of 1991, and the National Plant Quarantine Services (NPQS) of the Department of Agriculture and its Director General have a bigger say in importing the organic fertiliser. The NPQS checks for pathogenic organisms and whether there are weeds and insects which can have a deadly impact on Sri Lankan soil. Also, the Sri Lanka Standard Institute (SLSI) sets the standards for materials used in Sri Lanka. 

It is the SLSI 1704 of 2021 that says organic fertiliser has to be sterilised. According to the rules, the standard prescribes the requirements for sterilised solid organic fertiliser. Organic fertiliser provides limited quantity of plant nutrients and enhances the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil. This standard is subjected to the restrictions imposed under the Regulation of Fertiliser Act No. 69 of 1988, the Fauna and Flora Protection Act No. 44 of 1964, the Plant Protection Act No. 35 of 1999, the Food Act No. 26 of 1980, the Animal Diseases Act, No. 59 of 1992, the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980, and the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance (chapter 222), their amendments and the regulations framed thereunder. 

Although the Government said it was through a transparent tender process, whether the Chinese company was the single bidder or how the company was short listed is not yet known. The sterilising process should be completed before importation, and it is the NPQS that issues an import permit based on the acceptance of fertiliser if it complies with the SLSI. This sterilisation of organic fertiliser was specifically mentioned in the tender and it was clear. Senior Professor of Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, Professor Buddhi Marambe says organic fertiliser is usually exposed to a high temperature for sterilisation and such imported products have to strictly abide by the SLSI standards. 

Sample test results 

When the first sample arrived in late August 2021, there were two kinds of pathogenic groups of bacteria found. “If there are bacteria, it means the fertiliser sent to Sri Lanka was not sterilised. He said it is “a usual procedure to allow the company to send the second sample if the first one fails to pass the test.” The first test report was released after nine days of arrival of the sample at the NPQS. The second sample arrived in 22 September 2021 and once again there were pathogens found, he added. Since it was an importation through a tender for the value of US$ 42.8M and that the country urgently required a fertiliser to provide Nitrogen for paddy cultivation, two chances were given to the Chinese company, he emphasised. 

“The samples were checked for their compliance to SLSI and those stipulated in the Plant Protection Act. Samples can get contaminated if the package is not sealed well, but it was not so. “ After the failure to pass the second test, the Minister of Agriculture and the DG of the Department of Agriculture held a press conference to inform the public about the suspension of the decision to import organic fertiliser from the said Chinese company. “We think it should not be given another chance when it has been twice proven to be contaminated,” opined the Professor. 

Ceylon Today learns that after the second sample was sent to Sri Lanka, the first organic fertiliser cargo on board the Hippo Spirit vessel had left the shores of China and was on its way to Sri Lanka. It had left on 22 September 2021 and then had to be anchored at the Port of Singapore. It is unclear whether the cargo was sent back to China from Singapore. It is also unclear how the cargo was shipped without an import permit granted by the Director General of the Department of Agriculture. Professor Marambe said, since independence, the paddy production in Sri Lanka has evolved to produce adequate rice in Sri Lanka. But with the recent decision to rely fully on organic fertiliser it’s a different ball game now. “In the 1940s, we were able to produce only 0.65 tons per hectare of paddy. 

There was only a 6 million population then, and still 60% of the rice was imported. Recognising the gradual increase of population in Sri Lanka, Dr. Hector Weeraratne in 1953, with his team, initiated a hybridisation programme where the popular rice variety H4 was released in 1958.”This initiative in Sri Lanka was even before the green revolution began and the International Rice Institute was established in the Philippines. Later, Bg, At Bwand Ld varieties of rice were released and cultivated to produce more rice to feed our nation. 

“However, 80 years later in 2020, we have 21.8M people against 6M in 1940 and the country was able to produce more rice than what we require. With the new policy directive in 2021 we are in a perilous situation, in meeting the country’s food demand,” he added. With rice being the major staple food, we need to look after the rice sector and develop it further. Climate change has caused issues and we need to develop a structure to have adequate rice to feed the nation, he pointed out. “About 85% of the corn we produce is for animal feed and 15% for human consumption. We mainly cultivate imported maize hybrids but also have developed hybrid maize varieties in Sri Lanka. 

These hybrid plants have to be fed with more nutrients to achieve higher yields. “ He said that synthetic fertilisers are rich in plant nutrients than organic fertilisers, for example, the fertiliser Urea contains 46% Nitrogen. “100 kg of Urea will have 46kg of Nitrogen while 100 kg of organic fertiliser will have only 1kg of Nitrogen, which means only 1%, the professor explained. The professor further explained that the sudden decision to completely shift to organic fertiliser and banning importation of other agro-chemicals is the worst decision ever made since independence. 

He claims that imports of nonsterilised organic fertiliser will allow entry of microorganisms, putting the country at risk. The Chinese Embassy meddles with the sample results. Concerning the tainted organic fertiliser, the Embassy of China in Sri Lanka contacted the product supplier, Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co., Ltd. to examine the said issue, and found that these reports and statements, which have already harmed the reputation of the company in question, directly contradict the facts, the Chinese Embassy said in their official statement. 

The Embassy said that Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co., Ltd. (Seawin) is a high-tech enterprise focusing in the production of new-type seaweed organic fertilisers and its products, which have passed the EU ECOCERT Organic Certification, OMRI Certification, REACH Certification, and Australian Organic Input Certification, etc., have been exported to more than 50 countries and regions in the world, including Europe and the United States. It has also set up overseas branch companies in the US and Australia. Seawin was selected by the Ministry of Agriculture in Sri Lanka through an open tender to supply the urgently needed organic fertiliser, the Chinese Embassy said.

The company has undertaken obligations strictly in accordance with the signed contract. In their production process, the organic fertiliser must be sterilised at 600 ℃, thus all harmful microorganisms are killed by the high temperature, which is in line with the standards required in the bidding documents, the contract, the letters of credit as well as the widely accepted international standards for organic fertilisers. In the process of enforcing the contract, however, the NPQS claimed that the sample received contained harmful bacteria, including Erwinia, after only three days of testing and analysis, which led to the abovementioned news reports.

It is noted that, according to the International Plant Protection Convention, it will take at least six days to detect Erwinia. The hasty conclusion made by NPQS lacks a scientific basis. As such, the decision made by the authorities to reject Seawin’s organic fertiliser based on the NPQS report is not only questionable but also causing great financial loss to the company. As a result, the Chinese Embassy hopes that the related parties on the Sri Lankan side and the Chinese company can coordinate on the principles of respecting science and facts, as well as the spirit of the contract, in order to resolve this issue quickly and address differences through dialogue in good faith for the mutual benefit of China-Sri Lanka cooperation. 

However, the testing agency refuted the Chinese Embassy’s claims and said that any country can set its own phytosanitary import requirements (consignments of plants, plant products or other regulated articles) Latest blunder: Potassium Chloride is not an organic fertiliser. The newly-arrived 30, 000 mt of Potassium Chloride fertiliser has been recognised as organic fertiliser by the Minister of Agriculture, Mahindananda Aluthgamage losing his credibility further, even if it was a genuine human error. The professor also questioned about whether the 30,000mt ton of Potassium Chloride was subjected to testing for heavy metals. He stated that this is a requirement prior to release of this fertiliser to be used in farmer fields. 

But he was not sure whether such tests were being conducted. The Ministry of Agriculture said 30,000mt of organic cargo was unloaded at the Port of Colombo from Lithuania for the Maha season on 13 October 2021 and on the same night it was transported to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Trincomalee, and Hambantota Agrarian Development areas in the districts where paddy cultivation is prevalent. “Portassium Chloride is not an organic but a chemical fertiliser.” added the Professor. He said if they had ordered organic fertiliser, this consignment is wrong and inaccurate. 

It’s not clear what the government had ordered and for what was the tender process to issue for this particular fertiliser from Lithuania should be probed. It’s clear that the Government has been taking hasty decisions, and unrelenting practices on the fertiliser matter has encouraged the local paddy hoarders to control the rice price. It’s also time to avoid engaging in geopolitics when the food security of the country is jeopardised having to face the pandemic simultaneously. A wise policy framework with transparent and independent decisions taken by the relevant educated authorities iskey at the moment. – [email protected]

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:20 AM Oct 16 2021

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