Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Confusion and uncertainty on banning chemical fertiliser
There is considerable confusion and uncertainty as to whether the ban on chemical fertiliser was lifted or not. Is it or is it not?
The Finance Minister issued a statement that was widely interpreted as a removal of the ban on chemical fertiliser. This was immediately contradicted by the Secretary to the Finance Ministry and Secretary to the Treasury that there was no change in the fertiliser import policy.
Soon after, a statement from the President’s office stated categorically that there has been no change in the fertiliser ban. On the other hand, several categories of fertiliser are allowed to be imported.
Such contradictions are not uncommon in the country’s post-independent history. A celebrated paradox was the ‘Sinhala only Tamil also policy’.
How do we interpret the current policy on fertiliser?
In as far as we can interpret the Government’s revised fertiliser policy, the three basic elements of fertiliser— NPK— will be permitted under licence. Nitrogen imports are to increase the nitrogen content in organic fertiliser. Other chemicals are also to be permitted to meet the nutrient deficiencies of organic fertiliser.
Furthermore, the import of mixtures of fertiliser are permitted. These include, superphosphates under phosphate and the essential fertiliser elements – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and other chemicals will be permitted.
Chemical or organic?
This leaves some doubt as to whether the fertiliser available to farmers would be organic! What is clear is that these imports would be permitted on licences and on a restricted basis. It is most likely that further adaptations to fertiliser import policies would be made as problems emerge.
In as far as the nation’s agriculture is concerned, the livelihood of farmers, the country’s food production and the economy, adequate fertiliser by whatever name that increases production is best.
If the ban on chemical fertilisers is confirmed certain and irreversible, the nation would have to face its horrendous economic and social consequences that has been pointed out by the scientific community. In contrast, the importation of the three basic elements of fertiliser NPK- Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is a great leap forward.
The Government’s explanation of the apparent confusion is that “The Government has not granted permission to import chemical fertilisers for local agricultural purposes, neither has it made any changes to the decision taken by the President to use only organic fertilisers for local agriculture. And there will be no changes to this decision in the future either.”
However the statement added that Cabinet had granted approval to the proposal made by the Minister of Agriculture on May 31, to import plant nutrients – which included natural chelated minerals and micro matter. While these natural chelated minerals and micro matter were already being imported under the HS Code, it was prohibited by the gazette notification No. 2226/ 48. Therefore, to grant Cabinet approval to the aforesaid Cabinet paper submitted by the Minister of Agriculture, the gazette notification No. 2226/48 was amended.
“Therefore, in accordance with the Imports and Exports ( Control) Regulations No. 11 of 2021 issued by the Minister of Finance on the July 30, only the following types of specialised fertilisers are allowed to be imported through the Department of Agriculture and other relevant institutions under a special licensing system. Only organic fertilisers, wh i ch a re up to the International Organic Fertiliser Standards, will be allowed to be used for local agricultural purposes.”
If farmers obtain fertiliser that is suitable for their crops by whatever regulation and means, the country would avoid an economic and social disaster of a huge magnitude. Otherwise, the nation would face horrendous economic and social consequences while COVID is spreading exponentially.
There has been a vibrant discussion on the agronomic and economic consequences of the fertiliser ban in the media, among the scientific community and agricultural economists. Yet, as is often the case, these do not appear to have had any influence on policy makers.
Scientists, agronomists, crop scientists, soil scientists, agricultural economists and economists have pointed out the adverse consequences of a fertiliser ban on crop production. These have gone unheeded. Consequently, if the new fertiliser policy fails, the country would have to face dire economic and social consequences.
The ban of chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides would have dire economic consequences on agricultural production, livelihoods of farmers and external finances of the country. It would reduce production of the staple rice, food crops and export crops. Consequently, it would impoverish farmers, decrease food availability, increase food prices and reduce accessibility of low incomes to adequate food. There is a serious threat to food security later this year and in 2022. Fertiliser imports Although the ban on fertiliser imports are expected to save US$ 450 million ( actual fertiliser imports are much less, only about US$ 250 million), there would be an increase in import expenditure, due to reduced food production.
The shortfall in rice production would entail imports costing several- fold the expenditure on fertiliser imports, especially as international grain prices are escalating. Tea production in smallholdings would reduce export earnings and worsen the country’s weak external finances.
The loss in agricultural production means a sharp loss of farmer incomes and a threat to the livelihoods of a large proportion of the country’s population.
Considering these economic consequences, the scientific community has advised the Government to adopt a phased introduction of organic agriculture on scientific principles and realistic possibilities.
Social and political consequences
The decision to ban the import of chemical fertiliser in one stroke of the pen was undoubtedly a rash decision that was not based on scientific advice. It did not take into consideration either its economic or social consequences or even political repercussions. Perhaps it is sober second thoughts that prompted the gazette notification of the Finance Minister. Its ambiguity may be a means of modifying the ban.
The quintessence of the issue is whether the farmers of this country will be able to produce their crops at their attained levels of productivity to ensure their livelihoods and meet the nation’s food requirements. Will smallholder tea cultivators who produce the bulk of the country’s tea for export be able produce tea for export?
The essential need is to ensure the nation’s agricultural production to feed the population and not weaken the perilous exter nal finances by increasing food imports and reducing agricultural exports, especially tea.
Will these economic objectives be achieved by banning chemical fertiliser, importing certain fertiliser components, including NPK, or by importing and producing organic fertiliser?
If the answer to these questions are in the affirmative there would be no economic or social problems next year. If not, the consequences could be horrendous.