Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Confusion and uncertaint­y on banning chemical fertiliser

- By Nimal Sanderatne

There is considerab­le confusion and uncertaint­y as to whether the ban on chemical fertiliser was lifted or not. Is it or is it not?

Confusion

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.

President’s office

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’.

An interpreta­tion

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.

Adequate fertiliser

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.

Consequenc­es

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.

Explanatio­n

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.”

Suitable fertiliser

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.

Vibrant discussion

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.

Adverse consequenc­es

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.

Economic 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.

Imports

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.

Livelihood­s

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.

Advice

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.

Summing up

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.

Conclusion

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.

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