By W.A Wijewardena –
Banning chemical fertilisers and pesticides
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, obviously on the advice of his economic advisors, has ordered that Sri Lanka should stop the importation of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to the country. The decision has been justified on the following grounds: “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. In order to produce a healthy and productive citizenry, the Government must ensure the right of the people to access a non-toxic and balanced diet. President Rajapaksa said that measures will be taken to ensure that only organic fertiliser would be used in the agriculture sector in the country in the future.”
This justification is in line with the modern day thinking in society about the environmental protection, pollution, and toxicity in food production. There is a widespread fear among many that foods produced by using inorganic matter cause illnesses like diabetes, heart ailments, cancer, and internal organ failures. Since a healthy life is the most valuable asset which one can have, any policy that would ensure a healthy life is readily accepted by all. Consequently, organic foods produced by using organic nutrients are much in demand.
Hence, while banning inorganic fertilisers, the Government is planning to introduce organic fertilisers to farmers. To facilitate this and supply organic fertilisers to farmers, the Government will support local organic fertiliser producers. It will help Sri Lanka, according to the press release, to save annually foreign exchange amounting to about $ 400 million used for importing inorganic fertilisers. That money could be used for uplifting the lives of people.
When concerns were raised by some agriculturists that the proposed ban of chemical fertilisers will cause a drop in agricultural output, the Government promised to compensate farmers for such losses, but did not elaborate on how the deficiency is filled.
Fertile ground for food riots?
It seems that the Government has taken a calculated risk when it decided to ban the importation of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Today farmers are cultivating hybrid varieties which depend on the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to sustain the output levels. Hence, when these two inputs are denied to farmers, a sudden drop in the output is unavoidable. It seriously threatens the food security, on one side, and causes losses to farmers, on the other. This is fertile ground for food riots and farmer agitations.
Both are toxic and will cause piercing of the normal social fabric. Hence, to keep people from starving, Sri Lanka will have to spend foreign exchange for importing food items. As a result, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will have an immediate net gain of the ban.
Food security is threatened
As I have argued in a previous article on food security, there are already limitations for food production caused by a lack of main resources for same, namely, land and water. Given these limitations, ensuring food security for Sri Lankans will be a gigantic task for the Government. If there is a further drop in food production due to the banning of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, Sri Lanka’s food security is seriously threatened. Some relevant excerpts from this article are as follows.
Malthusian doomsday story
“The problem of ensuring food security in a background of rising populations in the world has been a matter of concern by global community from time to time. In the 18th century when there was a population explosion, the British economist Thomas Malthus, in a book titled ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ and published in 1798, predicted that the population will increase at an exponential rate overtaking the world’s capacity to produce foods. As a result, he also predicted that there will be massive starvation, leading to famine, disease, war, and calamity. But this did not happen because the population did not increase at the rate at which Malthus predicted and food production increased by leaps and bounds due to the employment of technology, improved fertilisers, and pesticides. The issue was finally resolved by the introduction of what is now known as Green Revolution in 1950s and 1960s”.
Rescue of mankind from hunger through Green Revolution
“The Green Revolution was initiated by American Agronomist Norman Borlaug who is considered its Father. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970 for this service. The basic approach of the Green Revolution was to increase yields of food crops through several new methods popularised among farmers”.
“They included the development of High Yielding Varieties of crops, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, better farm and water management, and the expansion of irrigation infrastructural facilities. India which was on the brink of famine and starvation in late 1950s was in the forefront of the Green Revolution. It started agricultural activities on modern lines in Punjab which was famous for its heavy involvement in agriculture. Having adopted the new semi-dwarf rice variety called IR8 developed by the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines, and using better water management and chemical fertilisers, India was able to convert itself from a rice deficit country to a rice surplus country. IR8 was dubbed miracle rice because of its high yield when it is cultivated with the application of fertilisers”.
China’s embracing Green Revolution
“Like India, China too was successful in increasing its agricultural output by using improved varieties, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and better water management. Like in Sri Lanka, China’s agricultural production is mainly done by small holder farmers. Yet, it has not been an impediment for using new technologies, improved fertiliser, and pest control systems, and increasing yields. Its high yield hybrid rice technology has helped it to increase the rice yield across the nation to 7.1 tonnes per hectare. Comparatively, the global average is only 3.9 tonnes per hectare. In the case of conventional rice, the yield has been only 5 tonnes per hectare”.
Sri Lanka’s low yields in paddy
Despite the increase in the last three decades, Sri Lanka’s yield levels in all agri-products are below those of world’s better performers. In rice (after paddy is threshed), Sri Lanka had a yield level of 1,000 kg per Ha in 1950s. With the opening of virgin lands in the Mahaweli Project, the yield levels increased to 2,300 kg in 1990s. But it got saturated at that level and in 2020, the country had recorded a yield level of about 2,500 kg per Ha.