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Sri Lanka’s decision to ban imports on chemical fertilizers was not backed by scientific evidence

There is consensus in the scientific community that organic agriculture could reduce crop yield. Quoting three global meta-data analysis, Meemkem and Qaim (2018) pointed out that on average, the yield reduction in organic agricultural systems could be 19-25%, depending on the crop and agro-climatic region. To switch to 100% organic agriculture, a country must have robust scientific evidence and a meticulously planned methodology along with targeted actions. Otherwise, it will plunge into a food crisis, if food security cannot be achieved by other means.

Organic agriculture is often perceived as more sustainable than conventional farming. In terms of environmental and climate change effects, organic farming is less polluting than conventional farming when measured per unit of land but not when measured per unit of output.

Organic farming, which currently accounts for only 1% of global agricultural land, is lower yielding on average. Due to higher knowledge requirements, observed yield gaps might further increase if a larger number of farmers would switch to organic practices.

Widespread upscaling of organic agriculture would cause additional loss of natural habitats and also entail output price increases, making food less affordable for poor consumers in developing countries.

Organic farming is not the paradigm for sustainable agriculture and food security, but smart combinations of organic and conventional methods could contribute toward sustainable productivity increases in global agriculture.

Organic mania

In May, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered a halt to importing chemical fertilizers to turn the island nation’s agriculture sector fully organic.

By that time, the Yala cropping season (May to August) had already started and farmers were using the agro-chemicals available in the market. However, no additional agro-chemicals were to be released in the market.

The government stated that if there is any yield loss as a consequence of this decision, the affected farmers would be compensated for it. It is unclear how the government was planning to separate yield loss related to lack of agro-chemicals from yield loss due to natural causes, farmers’ attitudes, and so on.

It is apparent now that when the Sri Lankan government took this policy decision, it had neither solid scientific information nor a clear action plan. It had taken half-baked advice from some opportunists who regularly state in public that only organic and traditional agriculture is safe to the environment and human beings.

Not only did the government seem to believe that there would be little or no yield loss from agriculture that is only organic; it also seemed to think that all plant nutrients could be organically produced in the country by October 2021.
If the organic agricultural production system is that simple and straightforward, why is that globally, only 1.5% of farmland is organic?

Sri Lanka has been almost entirely reliant on its own rice production since the mid-2000s. Could it not have maintained this?

Unsurprisingly, even when the Maha season officially started on October 15, the country was well short of the required quantities of organic fertilizers.

As the most critical plant nutrient for higher yields in Sri Lanka is nitrogen (N), the authorities have estimated that for this Maha season, about 0.1 million tonnes of N is required for some major crops including paddy and tea.

This is equivalent to about 15 million tonnes of compost. The country produced only around 3 million tonnes of compost by the end of August 2021.

Realising that the required quantities of organic fertilizers cannot be produced within five months, the government attempted in September to import solid organic fertilizers.

According to the Plant Protection Act, No. 35 of 1999, no organic substance that has harmful organisms can be imported into the country. Moreover, Sri Lanka Standards (SLSI 1704) require all imported solid organic fertilizer to be devoid of any micro-organism.

A tender to supply about 0.1 million tonnes of solid organic fertilizer was offered to a Chinese fertilizer company. It was later revealed that two samples provided by this company did not pass the quality standards.

This message was conveyed by the authorities to the company. However, due to reasons unknown, the first load of that solid organic fertilizer is said to have come to Sri Lankan waters and is sailing around still looking for an opportunity to reach the shores of Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, farmers started getting angry as there were no fertilizers to start cultivation. They began to protest, demanding fertilizers to be provided in all major agricultural areas and setting aside preliminary land preparation practices. They did not want to start commercial cultivation without any assurance from the government on the availability of the required fertilizers.Then, the government was advised to purchase a liquid nano-N fertilizer from the Indian Farmer Fertilizer Corporative Limited (IFFCO), which, some said, is organic and 100% efficient.

However, according to the IFFCO website, this liquid fertilizer is actually nano-urea and hence cannot be used in organic agriculture as it is chemical in nature. Given the urgency of the situation, the government ordered 3.1 million litres of nano-urea, which has only 4% N, from IFFCO.

The first quantity was air-lifted into Sri Lanka and distributed as Nano-Raja among paddy farmers. Farmers were advised to apply 2.5 L of Nano-Raja as a foliar spray.

Scientists are sceptical about the efficacy of this fertilizer as there has been heavy rainfall in Sri Lanka over the last few weeks. Nonetheless, even in India, there is limited large-scale evidence on the effectiveness of this product. Not much is known about the health concerns that might arise on long-term exposure to nano-particles.

Moreover, 2.5 L of Nano-Raja provides only 100g of N when at least 50kg of N is needed for the paddy crop. The farmers will at most get an additional 5-10kg of N through locally available compost. The quality of these composts, mostly produced using municipal solid wastes, cannot be guaranteed either, as there is no quality control mechanism in place.

Crop decline

Now, even over a month after the season started, only about 25-40% of farmers have started paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka. The distributed quantities of N fertilizers have not been adequate to achieve the expected yield target of the farmers (4-6 tonnes per hectare).

Therefore, reduction in national paddy production is an inevitability. The same would be true for other crop sectors as well. Therefore, the government must do something within a very short period of time to provide sufficient quantities of N fertilizer, at least to paddy farmers and tea-growers.

Failure to do so will reduce foreign exchange earnings from tea, increase food prices, create food shortage and lead to food imports. The government will have to import food from other countries — food that is produced using agro-chemicals because of the higher price of organic food. This would be ironical as food without agro-chemicals was one of the major policy objectives of the ban on the import of agro-chemicals.

The overarching policy document of the government titled ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’ promises to provide the nation with safe food and food security. However, the ill-advised policy of banning agro-chemicals, which was based on inadequate scientific evidence and false belief, hit the Sri Lankan agriculture and plantation crop sectors like a cyclone.

With a crippling economy thanks to COVID-19, this was uncalled for. On November 24, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would partially lift the ban on chemical fertilizers and permit the private sector to import these fertilizers. However, considerable damage has already been done, with farmers claiming that their crop production has declined, food prices rising, and a food crisis looming.


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