Going ‘100% organic’: Can we handle it?

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“Lives are more valuable to me than a high yield,” stated President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a month ago, when announcing the ban on the importation of chemical fertilizer. 

Accordingly, reasons for the ban were revealed to be the pollution of lakes, canals, and groundwater, while the health sector described the negative effects of chemical fertilizers on consumers’ health, in the form of a number of non-communicable diseases, including kidney diseases. These effects lead to additional costs in treating these patients, and the impact on human lives and the environment remains high.

In this backdrop, The Morning Business spoke with State Minister of Production and Supply of Fertilizer and Regulation of Chemical Fertilizers and Insecticide Use Mohan Priyadarshana De Silva to delve into the President’s plans to go “100% organic”.

“Normally, we mainly used chemical fertilizer for the production of wheat and non-wheat crops. For wheat production and for non-wheat production, we use from around 300,000 metric tones to 385,000 metric tones of chemical fertilizer,” De Silva stated. 

He further stated that the industry players have spoken about a shortage in fertilizer. Accordingly, up until last year, wheat production utilized 385,000 metric tones of fertilizer while for non-wheat production, that includes crops such as rubber, 308,000 metric tonnes of fertilizer were imported. 

He also revealed that the total chemical fertiliser usage is about 1,200,000 metric tonnes overall and that one prominent import market was China.

According to the State Ministry website, sources from the National Fertiliser Secretariat state that annual chemical fertiliser imports amount to grossly 1,260,053 metric tonnes. Also, the total fertiliser imports in 2020 amounted to 574,705.9 metric tonnes where expenditure exceeded Rs. 36 billion. 

State Minister De Silva also informed us that it is evident that fertiliser is overused by a majority of the industry players, as he stated there is a recommended amount of fertiliser that should be used for all sorts of crops. 

“However, it is evident that farmers use more than the recommended amount, which could be seen. For example, countries like Australia gain a lot from the export of wheat. From what I remember, one hectare yields 12,000 metric kilos of crops by only using 57 metric kilos (of fertiliser). But in Sri Lanka, a yield of 4,000 metric kilos utilises 284-300 metric kilos of chemical fertiliser,” De Silva informed us. 

Accordingly, this overuse has led to Sri Lanka being ranked as one of the highest users of chemical fertiliser in Asia. Also, he explained that even if chemical fertiliser is used, certain micro-organisms are still needed for the soil to be rich and produce a higher yield. 

Alternatives to chemical fertiliser 

“The President did not just refer to chemical fertilisers. On 27 April, the cabinet paper mentioned the need to protect the environment. Measures taken to achieve this included the ban of chemical fertilisers,” De Silva stated. 

He further informed us that carbon fertiliser prices are higher than that of chemical fertiliser. The State Minister also revealed that due to the current situation, carbon fertiliser must be imported once or twice to fill the shortage of fertiliser. 

Also known as carbon dioxide fertilisation, carbon fertilisation is the artificial enrichment of the atmosphere of greenhouse gases with carbon dioxide, an essential nutrient for plants and vegetables. According to NPR.org, charcoal also makes for a better fertiliser than other organic materials.

However, De Silva mentioned that the importation of carbon fertiliser will be more expensive than importing chemical fertiliser. Nevertheless, he further stated that the President of Sri Lanka aims to build an organic and sustainable country, which is what led to the ban. 

The Morning Business also caught up with State Ministry of Production and Supply of Fertiliser and Regulation of Chemical Fertilisers and Insecticide Use Co-ordinating Secretary Maheshan de Silva, who spoke about the changes in the market and the possible alternatives to chemical fertiliser imports.

Local manufacturing and future plans of exporting organic fertilizer

Co-ordinating Secretary de Silva stated that local production of organic fertiliser needs to expand due to the increased demand for fertiliser in the market. However, he also mentioned that production is more expensive than importing chemical fertiliser. 

“We are already planning to increase the organic fertiliser production in Sri Lanka. There are companies such as Green Force Agriculture and BioFoods, who are some key players in this industry. At the moment, organic fertiliser is available in the market,” he commented. 

In addition to this, the State Ministry Co-ordinating Secretary stated that the export of locally produced organic fertiliser is possible if the production and the quality was increased. Also, it was mentioned that there are no players in the industry that locally manufacture chemical fertiliser.

“If players (in the market) can increase production and expand, it will be possible to export organic fertilisers to the global market, but there has to be a quality standard that the organic fertilisers have to maintain,” Co-ordinating Secretary de Silva stated. 

It was further mentioned that research is currently being conducted into organic fertiliser in relation to how to increase production and achieve the highest yield from the crops. The State Minister of Production and Supply of Fertiliser and Regulation of Chemical Fertilisers and Insecticide Use has collaborated with a handful of universities to obtain expert evaluations in the matter. 

On the other hand, State Ministry Co-ordinating Secretary de Silva informed us that the agriculture sector is impacted to some extent, as industry players were hiding chemical fertilisers to use when supply is low. 

What do experts say about this? 

As per local media reports, some researchers and experts believe that the ban is a haphazard decision and highlighted the need for Sri Lanka to use modern fertiliser technology and manage risks to overcome challenges on the road to using organic fertiliser, instead of banning chemical fertiliser outright. 

Accordingly, the Founder of a Canada-based company called Active AgriScience advised that the Government must not take impulsive decisions which affect the livelihoods of a whole nation and its food security.

Thereby, it was stated that existing technologies can be utilised to sharply reduce the use of chemical fertiliser. Whilst highlighting that the risk of chemical fertiliser can also be managed instead of an immediate ban, it was mentioned that specialist knowledge and techniques are required in the usage of organic fertiliser in order to manage the risk of falling yields.

It was also reported that it was essential to ensure domestic food security in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, and also that the use of inadequate amounts of organic fertilisers lead to a very low nutritional value for plants when compared to conventional fertilisers. Accordingly, it was revealed that organic fertilisers need to be applied in large quantities to achieve the same result as conventional fertilisers.

It was further mentioned that whilst extraction methods are also limited, there are only a few materials available in the world to formulate quality organic fertilisers. Furthermore, the process of getting certified organic fertilisers was also reported to be an expensive cost of sourcing organic fertiliser from producers.

Local media reports also mentioned that micronutrients such as boron, copper, iron, molybdenum, manganese, and zinc are not available in some organic fertilisers, and that therefore, even organic agriculture must depend on certain conventional fertilisers to provide microelements, it was reported. 

It was also mentioned that there are challenges involved in achieving planned yield targets due to low solubility and availability of elements in organic fertiliser. 

Organic fertilisers were also reported to consist of several unknown compounds which may cause detrimental plant growth and human health issues by accumulating in soil and plants. It was also stated that suspended particles can cause fermentation in the containers that store the fertiliser when liquid organic fertilisers are made using these compounds. 

Local companies such as Green Agro Farm provide organic liquid fertilisers with a range of organic fertilisers such as compost, tea, and special mixtures for plants such as coconut. Green Agro Farm also aims to increase their organic production.

While other local companies such as Bio Power Lanka (BPL) also provide products such as a “bio vaccine”, which consists of a natural bio control fungal agent Trichoderma viride and bio gold. The company also aspires to provide eco-friendly solutions to the agriculture, energy, and water sectors to create positive changes in the environment whilst supporting local manufacturing. 

BPL also extends technology support in agriculture to enhance the productivity of various crops in an eco-friendly manner while exploring the potentials of beneficial bacteria. In the long term, BPL aims to make the country mosquito-free with manufacturing mosquito control product “Bacto Bti”. 

Lastly, BioFoods is a certified fertiliser company that also shares the goal of the aforesaid companies whilst offering a range of organic products such as organic tea and other coconut products.

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