ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s plan to move into organic fertilizer was a good move in principle but the sudden shift has left farmers fearful and the agriculture sector unprepared, private sector officials closely involved in agriculture have warned.
“It is a noble objective. It is an objective we have to pursue but there is a certain pathway,” Dilhan Fernando, Chief Executive of Dilmah Tea Company told a forum hosted by Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.
“It involves re-generation of soils, multiple adaptations including the infrastructural knowledge, the systems, and processes that will, first of all, establish the parameters.”
“None of these have been done. So, a lot of the discussions that are happening now should have happened a few years ago.”
Analysts have said one of the problems for Sri Lanka’s economic problems along with monetary instability (money printing and currency collapses) is regime uncertainty, which involves policy uncertainty and expropriation and nationalism, which triggers ethnic strife.
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Sri Lanka has banned fertilizer imports from the upcoming main Maha cultivation to save 400 million US dollars in import costs after money printing triggered foreign exchange shortages.
Sri Lanka Government Medical Officers Association an influential policy driver had said agrochemicals caused non-communicable diseases and Sri Lanka’s ancestors lived for 140 years in Roman times according to Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedia when there were no agrochemicals.
After self-determination from British rule and the breaking of the permanent civil service, Sri Lanka has lost the ability to do evidence-based policy making, using green papers, white papers followed by expert and public consultation, critics have said.
Instead, policy upheavals are done by in ‘policy by manifesto’, a deadly process done in political backrooms by people with special interests and poor technical knowledge, experts with experience in evidenced-based policy-making have said.
They are then carried out on the basis of a ‘mandate’.
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“But this is a muddy mandate. Each manifesto contains a multiplicity of promises. Was the vote a considered approval for each of those promises?,” Rohan Samarajiva, founder of LIRNEasia, a regional think tank who was involved in Sri Lanka’s telecom and South Asian aviation liberalization questions.
“Manifesto making is political. Experts or those who are perceived as experts may be called in to contribute, but the principal criterion is not expertise, but trust.
“Those who have been involved in manifesto making will testify to the opacity of the process, wherein what is accepted one day can disappear in the next and new clauses and conditions can mysteriously appear even after “finalization.”
Meanwhile, Fernando said Bhutan, a South Asian neighbor that adopted similar methods but their consumer prices increased. Switzerland recently dropped a plan to ban agrochemicals.
In Sri Lanka, organic foods are already priced higher than ordinary products in supermarkets.
Government spokesmen themselves have claimed that organic foods fetch premiums in export markets while trying to convert a country where children of poor families already face malnutrition and stunting.
Rohan Fernando, Managing Director, Aitken Spence Plantation Managements said a practical strategy was needed to transform an entire agricultural sector.
“Like anything, you have to build a strategy and this is something long-term,” he said. “If we build a good strategy, it can be implemented but not something that could be done overnight. We could face unwanted problems.”
Dilhan Fernando, CEO of Dilmah Tea Company said the objective has to be reached incrementally and care should be taken not to generate greater risks.
“First we have to reduce artificial inputs,” Fernando said. “That is an absolute no-brainer because we cannot continue on this present trajectory but to be done step by step.
“If you have a population that has been depending on certain agricultural methods over centuries, suddenly to change over can introduce other use of chemicals that may have not been approved, that can create a far greater danger.”
Sri Lanka has banned fertilizer from the next season Maha or main cultivation season. Sri Lanka is also planning to import some organic fertilizers, which could also have various unknown impurities.
Fraught with Uncertainty
There have been widespread farmer protests. Farmers are also apprehensive due to uncertainty and lack of expertise.
“It is a situation of unknowns,” Charitha Subasinghe, President – Retail, John Keells Holdings, which works with farmers and sells fruits and vegetables through an island-wide chain said.
“When we talk with the farmers and work with them, the unknown is what is worrying the farmer. The question is that can we do it overnight or should it be phased out is the question that is working in the minds of the farmers.”
He said there seemed to be too many unknowns to predict how everything will pan out.
Shea Wickramasingha, Group Managing Director, Ceylon Biscuits Limited, the group had been involved in exporting organic spices, fruits, and coconut.
“The idea and thinking are very good but it can’t be done overnight,” she said.
“When we stopped using chemical fertilizers in soya cultivation, we did a lot of trials and research.
“And also you need to ensure farmers income does not come down. So when you are converting to organic fertilizers you need to do it in a way your output is not reduced.”
“There’s a lot of work, you cannot just say that from today you are going to use organic fertilizers, there is a lot of challenge but we need to have a strategy.” (Colombo/Aug26/2021)