Photo courtesy of Sustainable Pulse

The decision to ban chemical fertilizer is one of the crucial policy changes taken by the current government since coming to power. It received mix reactions from the public. The government’s argument was that this policy change rested on two factors: to avoid the harmful effect of fertilizer getting mixed with water sources and affecting people’s health and to save $400 million required for the importation of chemical fertilizer and to spend it on improving living conditions of the public. Positive reactions for the policy change have been received from consumers in general and from those who were already engaged in or were interested in organic agriculture; however, constant chemical fertilizer users, who are the overwhelming majority among farmers, were doubtful.

After a few months farmers started to complain that the growth of crops was stalled during the first month of farming in this season. In the meantime, an idea about importing organic fertilizer came from the government; those who had experience on organic farming were of the opinion that adding imported organic fertilizer to our soil could cause longer and more adverse environmental effects than the use of chemical fertilizer. The discontent among farmers gradually developed into protests – they protested among COVID-19 travel restrictions saying that they would not be able to reap a good harvest in this condition. Fear of an impending food shortage loomed on the horizon.

There are reports that the newly appointed Minister of Finance was considering the limited importation of chemical fertilizer with the intention of gradually reaching the goal of total elimination of chemical fertilizer. A post for a new State Minister was created for the promotion of organic fertilizer. However, whether the government’s decision on banning chemical fertilizer would be definitively changed or not has not been clearly communicated to the public yet. The aim of this article is to examine whether the expected results could be achieved from farming without using chemical fertilizer.

Green revolution and the introduction of chemical fertilizer

Wide use of chemical fertilizer was introduced to the country in the decades 1960-70 in parallel to the global wave of introducing modified seed varieties and chemical fertilizer, along with the green revolution. The green revolution was promoted as the technical approach to counter global hunger. Large scale agriculture started using modified, high-yield seeds and chemical fertilizer that were introduced by various Western companies. The main outcome of this was that agriculture transferred into the hands of multinational corporations globally. In this process, farmlands arose that had thousands or hundreds of thousands of acres growing a single crop using large scale machinery. It was inevitable in the process that corporations that could make massive capital investments became the main force in agriculture. Many commercial agricultural giants were attracted to the Asian and Latin American countries that had an abundance of land, in contrast to the industrialized states, and they also had cheap labour.

On the other hand, with the introduction of new seed varieties to peasant farmers with minimum capital, their dependency on chemical fertilizer increased. This led to them being dependent on seed and fertilizer producing corporations. The direct result of this was a growth in their harvest. The other consequence was that the nature of their cultivation changed, moving from multi-crop to mono-crop farming. They had to move from being themselves the producers of the seeds to become dependent on corporations producing and selling seeds.

Rhetoric of self-sufficiency on rice and a nation that feeds on rice for all three meals

As a result of this, a massive transformation took place within a few decades in the food production of the country. The notions that the country was the granary of the East with a self-sufficient history and that the nation ate rice for all three meals were promoted to encourage this tendency. Although it is commonly believed that the people traditionally ate rice for all three meals, existing evidence indicates that the food culture was diverse; people consumed a wide variety of grains, in addition to various yams and porridges and congees. This dynamic could be identified in the traditional farming of the country too. Yet with the introduction of modified seed varieties and chemical fertilizer, single crops gained prominence over diversity of crops. The main objective of agriculture since then was to make the country self-sufficient in rice. Today, 34% of the agricultural lands in the country (including lands used for export crops such as tea) are used for paddy cultivation. About 560,000 hectares of paddy are cultivated in a single Maha season and about 1.8 million families are engaged in the cultivation. Consumption of rice has escalated and diverse meals of porridges, yams and other grains have been replaced by rice. About 45% of the calorie requirement of the population is met with rice. The extent of the growth is visible in the fact that the country imported the bulk of rice requirement in the 1960s but now locally produces about 95% of its requirement. Seed varieties that were modified for decades and the chemical fertilizer subsidy that was annually increasing contributed to this. A transformation in food consumption patterns and the extinction of hundreds of local varieties of rice and grains also took place.

Agricultural production for whom?

Production of vegetables and fruits underwent a similar transformation. Vegetable and fruit seeds that gave high yields in a shorter time span were introduced, and the local varieties of vegetables and fruits gradually disappeared. This led the farmer to become dependent on the seed producing and distributing companies instead of self-production of seeds. The farmer had to rely on the same companies for the pesticides and chemical fertilizers in order to gain a greater yield. Pest control methods used for traditional seeds were ineffective for the new seeds. The seed, fertilizer and pesticide were all decided according to the recommendations of the big corporations. Concurrently, all governments discouraged the traditional production of seeds. There was once an attempt to make it illegal to have such seeds in position, trying to introduce legislation making it an offence for which a person could be arrested without a warrant. At the point of purchasing seeds from the agents of the corporations, the farmers have to enter into an agreement on chemical fertilizer and pesticides for the whole farming season (usually under the terms that the settlements will be met at the point of selling the harvest). As a result they use the fertilizer and pesticides obtained as per the agreement, irrespective of whether they are necessary. This leads to substantial indebtedness among farmers. Upon selling their harvest, they spend the bulk of the income on settling borrowings. Farmers are constantly unable to earn their expected income due to changing weather conditions, damage done to the harvest by the wild animals and not receiving a fair price for the harvest. Farmers who are indebted to agreements are unable to purchase seeds on credit for the next farming season. Although yields increase, the farmers are in a vicious cycle of indebtedness due to the dependency on the debt plan of corporations (among other reasons). The vicious circle of poverty is continues among peasant farmers and governments have to increase the spending on fertilizer subsidy annually, without which the farmers cannot be retained in agriculture.

While food production increased with the green revolution, a considerable amount of food waste was seen annually. About 40-60% of vegetable and fruit production perishes before reaching the consumer due to issues in transportation and packaging and lack of food preservation methods and facilities. The question arises whether an enormous expenditure and production would be necessary for the waste to be minimized using proper methods and whether the surplus generated could be exported. Agriculture seems to exist for the maintenance of a market for agricultural corporations that produce seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. We cultivate the limited varieties of modified seeds they have introduced using their chemical fertilizer and pesticides and allow the bulk of that production to be wasted. With the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizer, toxic chemicals are released in large quantities to soil and the water sources and the micro-organisms required for traditional farming are destroyed in the process. It has also caused severe threats to public health, including kidney disease.

Is banning chemical fertilizer sufficient in itself?

The current ban on the importation of chemical fertilizer emerges in this context. It disregards the other changes that have taken place in agriculture and is simply trying to eliminate chemical fertilizer. The farmer who does not produce seeds anymore is reliant on the seeds produced by the agricultural corporations and cannot gain a considerable harvest without using the corporations’ chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Efforts to create programmes to impart the farmer with the knowledge and facilities to produce their own seeds are lacking. There are no signs of a readiness to end the seed monopoly of big corporations. The richness of the soil that existed before the use of chemical fertilizer cannot be expected again, as single crop farming had been conducted for decades and microorganisms that enrich the soil with nitrogen and phosphorus have died. We continue to farm single crops instead of cultivating multi- crops that add diverse nutrients to the soil. If we are to succeed in farming without chemical fertilizers, we need to gradually introduce these organisms back to our farmlands. It is a time consuming effort. Organized processes to implement such efforts are needed such as cultivating plants belong to legume family that releases nutrients to the soil and adding cattle urine through animal husbandry. Most of the farmers lack proper knowledge about these methods and the agricultural field officers also have not been properly trained about them. Microorganisms of the soil cannot be preserved using large scale machinery and the farming would need to depend on human labour more in order to sustain them. However, it is difficult today to sustain the minimum labour required for agriculture even with the use of heavy machines. The continued inability of peasant colonization schemes and laws governing state land grants to realize the valuable role played by female farmers in agriculture worsens this labour issue. Farmers will have to move into collective labour to fulfil the labour needs if they have to survive with chemical free labour intensive agriculture. But such mechanisms are not being promoted. The nature of the farmlands also needs to be considered if we contemplate about multi-crop farming. In addition, farmers need to be made aware on the techniques that help them to utilize the farmlands in the maximum productivity.

This process would require many years, perhaps a decade. A reduction in the yields has to be expected in the process. Harvest waste in transportation needs to be addressed in order to face this situation. Formalizing the distribution is necessary by improving packaging and freezer facilities, introducing preservative technologies and minimizing waste. A movement to promote a qualitative change in the food consumption patterns of the country is needed. The country would have to face either a severe food crisis or a massive importation of food in the absence of the above efforts. These attempts would not be successful while maintaining the network of middlemen who are earning enormous profits between the farmer and the consumer as the bulk of the cost the consumer bears for the production are going into the pockets of the middlemen, rather than to the farmers. If the farming becomes too unprofitable, the farmers may leave agriculture and farmlands will be barren. However, the current approach seems to be merely about abandoning chemical fertilizers, rather than using a multipronged approach. A hasty approach would further push the farmer and agriculture in the country to a worse condition and will seriously challenge the food security of the country.

Are we ready for a transformation?

The government’s approach to agriculture depicts a continuation of the approach that was followed for the last 50-60 years instead of a preparation for a massive transformation. Thousands of acres of land are given to big companies to cultivate export-oriented crops that use a lot of fertilizer and pesticides, thus enabling such corporations to generate profits. This enables the corporations of the countries in which global capital is centralized to utilize the land and cheap labour and supply their industrial agriculture to the global market. These corporations continue to cultivate hundreds of thousands of acres of land and we get to hear about attempts to further identify such land and remove legal barriers inhibiting the process. Large scale deforestation for industrial agriculture has led to wild animals, including elephants, to wander into villages and damaging farmers’ cultivations. If farmers in the country leave agriculture, they would have to become wage labourers of industrial agricultural projects of big companies. The farmlands they abandon might be allocated to large scale agro industries of these companies.

Interventions without proper planning are a characteristic of the agricultural policy since the post-independence era in the country. Wellawaya is a classic example where the peasant colonization scheme in the 1950s settled families in state forest areas to make the country self-sufficient in rice by assigning five acres to each family. Yet it was not accompanied by a proper irrigation plan and cultivating even one season became difficult due to continuous draughts. Later, coconut cultivation was promoted on this land as coconut was the third export crop at that time. But later thousands of acres of land were given to a multinational company to grow sugarcane, abandoning all former plans. Recently the Veheragala reservoir was built in the area, solving the water crisis and facilitating paddy cultivation. But day by day more and more lands are being given to large scale agro projects of big companies. Farmers have become wage labourers of these agro projects. A serious human-elephant conflict between villagers and wild elephants has been created because animals are being displaced from their homelands due clearing of vast forest lands for large scale enclave type agro projects. The farmer continues to be mired in poverty.

If the ban on chemical fertilizer is not accompanied with a transformative approach the result will not be much different to what has happened in Wellawaya. It is misleading to think that a mere ban of chemical fertilizer alone could lead to healthy agricultural practices and guarantee food security. It may be an approach to avoid spending on the agricultural subsidy during an economic crisis. Those interested in ecological agriculture have initiated a broad discussion despite this fact, trying to convert the opportunity into a productive direction. Decisive initiatives in this regard need to come from the state. But the state’s approach does not seem to be multi-pronged to include disrupting the monopoly of the big corporations, guaranteeing the seed ownership of farmers, preventing the excessive exploitation of the middlemen, promoting alternative consumption patterns in lieu of excessive consumption patterns, broadening infrastructure and knowledge, reducing agricultural production waste and popularizing food preservation. If the state’s ban on chemical fertilizer fails, with it will kill hopes for food security, healthy food, possibility of alleviating poverty among farmers and a sustained ecosystem.