Photo courtesy of The Island

These are my views about the ban on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which now appears to have been overturned in a haphazard manner. The ban is being applied to different sections of agricultural producers so that those who are not so favoured are wondering how the principles of enforcing organic agriculture production have suddenly been thrown out and replaced by special status for some producers and not others.

For example Dole Foods, which grows cavendish bananas for export and a limited supply for local consumption, is allowed to directly import fertilizer and other inputs. The tea industry has been given preferred status for the import of fertilizer to save its crop. Nano nitrogen has been imported for paddy and vegetable farmers but they are supplements to existing fertilizer and notreplacements for chemical fertilizer. This has caused anxiety among farmers who are about to prepare their fields for the Maha season.

The average farmer, not large commercial farms who are getting special treatment, is left high and dry, having to fend for themselves in whatever way possible. There are many farmers who had the foresight to purchase chemical fertilizer and pesticides in advance, sometimes at black market rates, and are storing them for use in the new season. Others have to make do with whatever is available or leave their fields fallow for fear of reduced harvests and revenue being less than the cost of production.

This double standard, and complete about face from the initial contention of a nation that is 100% organic, has perplexed many people. Some say the goal is to drive farmers off their land so that the land can be taken over by the larger organizations to cultivate using chemical fertilizer, improving productivity and overall output.

The last government’s attempt to change the laws to allow farmers to consolidate their holdings in order to make food production more efficient and cost effective has been done away with by this government. A farmer deals with considerable uncertainty as it is and to pile on more, especially the non-availability of inputs due to blanket bans, is throwing them under the proverbial bus.

The ban has got us thinking about how to improve harvests by fertilizer production on the land. The inputs are not always available. I have set up systems of producing fertilizer on the property to help me with my crops. Farmers don’t sit idly bybecause we have faced numerous challenges before; a new one is climate change, which also affects harvests.

We use our knowledge to enhance productivity. There is little assistance from the Agriculture Department officials who are supposed to help and this is why most farmers rely on staff at shops selling chemical fertilizer and pesticides for advice that can be biased towards using their stock.

While banning the use of chemicals, there is little education on alternative organic means of production. Education of farmers should have preceded the ban instead of accusing farmers of overusing chemical fertilizer; it is the lack of training and education that has resulted in this overuse. There should be more publicity about methods to reduce dependence on chemicals and wean farmers away gradually.

This whole issue is a dynamic one, with various changes taking place on a daily basis. The Registrar of Pesticides will no longerdecide what to import. Instead the secretaries to the ministries of Agriculture, Tourism and Plantations will do the approvals of what to import and what not to and by how much.

That is a recipe for disaster because these bureaucrats have no knowledge of the potency of what is imported since they lack the science to check items for quality. We could in fact be importing far more dangerous chemicals than before due to this lack of experience and history of product testing.

The reason given is that the Registrar of Pesticides granted over 80 chemical pesticide companies the right to import any amountof pesticide but this is not a reason to get rid of the approval process from the experts. What should have been done are consultations to limit the quantities permitted for safe usage.

Now the organic story has turned full circle; the argument is not about going organic but about how effective certain forms of agriculture are to achieve the outcomes of the government, and the apparent sacrifice of the small farmer.

Some crops don’t require chemical fertilizer due to the way they are grown. Others require considerable quantities. If hybrid seeds are used, they can be grown with a suitable mix, minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers. High yield varieties of rice have been developed for chemical fertilizer. Traditional varieties have low yield but require small quantities on the plate. However, the consumer has to educated to eat less.

Education of farmers is the key to growing crops with minimal harmful inputs. One such method is the greenhouse, where due to its closed growing and sterilized potting, pesticides are not needed. However fertilizer manufactured for this purpose to be added to drip irrigation is not necessarily organic but is not harmful for human consumption. However, this is also part of the blanket ban.

The cost of production is the elephant in the room. The country has a severe shortage of agricultural workers. With the ban in use of weed killers to get rid of overgrown grass, there are no grass cutters to cut overgrown fields. Labor costs are rising by the day. In Polonnaruwa, male agriculture workers require Rs. 2,000 as a daily wage, so the crop is either not grown or the farmer allows the crop to die in the fields. A case in point is the recent encouragement to grow green gram. Once the pods were ripe for plucking, the cost of plucking was higher than the revenue, forcing farmers to allow the pods to rot in the fields.