Import Ban on Synthetic Fertilizers –
by Buddhi Marambe,
Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya
The ban on importation of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides was imposed on May 6, 2021 through the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No 2226/48. This was one of the 20 activities approved by the Cabinet of Ministers under the theme “Creating a Green Socio-economy with Sustainable Solutions for Climate Change”. The theme carries a long term noble objective. However, the approach suggested for achieving the objective in the agriculture sector is not at all practical, even to maintain the current levels of crop production and productivity in the country thus, threatening food security.
Use of organic matter as a soil conditioner, and a supplementary nutrient source to a certain extent, have always been encouraged by many and practiced by farmers at different levels with various objectives. Organic farming is a specialty practice with product and process certification. It has a good but niche export market and also a promising foreign exchange earner. It is heartening to see that organic fertilizer production and compost production are taking place at a mass scale in the country, in response to this policy decision. However, even with the novel technologies, organic fertilizer and/or compost alone would not suffice in providing the required nutrition to plants at the correct time and quantities. A high crop productivity could be achieved when appropriate strategies are used to match the patterns of supply of nutrients from fertilizer (organic or mineral) and absorption of nutrients by plants/crops. This aspect has been much deliberated and hence, I will not elaborate on the same further.
We have now learned that the decision to ban import of agrochemicals was made due to speculation that the farmers in many parts of the country suffer from many Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) including kidney disease and also that the serious damages done to the environment with the use of mineral fertilizers. Furthermore, we were also informed that the government spends huge amounts of foreign exchange annually on mineral fertilizer imports, inferring that there is a foreign currency issue that has also set the base for this decision. The author of this article strongly believe that the decision to ban agrochemicals has been taken on misinformation provided to His Excellency the President. Hence, the correct facts regarding the mineral fertilizer and their utilization in Sri Lanka are presented in this article to debunk the unscientific justifications made by some individuals and groups that would probably have led to the policy directive.
Fertilizer Imports and use in Sri Lanka
The Kethata Aruna fertilizer material subsidy programme was introduced in 2005 and dismantled in 2016-2017 replaced by a cash subsidy. The fertilizer material subsidy was re-introduced thereafter since 2018 in different forms. The import of mineral fertilizers is governed by the Regulation of Fertilizer Act No. 68 of 1988. This is under the purview of the National Fertilizer Secretariat (NFS). It must be noted that all quantities of fertilizer imported are decided by the NFS based on the advice and recommendations of the respective state agencies, i.e. Department of Agriculture, Research Institutes responsible for tea, rubber, coconut, sugarcane, etc. The quantities to be imported are decided annually considering the existing extent (for perennial crops) and anticipated extent (e.g. annual food crops) of cultivation, considering the fertilizer recommendations given by state agencies based on crop-nutrient requirements.
For example, according to the NFS, the anticipated paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka in 2021 (both Yala and Maha seasons together) is 1.3 million ha and the required quantity of fertilizer to be imported is 247,000 mt of Urea, 61,000 mt of Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) and 74,000 mt of Muriate of Potash (MOP). As per government regulations, all paddy fertilizer (subsidized fertilizer) can only be imported and distributed through the government-controlled mechanism. Excluding paddy, the anticipated fertilizer import in 2021 to provide required nutrients to other food crops and perennial/plantation crops for an estimated extent of 1.47 million ha amounts to 298,983 mt of Urea, 102,928 mt of TSP and 243,743 mt of MOP. There are other types of fertilizer also imported under the licenses issued by NFS. Further, excluding the subsidized fertilizer for paddy, the NFS issues permits to the private sector to import fertilizer for other crops on an agreed quota system.
It is important to note that no individual or agency in Sri Lanka (government-owned or private sector) can import fertilizer without an import permit issued by the NFS. The import permits are issued based on the actual crop requirements and anticipated cultivated extents. Therefore, it is clear that the quantity of fertilizer imported to Sri Lanka is not done on an ad hoc basis, but on a clear scientific methodology. Farmers should receive fertilizer at quantities decided by the NFS as recommended by the state institutions, and up to what is required by the country – not in excess. When this is done following an accepted procedure, there is no point in arguing that Sri Lanka is importing more “chemical”/synthetic fertilizers than what is required in a given year. However, many policy makers and professionals still blame farmers for overusing fertilizer, which theoretically cannot be true as the fertilizer quantities are imported based on the actual crop requirements as estimated by the state agencies.
If the correct quantities of fertilizer are imported and their distribution is regulated (assuming no illegal entry of fertilizer to the country), the claims for overuse of fertilizer should not have arisen. Further, there should be false alarms ringing to politicians and decision makers that undue quantities of fertilizer has been imported with a huge pressure on foreign exchange drain, and causing severe impacts on the environment. Such false alarms would also have provided a window of opportunity for some to create the “fertilizer demon”.
Once the fertilizer or any other agricultural input is heavily subsidized, their misuse is the most highly likely (mal)practice. In this context, if the state agencies and the NFS have done a fairly accurate estimate for the fertilizer requirement and imports, the best option available would be to remove the fertilizer subsidy (at once or in a phased-out manner) and make “chemical” and organic fertilizers readily available in the market allowing the farmers to take a judicious decision on the fertilizer use on their own. Farmers also need proper training on the judicious use of “chemical” fertilizers with organic matter, i.e. integrated plant nutrient systems (IPNS), and obviously pesticides. Without such well-targeted capacity building, it is not wise to put the blame on the farming community for misusing or overusing agrochemicals and thereby polluting the environment.
Furthermore, some scientists and professionals claim that Sri Lanka uses the highest quantity of fertilizer among those in Asia (or South Asia). The latest FAO statistics available for all countries clearly indicate the low rate of fertilizer use in Sri Lanka (Figure 1), except for few years. Regarding pesticide use, too, Sri Lanka stands at very low rates of application. Hence, the popular notion of heavy use of fertilizers leading to health hazards and environmental pollution is an erroneous conclusion drawn without considering the scientific facts.
Eco-friendly fertilizer use
Organic amendments in agriculture is not an alien practice to our farmers. The IPNS in crop production; i.e. the use of organic matter with “chemical” fertilizers, has been recommended since time immemorial to improve the fertilizer and nutrient use efficiency and to minimize environmental pollution caused by leaching. The Department of Agriculture (DOA) has formally promoted the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to minimize any misuse of agrochemicals, since 2015.The GAP programme has started gaining momentum in 2020. Prior to the current policy directive, the Ministry of Agriculture even had plans to distribute organic fertilizers produced by different private companies to selected paddy growers during 2021 Yala season, together with “chemical” fertilizer. The proportionate allocation of fertilizer for this IPNS was 30% organic fertilizer, and 70% urea, 50% TSP and 70% MOP as per recommendation of the DOA. Similar proportions were also used in the case of bio-fertilizers. This was an excellent initiative. However, the current policy directive will derail this good practice and would create disastrous impacts on crop production.
Fertilizer use (kg per ha of cropland) in developed and developing countries. Data labels are for the year 2018 (Source: FAOSTAT)
Low quality fertilizer imports
The Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) has set up standards for the “chemical” and organic fertilizers to be used in Sri Lanka. The NFS relies on such standards, which are adopted for any fertilizer used in Sri Lanka (imported or locally produced). The sparkling revelation made by the Hon. Minister of Agriculture, which also appeared in the Government Audit Report of 2020 which says that 55 fertilizer analysis reports have been tampered to allow inferior quality fertilizers to be released in Sri Lanka. Release of 12,000 mt of imported TSP in 2020 having heavy metals such as lead (Pb) contents higher than the limit set by SLSI (maximum Pb content allowed in TSP is 30 ppm) was reported in electronic and social media, and also raised at the Parliament causing serious concerns over the mishandling of state affairs by certain officials. Hats off to the Hon. Minister of Agriculture who took stern punitive action against some officials for tampering the analytical reports of the fertilizer samples.
Recently, we also heard that organic fertilizer has been imported without proper approvals. Any plant-based organic fertilizer requires the approval and a permit of the DG of the DOA under the Plant Protection Act No 35 of 1999. We also heard that such imports have been done in the past, which should not have been allowed due to multi-folded negative impacts than what is even speculated against agrochemicals. The efforts made by officers of the DOA and the Sri Lanka Customs, and no signs of political interference in releasing the imported consignment is noteworthy and require special commendations.
All such incidents indicate that the well-articulated fertilizer regulatory process has been breached by some people with vested interests. These are daylight robberies of government (people’s) money and efforts to rape the environment (similar to misuse of any other agricultural inputs). The penalties have been imposed in some cases but it is high time that openings for mal-practices be sealed-off so that even in the future, import of any type of fertilizers is stringently governed.
The case of non-communicable diseases
Agrochemicals are generally considered as the causal factors for many of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially the chronic kidney disease of uncertain etiology (CKDu). Such unproven ideology has been forced into minds of people who are suffering from the disease. Some even dubbed CKDu as ‘Agricultural kidney disease’. This propaganda campaign has brainwashed not only the unfortunate patients, but also the general public and policy makers and thus, creating fear against an important agricultural input.
In those claims, nutrients are probably not targeted as the causal factor for NCDs. For example, both mineral and organic fertilizers provide the essential plant nutrient “Nitrogen” in the form Nitrate (NO3–) or Ammonium (NH4+) ions to be taken up by plants. Further, amino acid supplements providing 13-19% nitrogen can also be taken up by plants directly. The loss of Nitrates in the ecosystems, especially polluting ground water, can be minimized by split application of fertilizer (which is the recommended practice) and with the application of organic matter (manure, fertilizer or composts) as soil amendments. The organic amendments have limited plant nutrient supply (e.g. 1-3.5% N, or rarely up to 6% depending on the source). Lack of soil organic matter (e.g. sandy soils) will create a negative scenario as observed in isolated incidents such as Kalpitiya area. Hence, the popular argument on the impact of fertilizer on human health and environment issues could mainly be focused on the potential contaminants in fertilizers, such as heavy metals.
Nitrogen being the most difficult element to tackle in nature, let me take an example for urea. The maximum limits allowed by the SLS standards for Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd) and Lead (Pb) for urea fertilizer used in Sri Lanka is 0.1, 0.1 and 0.1 ppm, respectively. As for solid organic fertilizers the corresponding values are 3, 1.5 and 30 ppm, respectively (SLS 1704:2021). This indicates the danger that could arise from application of solid organic fertilizer with the objective of providing nitrogen to the crops. Extremely low and stringent heavy metal limits have been adopted for urea as there is hardly any chance for such contamination, but the maximum allowable limits for such elements in solid organic fertilizers are higher owing to higher potential for contamination. If the municipal solid waste is used as the source to produce composts for agricultural land, then the maximum allowable limits for As, Cd and Pb are 5, 3 and 150 ppm (SLS 1634:2019), respectively. This needs no further explanation to prove the fact that organic fertilizer targeting Nitrogen could pollute the environment at a higher level than urea.
The popular talk on “Agrochemicals as a causal factor for rising incidence of cancer in Sri Lanka” has surfaced again. I am not a medical professional to provide details on such. However, as per Figure 1, the amount of fertilizer added per ha of cropland in 2018 in Australia was 86 kg, Bangladesh 318 kg and Sri Lanka 138 kg. But, the statistics presented by GLOBOCAN 2020 revealed that five-year prevalence in cancer as a proportion for 100,000 population in Australia is 3,172, Bangladesh 164, and Sri Lanka 354. I will leave it with the learned readers to draw conclusions.
The “demon” created in people’s mind with respect to use of fertilizer and its impact on NCDs such as CKDu was comprehensively refuted recently by the Chairman of the National Research Council (NRC) of Sri Lanka, appearing in a popular TV discussion. The Chairman/NRC clearly stated that the most recent research completed under the funding from NRC has concluded that not drinking adequate volumes of water and the high fluoride content in ground water as the two major causal factors for the CKDu in Anuradhapura area. He further stated that the disease is not due to heavy metals and that this information has been provided to the Ministry of Health.
Need for evidence-based policy making
National policies need to be set based on evidence. Policies driven by advice from those who want their whims and fancies to be realized at the expense of national budget will result in detrimental and irreversible impact on the national economy. Further, the spread of unproven and non-scientific ideologies across the society have already made complete change in focus of the efforts made to find solutions to major issues in the Sri Lankan society, including finding causal factors for human health related problems such as CKDu. Many intellectuals have alarmed that the import ban on “chemical” fertilizers would lead to food shortages and high food prices. In this context, Sri Lanka is likely to import a major portion of basic food needs such as rice, as experienced by Bhutan in their failed attempt to become the first organic country by 2020, adding a huge burden to the government treasury.
The fear generated on agrochemicals thus, seems to be due to chemophobia (irrational fear of chemicals) of some people, who have unduly fed the same into the authorities. His Excellency and the Cabinet of Ministers should not fall prey to ideologies spread by some people that could have unprecedented negative effects, in making decisions in relation to the country’s economy. It is still not late to revisit the decision to ban the import of agrochemicals. Being misinformed is more dangerous than being not informed.
English in Mathematics
By R.N.A. de Silva
“Which subject did you have most difficulties with, having switched the medium of instruction from Sinhala to English?” I posed this question to a Sri Lankan student who was following a pre-University course in an educational institution in Hong Kong, having completed studies up to the GCE Ordinary Level programme in the Sinhala medium in a leading girls’ school in Colombo. “It is definitely mathematics,” she replied. Having served as a teacher for a long period of time at this educational institution with students from over 80 countries, I realised the above-mentioned view was shared by other students, too, who had to change the medium of instruction to English. This does not seem to make sense as one would have expected mathematics to be the easiest subject to follow as it has its own symbolic language. Why then has this situation arisen?
I would like to separate these difficulties into two categories:
1. Hastiness due to mindset
2. Vocabulary issues
Sometimes hastiness can automatically occur due to the mindset that mathematics should be easy to follow even if you change the medium of instruction as you are dealing with symbols. This attitude can cause enormous problems as students may skip instructions or avoid reading the question fully and concentrate only on the symbolic part of the problem
As an example, consider the following question.
The graphs of lines 3y = 5x + 1 and 2y = 7 – 3x intersect at point P. Find the coordinates of P.
Seeing the word ‘graphs’ and the two equations, a student maybe tempted to draw the graphs of the two lines and thereby find the point of intersection, which is a time-consuming affair. If it was read properly, the student could have noticed that the solution can be obtained by solving the two equations algebraically, which is much more efficient.
To a fast reader, obtaining the correct answer to the following question can be a problem as it may end up with just finding the value of x.
If 2x+3 = 5x-3, find the value of 2x+3.
The students need to be trained to read the question fully and understand what is required to be done, before attempting it.
The time spent to grasp the aim of the question is not wasted time.
Many children consider mathematics as an alien language consisting of symbols and expressions. Most of the difficulties that students encounter is related to vocabulary. The mathematical interpretation of the meaning of a word may differ from the meaning given to it in the English language. The word ‘find’ in mathematics means to obtain an answer showing the working while in the English language, it refers to discover or search. The following sketch shows the funny side of this difference.
Two of the words that has caused much confusion are ‘or’ and ‘and’.
In general usage, A or B is considered as either A or B but not both, as shown in picture.
However, in mathematics ‘A or B’ means ‘it can belong to A or B including intersection’. This is shown in picture.
The above, in normal usage is interpreted as ‘A and B’. However, in mathematics A and B refers to only what is common to A and B as shown in picture.
Here are the mathematical meanings of some of the other words which can have a different meaning with the English language definitions.
– Obtain the only possible answer
– Mark the position of points on a diagram
– Obtain the answer (Working need not be shown)
– A number that does not change
– Having the same shape but not the same size
– To show a result using known information
– A procedure such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.
– A member of a set
– The extent of space occupied by a solid
The following illustrate some of the difficulties that the difference of meanings brings:
How odd these odd numbers are? The even numbers are even stranger.
Don’t be mean and help me to find the mean of these numbers.
Is right angle the right answer? Let me write it on the board.
The polysemous nature of some of the mathematical terms make it confusing for the students in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Mathematical terms have precise definitions to describe numerical relationships. At times these definitions resemble the everyday usage meaning but there are instances where the definitions notably differ. Consider ‘in general’ as an example. In mathematics there can be no exceptions to a result if it is considered to hold in general. However, in everyday usage, if a claim is said to be true in general, it would mean that it is true most of the time, but exceptions are possible.
To add to the problem, there are some terms such as ‘degree’ that can have many different meanings within mathematics while having a different meaning in everyday use. In mathematics, degree can refer to the measurement of an angle, the complexity of an algebraic equation and a unit of temperature.
Although mathematics deals essentially with symbols, it is taught through the medium of language which is the major means of communication. Students build understanding as they process ideas through language. It is important for students to give emphasis to the familiarisation with the mathematical vocabulary and at the same time understand the difference of meanings of terms mathematically and everyday usage. Teachers have an important role to play here in highlighting such terms and using them in different contexts for comfortable acclimatization. As Marcus Quintilianus quoted, “One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”
(The author is a senior mathematics examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organization and a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo.)
Success with debut single
Fred-James Koch: Lots of airplay for ‘I’m Runnin’
Fred-James Koch seems to be more in the news, these days, than his illustrious father, Alston Koch.
The turning point in Fred-James career is, undoubtedly, the Hollywood film ‘Night Walk.’
His role in the film is two-fold – actor and singer.
It’s, in fact, his singing of the theme song, ‘I’m Runnin,’ that has generated quite a lot of excitement, among music lovers.
The song is now being heard, world-wide, over radio (in Sri Lanka, on Sun FM), while the video, too, has been seen by many, on social media.
An Australian magazine, ‘Music Injection,’ had this to say about Fred- James:
“Fred- James Koch has written an incredible theme song for the movie ‘Night Walk,’ called ‘I’m Runnin.’ Just released, this song is engaging and gives us a sense of urgency, as the song builds. Fred-James vocals have a unique tinge to them and with the video having scenes from ‘Night Walk,’ it encourages me to watch the movie. ‘I’m Runnin’ features AZ Sheriff.” – Jen.
Following the debut spin for ‘I’m Runnin,’ on The Music Director programme, on 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne, the track was also played on the All New Saturday Ausmosis programme.
And, guess what! It’s now No. 3 on the Australian Top 20 Download chart. and No. 2 on the Australian Top 20 Stream chart.
Inklings of change in national reconciliation policy
By Jehan Perera
The government comfortably overcame a vote of no-confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel. Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no-confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost. Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences. The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together. The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together.
An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war. The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies. They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed. It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the President’s current term in 2024.
On his part, the President has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong. The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives. In his early period in office, the President has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments. It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do. But the President evidently trusts them and they are his support base. Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party. Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making.
However, there is a need to challenge the excesses. The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts, including the Supreme Court, to have deliberately killed children and (adults, eight in all), outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most. However, the President is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance. Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities. The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to accredit other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression. The military hierarchy who will head the KDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.
The KDU law needs to be opposed as indeed the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has urged along with opposition political parties. At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives. For instance, they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process. There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority. The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community. This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government.
However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka, emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation. All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece. Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold. The first is the increased visibility of the US Embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties. The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US Embassy delegation, led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.
The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation, emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz. This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence. The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK. This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights.
The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section in which it mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.” This is the first official indication that the Government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze is own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international assistance. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.
Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree, who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation. He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now. If the President is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broad base his support at multiple levels. He will not only need the support of the ruling party, led by his brothers, as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties. This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from past and chart a reconciliatory course of action.
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