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Banning fertilizer imports



By Dr. C. S. Weeraratna

According to recent news, import of fertilizers is going to be banned. The President at a recent meeting highlighted the importance of shifting towards organic fertilizers by gradually decreasing the usage of chemical/inorganic fertilizers. According to the National Fertilizer Secretariat, in 2020, we imported around 580,000 MT of inorganic fertilizers costing Rs. 36 billion. Of this amount around 50% is used for paddy and the balance for planation crops and field crops.

In 2019 around Rs 300 billion worth of food has been imported. Among the imported food are green gram, red onions, big onions, maize, etc., which can be locally produced. If we are to reduce our expenditure on food imports it is essential that the local food production is increased. For effectively addressing this issue several inputs are important. Among these are good quality seeds/planting material, and use of appropriate technology. In this regard judicious use of fertilizers is important. .

There are two types of fertilizers. Inorganic fertilizers (IF) such as ammonium sulphate, urea, Triple Super Phosphate and muriate of potash which supply nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium respectively and are called macronutrients. Plants need them to grow and produce. Several research studies conducted in Sri Lanka and elsewhere indicate that the application of IF tends to increase growth and yields of crops.

Organic fertilizers such as compost, animal residues contain very small amounts of macronutrients, but some essential plant nutrients such as iron, manganese, copper, etc, called micronutrients which are not present in inorganic fertilizers.

Effects of banning fertilizers

Except for Eppawela Apatite Inorganic fertilizers are not manufactured locally. If the import of IF is going to be banned, and organic fertilizers (OF) used instead, it is likely that yields of all crops will decrease. As indicated research studies conducted in Sri Lanka and elsewhere indicate that application of IF tend to increase growth and yields of crops. Currently, the average paddy production in Sri Lanka is about 4 t/ha and this is likely to be reduced if inorganic fertilizers are not applied. The same will apply to other crops including tea as well which has a positive effect on the economy of the country. Already paddy farmers in some areas are complaining that basal fertilizers are not available for the Yala crop. If IFs are not available, llocal crop production will decrease causing food imports such as rice, pulses, etc.,to increase and reducing exports of plantation crops exacerbating the present economic and social problems. Thus, the final effect of banning fertilizer imports will be on the economy of the country which is already in a dire status.

If the imports of these IFs is going to be banned it is essential that alternatives are available as plants need nutrients to grow and produce. Organic fertilizers such as compost which is considered to be an alternative does not supply these macronutrients in adequate amounts unless large quantities of OFs are used. For example, to supply nitrogen in 100 kg of urea (urea has 46% N) a farmer has to apply around 2 tons of compost (only 2% N). OF are not alternatives to IF but supplementary.

Based on Central Bank reports, in 2019, expenditure on food and beverages is around Rs 300 Billion. The expenditure in 2021 on food imports is likely to be even more due to the depreciation of SL rupee. Banning IF will reduce our expenditure on imports by app. Rs. 36 billion but at the same time it will reduce local food production and increase our annual expenditure on food imports which at present is around Rs. 300 billion. It will also have an adverse impact on food security.


If import of Inorganic fertilizers is to be banned, it is necessary to resort to alternative methods of supplying nutrients required by plants. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) if used will tend to reduce our N fertilizer imports to some extent. BNF is a process carried out by various groups of microorganisms. Studies on BNF have been conducted in Sri Lanka for almost three decades by scientists such as Prof. S. A. Kulasuriya. Results of these studies show that nitrogen-fixation by organisms such as azolla, blue-green algae and rhizobia can be used to supplement inorganic nitrogen fertilizers. BNF is used profitably by farmers in many other countries such as India, China, Vietnam etc. It is necessary to implement an integrated plan to promote the use of Biological Nitrogen Fixation in crop production.

Organic fertilizers can be used to supplement IF as OF supply micronutrients which are not present in inorganic fertilizers. OF production units, in each village, would maximise utilization of resources and provide employment on a large scale. Any type of organic material is not suitable to be applied to crops. For example, those made from city wastes may contain toxic elements such as heavy metals. OF can be used in intensive agricultural systems but in crops such as paddy, and planation crops which are cultivated extensively, compost is not effective enough to supply plant nutrients required by plants.

Application of inorganic fertilizers with organic fertilizers would give higher yields. Hence, it is necessary to implement a concerted plan to promote application of organic fertilizers. It is extremely important that the advantages and disadvantages of banning inorganic fertilizers need to be carefully considered by relevant authorities before deciding to ban these fertilizers.

Issues associated with IF

It has been reported that some farmers, apply phosphatic and potasic fertilizers more than what is required. Hence it would be desirable if the amounts of fertilizers to be applied are based on soil tests. There is a need for improving on-farm nutrient management using an integrated nutrient management approach, combining inorganic and organic fertilizers. In most of the annual cropping systems managed with IF, the application of organic fertilizer as a supplement is essential. Insufficient organic matter levels in soils would lead to leaching of the inorganic fertilizers added to soil. Around 40% of N in urea applied to soil tends to get lost due to volatilization and leaching. The total benefits of inorganic fertilizers can be realized only by having adequate organic matter levels in the soils by applying OF.

Although highly debated, some are of the opinion that fertilizers is one of the cause of increased incidents of chronic kidney disease with unknown aetiology (CKDU) in the country. An international expert consultation on CKDu was held in Colombo in April 2016. It was organized by the Presidential Task Force for Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease and the Sri Lanka country office of the World Health Organization (WHO). The consultation concluded that there was no conclusive evidence to indicate that there was any relationship between CKDU and fertilizers.

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An appeal to President



This is to request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow burial of COVID -19 infected corpses of Muslims in the burial ground close to the residence of the diseased instead of sending them to Otamaavadi. It goes without saying that all Health protocols and regulations will have to be stringently adhered to for the burial at the existing burial grounds.

I hope that this request will be granted as the experts in Virology have confirmed that there is no ground water contamination with the burial of those dying of Covid-19.

This will reduce considerably logistic issues and cost to both the State and the family members of the deceased and at the same time expedite burial.

Mohamed Zahran


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Talk Shows



COVID-19 has opened up the doors for an umpteen number of “talk shows”: of various types, conveying different TV messages to our people on how to cope with the many daily problems faced by them, including the now prevailing pandemic.

At a time the public are very effectively advised by the relevant health authorities delegated with that task, and highly competent to educate the masses how to cope with this pandemic, what purpose these “shows” give our people hungry for news is left for anyone to guess.

Recently. I happened to watch two such talk shows telecast one after the other, where the same person was interviewed by two different interviewers on the same subject, as if competing with each other. More amusing was the pose shown to the camera by one of the interviewers at the end of the show, as if asking the viewers “how do you like my ‘show’?

These Talk Shows, similar to the virus, seem to be able to develop variants with time to cover other fields, too, such as economy, Port City, reforestation and lesser known local small industry entrepreneurs, diplomats and academics; and how to make Colombo a green city by a programme to plant thousands of trees to get off the ground immediately. Everyone knows that what is being planted are not trees but young plants, only a few weeks old, and no one knows when they will ever grow into a tree as imagined, if they survive the test of time and we are lucky to live till then. But repeating these shows as happening at the moment is a waste of time.

What I appreciated most in one special case was the liberal use of highly scientific jargon, even if the person to my imagination never studied science and more so the use of good English that was encouraging. But what worried me most was if someone else asked why these programmes are not conducted in Tamil?

Finally, the Telecom beats them all, where every call taken precedes a lengthy message on prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes repeated twice. It all ends with the message only. But not the call.



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Protecting Sri Lanka’s maritime rights



Your editorial, Poaching: Grasp the nettle (The Island of 09 June), provides a good analysis of the issue concerning the poaching of fishery resources in Sri Lanka waters, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.

The maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India was settled by two agreements entered into by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. Accordingly, fishing vessels and fishers of the two countries were debarred from fishing in the waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of each other.

Subsequently, the Maritimes Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 was enacted with provisions for the President to declare the limits of the agreed maritime boundary between the two countries, and different maritime zones of Sri Lanka, such as the historic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, pollution prevention zone and the continental shelf. This law prohibits unauthorised fishing in any of the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by any foreign vessel. The President did declare the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by a proclamation published in the Gazette 248/1 of 15-01-1977. Since then unauthorized fishing by Indian vessels on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became illegal.

However, part of the agreement relating to fishing has never been honoured by India, whose fishers continued to fish on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay, and on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar, which jointly form the historic waters of Sri Lanka. According to the Presidential Proclamation, waters on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while those on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea (provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 relating to internal waters and territorial sea do not contradict such declarations provided they are made on the provisions of the customary international law). On the other hand, although prior to signing of the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1976, Sri Lankan fishing vessels were fishing in the Wadge Bank, which fell in the EEZ of India since the Agreement came into effect, no Sri Lankan vessels has been found fishing in that area.

At present, three days a week more than 1,000 Indian trawlers fish on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary in violation of the law relating to fisheries in Sri Lanka. Any Sri Lankan vessel, irrespective of the part of Sri Lanka where it is fishing, should have been registered as a fishing vessel of Sri Lanka and obtained a fishing licence. Further, no such vessel is allowed to engage in mechanised bottom trawling.

There have been many discussions between the two countries since the 1990s to stop this illegal practice by Indian trawlers. Such discussions only end up with agreed minutes, but no solution. Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, No 59 of 1979 provides for a High Court Judge to impose a penalty of a fine of Rs. 1.5 million on any foreign vessels engaged in unauthorised fishing in Sri Lanka waters. However, this provision was never used against any Indian trawler caught in Sri Lanka waters with unauthorised fishing, owing to practical difficulties. Subsequently, in 2017, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 was enacted to impose a two-year jail term or a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 with a view to controlling this problem. Although the Sri Lanka Navy takes into custody Indian trawlers and hands them over with fishers to Fisheries authorities, the moment they get a letter from the Indian High Commission asking for their release, all are released. In this context, sinking unusable buses in the sea in this area appears to be a practical solution to the problem. For that also India has expressed objections. Sri Lanka has sovereign rights to take any decision in regard to its internal waters, and territorial sea (subject to the right of innocent passage of any foreign vessel) and historic waters (these form part of either internal waters or the territorial sea). Therefore, it is not necessary to stop this activity, just because India is objecting.

As regards the claim by India that Sri Lankan vessels also engage in unauthorised fishing in India waters, it should be noted that they are taken into custody rarely in very small numbers; that, too, mostly in the Indian EEZ, while they are returning after fishing in the Arabian sea. Any vessel has the right to navigation in the EEZ of any country. Even when innocent Sri Lankan fishers happen to be caught by the Indian authorities, they are made to suffer in Indian jails.

A few years earlier also, you expressed concern on this issue by an editorial, Saying it with fish, when Sri Lanka released all Indian fishers who were in jail in Sri Lanka pending trials, as a gesture of thanks for India’s vote at the UN in favour of Sri Lanka. Thank you for your concerns.



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