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Concerns on import ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides

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The Green Socio-Economic Model for Development:

Letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA) is the professional body representing the agricultural economists of Sri Lanka. Our membership endorses the government’s decision to adopt a Green Socio-Economic Model for development, as we firmly believe that such a strategy is vital for conserving the environment and improving human health. We agree that green approaches in crop cultivation contribute significantly towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, SAEA is of the view that most of the current farming systems in Sri Lanka are unsustainable. Hence, the conversion of them into organic farming systems, in the long run, would help promote health of the people and nurture integrity of the nation’s environment. It is well known that many countries currently take systematic and pragmatic approaches to achieve this long-term objective by first setting targets, standards, and subsequently, investing and promoting farmers to adopt best practices. Therefore, we would like to extend our appreciation to the government for taking such a valuable decision to adopt the green socioeconomic model in Sri Lanka. 

SAEA also would like to bring to your attention some concerns on the appropriateness of the newly introduced regulation, to restrict forthwith the importation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by the Gazette Extraordinary No 2226/48 of May 6, 2021, to achieve the above-mentioned broader development goal.

The SAEA predicts massive economic losses due to potential yield losses, in the absence of proper substitutes for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, with the implementation of the import ban on fertilisers and pesticides. The immediate adverse impacts on food security, farm incomes, foreign exchange earnings and rural poverty can be detrimental to achieving the cherished long term goals. The SAEA’s primary concerns, and the less costly policy alternatives proposed by its members in place of the newly introduced import ban, are given below for your kind perusal and consideration.

A. Appropriateness of using an Import Restriction on Agrochemicals to promote organic farming

The SAEA is of the view that the policy instrument identified by the government to promote organic farming is less appropriate due to potential economic losses and its incompatibility with other policy goals of the government. 

1. Economic cost to the society

When converting from conventional agriculture into organic farming, the government should weigh the technological, environmental, and economic costs and benefits. The preliminary findings of the studies conducted by the SAEA on potential economic losses of the import ban and respective estimations are given below for your consideration. 

(a) Agronomic studies reveal that the average yields from paddy can drop by 25% if chemical fertilisers are fully replaced by organic fertilisers. This loss in productivity could reduce the profitability of paddy farming by 33%, and rice consumption by 27%, if paddy is cultivated just with organic fertilisers with a complete ban on rice imports. In contrast, applying organic fertilizer with the recommended dosages of chemical fertilisers would improve the profitability of farming by 16%. 

(b) Absence of chemical fertiliser would drastically reduce the productivity of the Vegetatively Propagated Tea (VPT). With a 35% pro ductivity drop, the export volume of tea would go down from 279 to 181 million kg, causing an income loss of LKR 84 billion. The estate sector will likely incur significant losses compared to those of tea smallholders. These losses could further be aggravated due to increased cost of labour to apply bulky organic fertilisers. 

(c) The coconut yields would go down by 30% if chemical fertilisers and pesticides are not applied. This situation will adversely impact fresh coconuts availability for the production of coconut oil, desiccated coconut and other coconut products. The loss in foreign exchange earnings can be as high as LKR 18 billion, based on the assumption that only 26% of the total coconut extent is fertilized. When the additional cost for the importation of edible oils is considered, the loss of foreign exchange earnings will be even higher.

(d) The above results were derived considering the immediate effects on three agricultural sub-sectors. An analysis performed accommodating adjustments in the economy over the medium to long run reveals that a reduction in average agricultural productivity by 20% could cause a decrease in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 3.05%, suggesting an overall contraction of the economy with the implementation of the import ban. 

2. Compatibility with other development policies 

The proposed policy instrument is not compatible with the policy objectives stated in ‘Vistas for Prosperity and Splendor’. Given below are a few policy incompatibilities highlighted by the members of SAEA (Relevant statement from Vistas for Prosperity and Splendor shown in parenthesis). 

(a) Modernisation of agriculture (International export business through various value-added products backed up by new technologies): The SAEA would like to propose that the government considers Sustainable Intensification of farming systems to feed the growing population with rising incomes, seeking safe and nutritious food which are produced in environmentally sustainable farming systems, rather than converting all systems to fully organic agriculture, as its policy objective. 

(b) Food self-sufficiency drive (Make the country self-sufficient in the relevant products): Estimates reported in section A (a) indicate that a food deficit would be created in the country owing to yield losses. However, the current government policy on food self-sufficiency would not allow the policymakers to fill this deficit through imports. Such a situation could give rise to food price inflation, unrest, and starvation. 

(c) Freedom (People-Centric Economic Development): The chosen policy instrument does not provide flexibility to farmers to determine their least-cost food production methods, without harming the environment. This situation would violate the ‘people’s freedom’ policy of the government. 

(d) Rural-urban migration (Linking the village development together with the regional development): Contraction of the rural economy due to reduced farm profitability will lead to increased migration from rural to urban areas. With limited capacity of the manufacturing sector to absorb migrants, this will result in urban congestion.

(e) Commitments with the WTO and other international relations (Friendly, Non-aligned, Foreign Policy): The policy instrument chosen is not compatible with commitments to the WTO. 

B. Alternative Policy Instruments for making Food Systems more Environmentally Sustainable  

In light of the above observations, members of SAEA suggest the government use more cost-effective instruments to achieve the stated health and environmental outcomes, in place of the newly introduced import regulation. They note that globally, the approach to environmental protection has been evolving from a regulation-driven approach to a more proactive approach, involving voluntary and market-led initiatives. Accordingly, we wish to propose the following three-point policy package. 

 

1. Incentivize organic cultivation using safe and environmentally friendly organic fertilizers and pesticides: 

1. Open up pathways towards encouraging organic fertiliser production, storage, distribution, etc., and promote Public-Private Partnership (PPP) models to achieve those. 

2. Develop national standards for organic fertilisers and pesticides to ensure non-importation of substandard products to the country, and domestic production meeting specified quality standards. 

3. Improve awareness of various organic farming technologies among farmers through a strengthened extension system. 

4. Institutionalize and make Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) a mandatory national standard. 

2. Dis-incentivize use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in an environmentally harmful manner: 

1. Revisit national standards for chemical fertilisers and pesticides to ensure non-importation of sub-standard products to the country. 

2. Impose environmental taxes on selected inorganic fertilisers and pesticides. 

3. Reduce and eventually eliminate the subsidy on chemical fertilizers. In phasing out the fertilizer subsidy, we wish to recommend the following steps.

I. Prioritize subsidies according to characteristics such as fertilizer type, agro-ecological region, season, and crop. 

II. For the targeted farmers, establish a voucher system that restricts farmers’ access to a lifeline amount [such as two bags] and require them to purchase the balance at market prices for a limited period. 

III. When the subsidy is lowered, introduce an output price support program to support the farm producers partially. 

4. Provide and support farmers to adopt site-specific fertilizer recommendations and integrated pesticide recommendations. 

5. Reduce and eventually eliminate protection provided to crops that are highly fertilizer intensive and erosive. 

6. Strengthen existing measures to improve awareness of the safe use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

3. Cross-cutting proposals to safeguard the poor and vulnerable and improve the policy process: 

1. Maintain a safety net for the poor recognizing the possible increase in food prices. 

2. Identify a harmonized financing mechanism. For example, finances of saved fertilizer subsidy and environmental taxes can be used to subsidize organic fertilizer production and application. 

3. In formulating the strategic roadmap, adopt a consultative process involving all stakeholders (policymakers, politicians, agriculturalists, environmentalists, and the private sector) and also consider economy-wide impacts (macro, meso, and micro) and externalities.

Considering the economic loss, policy inconsistency, and counterproductive effects created by the regulation in the manner introduced, and the availability of relatively superior alternative measures, the SAEA humbly requests you to substitute the import ban on chemical fertilizers and pesticides with the set of alternative measures proposed above. We assure SAEA’s professional support to establish a green-economic model for the agriculture sector of Sri Lanka. 

 

Dr. SAMPATH DHARMADASA, President/SAEA 

Dr. SHASHIKA RATHNAYAKA, Secretary/SAEA 



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