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‘Government temporarily takes one step forward after many backward steps on agriculture’



By Dr. Hemakumara Nanayakkara

Ever since April 2021, Sri Lanka’s agriculture and plantation sectors have been beset by needless difficulties as a result of an announcement, seemingly made on a whim, that Sri Lanka would switch to completely organic agriculture – effective immediately.

In doing so, the Government has jarringly halted all progress on efforts to develop these critical sectors, pushing the entire nation back many steps in the decision to ban import and use of all agro-chemicals and inorganic fertilizer.

A conflict of intentions and egos

By issuing such an extreme proclamation without a shred of scientific analysis into how these concepts could be practically implemented in Sri Lanka, they have done more harm than good to the expansion of true organic agriculture.

This is unfortunate because, as a concept, organic agriculture has many benefits. However, unlike what has been portrayed, it is not simply a matter of reverting to ‘ancient practices’. There is a deep and complex science to organic cultivation.

None of these complexities were understood or considered when the imprudent decision to ban all inorganic inputs was first announced. The assumption that ‘organic’ is just adding compost to soil has been the detriment of the directive. Hence, it was decided that imported chemical inputs were not necessary, not because organic agriculture is practical, but because imports require the Government to spend more of the nation’s now dwindling foreign reserves.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

In the months that have followed, everyone from academics to industry experts and farmers on the ground have been venting their frustration at the total breakdown of their regular cultivation practices as a result of this dangerously unscientific approach to agricultural reform.

After much condemnation, it was finally announced at the start of August that the Government was reverting their position. While not admitting it and maintaining that the ban is still in effect, probably to save face, the fact that they are relenting on import of chelated minerals, fertilizer mixes and micro-nutrients for specialist applications including for hydroponic cultivation and floriculture”, even if temporary, is a slight relief.

It may be assumed that technicalities of what these terms mean may be enough to dissuade the public from asking too many questions. But anyone with passing knowledge of agriculture would understand that chelated minerals and fertilizer mixes contain the exact same inorganic inputs which the Government is overtly claiming to ban – namely: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). These are the elements which are essential to plant nutrition and growth.

Prior to the invention of techniques to produce synthetic fertilizer in the early 1900s, guano – the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats was the only known reliable source of fertilizer with NPK suitable for commercial agriculture at that time. This pressing demand for fertilizer led to many predictions of mass starvation, and it would have come to pass were it not for the invention of the Haber-Bosch technique for the manufacture of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizer.

While it is possible to obtain Phosphorus locally, and organic Potassium could be imported from natural mines – leaving aside the fact that supply chains are not in place to meet the entire national requirement – sourcing Nitrogen is much more problematic. That is because it is extremely difficult to obtain N from plant or animal sources at the levels necessary for commercial scale agriculture.

Currently, we use Urea for tea and paddy, which contains approximately 46% Nitrogen. By contrast, organic sources like Gliricidia offers only 4%, while cattle dung has 3.5% and poultry dung –with 4.5% nitrogen by composition.

Prior to the ban, NPK was used in paddy, tea, rubber and coconut, and after the latest relaxation, these are still the same inputs that are being used, so in practice the Government has taken 3 months to make a bad decision and then reverse it – all the while falsely maintaining that inorganic NPK is not acceptable.

Had the Government simply consulted with relevant experts in the field in an open and transparent manner, they could have avoided all of the detrimental effects which followed from this disastrous decision. While there mention of a “Presidential Task Force for a green socio-economy” at the outset, they have not been forthcoming about their logic or approach in any public forums.

We are aware that there is a person in that task force who has been presented as a professor who made the ludicrous claim that sea-weeds as tall as coconut trees can be harvested from the ocean and used as organic fertilizer. While it is true that such large seaweed growth does exist, it is only found in close proximity to the North Pole, hence it is of no relevance to Sri Lanka. We offer this example in order to shine a light on the absurd and utter lack of credible scientific information behind policy decisions at the highest levels of this Government.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it

If we continue to allow the State to intervene and interfere with the fundamentals of agriculture in Sri Lanka based on the whims of such individuals, what is the worst that could happen? Previously we were told that the import and use of all agrochemicals would be banned immediately. Thereafter, the deadline was pushed back to a period within 3 months – 1 cultivation season. Now they have temporarily reverted back to allowing agro-chemicals, but it is implied that these imports could once again be banned at any moment.

In the interim, the solution that is currently being offered is a “nitrogen extract” that will be used as a spray. No further details have been provided. We don’t know if this extract is organic, inorganic, from the moon or even Mars. All we do know is that the only possible high percentage nitrogenous extracts can only be obtained from a chemical base. If the Government is trying to deceive people, they may use chemically extracted nitrogen, which could in turn be sprayed on organic manure and distributed among farmers.

In effect, the Government is refusing to reveal what exactly we will be adding to our soil through such extracts. Until they do, we must continue to call for more clarity and transparency. This is especially crucial for any agricultural exports – especially tea – whose buyers are sensitive to Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs).

Another fact to consider: no country in the world has ever succeeded in going totally organic. There are however some cautionary examples from history of those who tried. The example of Bhutan has been often cited in recent months. There, it was announced that over a period of 20 years, Bhutan would systematically phase out inorganic inputs. Even after careful and intensive planning with broad stakeholder consultation and preparation, the country was only able to convert 10% of their arable lands into organic agriculture after 30 years of effort in total.

The author is a former State Minister of Agriculture, Former Governor of the Southern Province, and Sri Lanka’s only PhD in Organic Agriculture from the Post-Graduate Institute of Agriculture at the Peradeniya University

To be continued

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National Trade Facilitation Committee Secretariat to be established




The NTFC review meeting in progress

In an effort to accelerate trade facilitation commitments and bolster the business landscape in Sri Lanka, a high-level review of the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) was conducted at the Presidential Secretariat on Wednesday (7).

The review focused on assessing the progress of trade facilitation commitments and scrutinizing the performance of the NTFC Secretariat. The private sector also voiced their views on expediting actions to ensure the completion of measures ahead of the projected timeline of 2025-2030.

In order to streamline compliance and optimize performance, several directives were issued during the meeting. Firstly, it was decided to establish the NTFC Secretariat under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance. Secondly, immediate measures to be taken to address the staffing requirements of the Secretariat and lastly, the budget allocated for the NTFC Secretariat in 2023, currently under the Department of Customs, was to be transferred to the Ministry of Finance to prioritize pending actions such as the development of the NTFC website and progress reporting system.

During the meeting, deliberations took place concerning the proposed National Single Window, a system aimed at simplifying and expediting trade processes. The participants agreed to expedite the submission of the proposal in a sequential manner to ensure its swift implementation.

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PM discusses ADB future projects in Sri Lanka with ADB DG and new Country Director




Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Director General for South Asia Kenichi Yokoyama and newly appointed Country Director Takafumi Kadono held discussions with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Thursday (June 8) at the Temple Trees in Colombo.

The Prime Minister, while welcoming the new Director General thanked the outgoing DG, Chen Chen for the support extended to Sri Lanka during the height of Covid pandemic and the economic crisis. He thanked the ADB for extending short term, immediate contingency support which has helped Sri Lankan economy to recover from the unprecedented crisis within a short period of time. ADB loan funds amounting to USD 380 mn were targeted for enhancing fiscal space and efficient public financial management system as well as strengthening the SME sector with access to finance. Further USD 250 mn was obtained as budgetary support to develop Capital Market.

The Prime Minister made a special mention about ADB’s US$ 333 million emergency assistance to support import of essential items such as fertilizer, medicines and chemicals for water treatment, working capital support to SMEs, and cash transfer to most poor and vulnerable to mitigate the impact of economic crisis.

ADB Director General for South Asia Keinichi Yokohoma, praised the recovery made by Sri Lankan economy and briefed the Prime Minister about the ADB’s mid-term and long-term projects for economic progress and infrastructure development.

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ADB provides Sri Lanka access to concessional financing to facilitate sustained and inclusive recovery



Kenichi Yokoyama, Director General of ADB's South Asia Department

Low interest -rate financing broadens country’s options to bridge urgent development financing needs

ADB support now comes in concessional and market-based financing, technical assistance, policy advice, and knowledge solutions

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved the eligibility of Sri Lanka to access concessional financing. The availability of concessional assistance, offered at low interest rates, broadens Sri Lanka’s options to bridge its urgent development financing needs to restore economic stability and deliver essential services, particularly to the poor and vulnerable.

Eligibility for concessional resources among the developing member countries of ADB is based on gross national income per capita and creditworthiness. ADB’s decision was considered based on a request from the Government of Sri Lanka in view of the severe and unprecedented economic crisis that has reversed hard-won development gains.

“ADB is committed to further enhancing its support for the people of Sri Lanka as the country responds to this deep crisis that has severely undermined their livelihoods and well-being,” said ADB Director General for South Asia Kenichi Yokoyama. “The availability of concessional assistance will help Sri Lanka to lay the foundation for economic recovery and sustained, inclusive growth.”

Sri Lanka is now eligible for ADB support including concessional and market-based financing, technical assistance, policy advice, and knowledge solutions that together comprise a comprehensive suite of options to address the crisis. Access to concessional financing will also ease debt servicing pressures through more favorable lending terms.

ADB is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region.

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