Sujeeva Nivunhella reporting from London
Senior Prof Buddhi Marambe of the Agriculture Faculty of the Peradeniya University, removed from all positions held under the Agriculture Ministry for his stance on the fertilizer issue, was in Glasgow this month as a member of a delegation headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa attending the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).
Marambe was removed last week from advisory positions held under the Agriculture Ministry over his stance on the fertilizer imports, according to a media statement from the ministry. But this had not been officially communicated to him when he was interviewed here last week.
He was a member of the expert committee to formulate a National Agriculture Policy, the Sri Lanka Agriculture Sector Modernization Project and the Smallholder Agribusiness Partnership Program. An Agriculture Ministry statement accused Marambe of rallying the university community, civil society and the public against government’s policy banning the import of chemical fertilizers and of opposing the previous glyphosate ban.
Excerpts of an interview with Prof. Marambe in London:
Q: You have been accused of criticising the government. If that is the case, then how come you were in the government delegation headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the the COP26 summit in Glasgow?
A: I did not criticise the government or its concept but only the path it has chosen and methods employed to achieve certain objectives in this effort to switch from chemical to organic fertilisers. As an academic, it’s not my job to be a ‘Yes-man’ when I’m convinced that something is wrong and impractical as in this case.
Food security is a main element of national security. The approach and methods of the government on the basis of wrong advice from vested interests will impact the country’s agriculture sector detrimentally. I wanted to ensure a course correction. Hundred percent organic fertilisers targeted without scientific data and a proper plan is not possible. Precedents of practical experience from Bhutan, Cuba and even the EU where this had been attempted is available.
I’ve been attending climate change summits in my scientific capacity for the past seven years. I am representing my country in negotiations with UN officials and other countries. President Rajapaksa leads this delegation as Head of State of Sri Lanka. There are about 134 countries from the developing world attending this summit. My job there is to present the SL point of view on climate change. If someone says that I am expressing anti-government sentiments, that’s his or her problem, not mine.
Q: There are reports quoting an Agriculture Ministry press release stating that you have been removed from all positions you held at the ministry. What actually happened?
A: I saw those reports and learned of such a move then only. So far I’ve not been officially informed. I am not an official of the Ministry of Agriculture for them to sack me. I am a professor a the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Peradeniya. That is my permanent job. I still work there and am attending this conference officially. The University granted me paid leave to attend this summit. This year I’ve been invited to make a formal presentation which is a rare opportunity because only a very few countries are invited to do so.
With regard to sacking or removal, I will tell you what happened and how. Experts and university professors are invited to be in committees in both public and private sectors. In this case, the said expert must possess technical knowledge at a comparatively higher level and he or she is expected to share that knowledge with other committee members, focussing particularly on the terms of reference of that committee.
University academics are invited to such committees in an honorary capacity. They are not paid jobs. I was invited by the Minister of Agriculture to be on the committee that formulated the national agriculture policy, starting from December last year. We worked for about nine months as a team. We had large number of engagements with stakeholders, participated in consultation programmes and also prepared the final draft of the policy last month and submitted it to the Minister. Incumbent Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Prof Udith Jayasinghe, too was on that committee before he was appointed to his present position. After handing over the final report that committee’s functions are over. That was my association with the ministry. I cannot understand how anyone could remove a person from a non-existent committee. That may be why I was not told of any removal.
Q: There are press releases attributing the removal for being an advisor to CIC Holdings PLC. Your response?
A: Sri Lanka is a small country. We have people who specialised in different areas. Once a capability of a person is established, he/she is in demand. I have been appointed to several committees in different ministries as a resource person expecting my scientific contribution. The private sector does the same. In 2009, the chairman of the CIC requested my services from the Vice-Chancellor of my University to advice their board on agricultural development. You cannot expect a medical officer or a member of Maha Sangha to do that. It’s a job for an agricultural scientist. The Vice Chancellor approved my serving on that board. I attended a maximum of six meetings per year. I was a non-executive director on that board. I was the Assistant Secretary of the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement from 2001 to 2003 and worked with Dr. Keerthi Mohotti and Dr. Sarath Ranaweera to make sure that the national agriculture development policy 2003 had an organic component.
Q: Would you like to comment on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban chemical fertilisers?
A: If you ask me whether we can grow organic, the answer is yes. If you really want to make Sri Lanka 100 percent organic, you can do that. But why? What are we trying to achieve? Going 100 percent organic is a kind of romantic idea very natural in modern times because a lot of people nowadays are trying to romanticise agriculture.
You cannot expect the head of the state or the minister of agriculture to know everything about agriculture. They are politicians and are here to run the country and make sure it prospers. There are people who advise them during these processes. Since independence our agriculture evolved positively. Anything that would hinder that positive process would be detrimental to our food security.
I don’t blame personally the President or the Minister for what has happened. There are some people who misled them. The president and the minister are at fault because they got advice from wrong people.
To give advice on agriculture you need to have agriculture specialists, not only theoreticians but also those who have worked in the field who know the theory and practice. They should be people who believe in science and do science. Now, please don’t ask me who the advisors I am referring to. State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera said in public that it was Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya of the GMOA and Prof. Priyantha Yapa from the Sabaragamuwa University who gave the advice. May be there are more. Whoever did, they took the country and its people for a ride.
Q: If we were to adopt to 100% organic agriculture overnight what would happen to the country?
A: Overnight or in years, if you want to change to organic agriculture, you can do it. There are people even now doing organic agriculture and making good money. There are companies engaged exclusively in organic agriculture. They produce organic food, sell their produce overseas and to bring foreign exchange home. That’s fine. We have to promote that segment.
But the present scenario is a different kettle of fish. This is about food security which could be achieved in two ways – one is that we produce food on our own, and the second is to import food to fill any shortfall. To import we need foreign exchange. That’s where our cash crops such as tea become important. Under the present scenario, many agriculture products including tea, rubber and coconut have been affected. In my view, even in the long run we cannot achieve 100 percent organic farming without placing our food security in jeopardy.
Q: What is your view on the fertilizer consignment from China allegedly contaminated with harmful bacteria?
A: We have well-set regulations covering fertiliser imports. Regulations under the Fertiliser Act No 68 of 1988 are very strong and protective. If the fertiliser imported is organic, it means that they contain plant and animal matter. Such imports are covered by provisions of the Plant Protection Act No 35 of 1999. These prescribe mandatory procedures to be followed that are designed to ensure that agencies under the Ministry of Agriculture prevent invasive plants and disease coming into the country. There is a National Fertiliser Secretariat and a Director of Fertiliser but when organic fertiliser is imported it is the Director General of Agriculture who holds the authority, not the Director of the Fertiliser Secretariat. Samples of any organic fertiliser imported must go through tests and analysis at the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS). The NPQS is not a stand alone body but is also governed by the provisions of the International Plant Protection Convention of the UN and linked to plant quarantine services of 184 countries.
According to these regulation, a sample of any organic fertiliser to be imported must be first analysed at the NPQS. In this particular instance NPQS found very clearly that there are microorganisms present which are harmful to crops.
When organic fertilisers are imported there is another set of standards set by the Sri Lanka Standard Institute that apply. This stipulates that any such organic import must be sterilised. Whenever a sample fails to pass muster, the supplier has a right to appeal and send another sample for analysis. That’s a well-accepted procedure. So in this particular instance, another sample was brought on Sept 23 and that too failed.
According to testing by the German lab, Schutter Global Inspection & Survey Co Ltd, the sample contains Coliform bacteria. E Coli and Erwinia are Coliform bacteria both of which are harmful to humans and plants. Erwinia was detected by the NPQS in an earlier test done here. The Director General of Agriculture has not issued a permit for this ship to come to Sri Lanka. The ship came in without an import permit covering this cargo. Fertilisers imported to the country cannot contain pathogenic microorganisms that are harmful to animals, plants, and humans. If allowed this consignment would cause irreversible damages to our ecosystem.
Forex crisis will lead to power cuts, warns Ranil
Udaya pooh-poohs warning
By Saman indrajith
UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday told Parliament that the country would face power cuts soon if the government did not resolve the foreign exchange crisis urgently.
Participating in the third reading debate on Budget 2022, the UNP leader said the forex issue could result in Sri Lanka running out of money to import fuel.
Wickremesinghe called on the government to make a statement on the current situation.
The UNP leader pointed out that Sri Lanka had only Rs. 1.5 billion in foreign reserves, out of which Rs. 300 million were gold reserves, which meant only Rs. 1.2 billion was the liquid amount in foreign reserves.
The former PM said the low foreign reserves could lead to the country facing power issues in the future as there would be no funds left for fuel imports. However, the Minister of Power, Udaya Gammanpila, assured that Sri Lanka had enough fuel stocks.
The Minister said it was reasonable for people to assume that there would be power cuts in the future due to the foreign exchange crisis.
Reiterating that Sri Lanka had necessary fuel stocks, Minister Gammanpila said the fuel in hand was sufficient for the next 40 days.
Although the Sapugaskanda Oil refinery had been closed for 50 days, measures would be taken to resume operations at an early date, the Minister added, assuring that the foreign exchange crisis would not result in power cuts.
State Minister Ranasinghe assures farmers using organic fertiliser compensation in event of losses
Provincial Councils and Local Government State Minister Roshan Ranasinghe yesterday assured that the government would compensate any paddy farmer who suffered losses due to adopting organic fertiliser.
Speaking at a meeting held at the auditorium of the Polonnaruwa District Secretariat, the Minister said that even if the government had not proposed to allocate funds in the Budget proposals for possible losses to paddy farmers using organic fertiliser, funds would be obtained from a supplementary estimate for the purpose.
Ranasinghe said that it was wrong to state that the government shifted from chemical to organic fertiliser abruptly. The government had promised to do so in its election manifesto and people had approved it by giving a two-third majority of votes for that. The UNP too had planned to adopt organic fertilisers in place of chemical fertilisers some 30 years back.
The State Minister said that during the past 30 years all the governments had spent billions of rupees to increase awareness of organic fertilisers among officials and the general public. In addition, there had been numerous projects introduced with the assistance of the World Bank to promote organic cultivation in the country.
Minister Ranasinghe said that there were chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides and there was information that some traders sell them at exorbitant prices. The government would get the Consumer Affairs Authority and police to implement the law against the black marketers.
He said that some farmers had raised concern that nano-nitrogen fertiliser would be washed away owing to the heavy rains, but the government would supply that fertiliser again as it was promised by State Minister of Organic Fertilizer Sashindra Rajapaksa.
The meeting was attended by ministry officials and representatives of the farmers’ associations in the Polonnaruwa District.
Arjuna quits UNP
World Cup winning captain and former minister Arjuna Ranatunga yesterday quit the UNP over its failure to get its act together
Ranatunga has communicated his decision to leave the UNP to the Leader, Secretary, Deputy Leader, and the Assistant Leader of the UNP.
Ranatunga said, in a letter to the UNP leadership, that he decided to join the United National Front ahead of the 2015 presidential election to make a change for the common good.
He has said as the first step towards that objective he contested the 2015 general election and secured the highest number of votes from the Gampaha District.
Ranatunga said that when many left the party in 2020, he remained with the UNP in order to protect it.
He said in 2020 the UNP suffered a massive loss, “and what is required is to prepare a programme to overcome the present and future challenges”.
“However, as there seems to be no such preparation there appears to be no purpose in remaining with the party”, Ranatunga said.
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