By Rathindra Kuruwita
There had been a 30%- 50% drop in the country’s agricultural output, Chinthaka Rajapakshe, Convener of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) told The Island yesterday.
“The farmers, like almost everyone else in this country, are uncertain of their future and they have only sold a portion of their produce. So, for example, if a farmer produced 100 kilos of paddy, he would keep 50 kilos for his own consumption and sell only 50 kilos,” Rajapakshe said.
According to Rajapakshe widespread hoarding coupled with a steep drop in production means that there will be a food shortage in the coming months. “The government is already importing rice from India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China has donated rice to us rice,” he said.
“Given the dollar crunch, I am not sure if we can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on food imports. The main problem with the government’s organic drive was that there was no planning. The Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Agrarian Services and the Mahaweli Authority failed to give proper directions to the farmers.”
The situation would have been better if the government had given cash directly to the farmers to produce compost and other inputs. However, the government insisted on handing over the production of compost and other inputs to businessmen who were their political supporters. These businessmen had produced low-quality fertiliser that was rejected by farmers, Rajapakshe said.
“Farmers had no faith in the government or organic agriculture because they realised that it was not done in good faith. It was done either because of the dollar shortages or because the government wanted to enrich its cronies,” he said.
MONLAR Convenor said that the other problem plaguing agriculture was the fuel shortage. Many farmers used pumps to irrigate their farms that ran on diesel and there had been a severe diesel shortage for months, he said.
“The current crisis in farming is a reflection of the chaotic nature in the country. The main problem is not the fertiliser or fuel shortage alone, it is that the farming community has lost its faith in the government.
Meanwhile, Dr. Lionel Weerakoon, former senior scientist at the Department of Agriculture said that the switch-over to organic agriculture could not be effected by fiat overnight. It had to be done over a period of time.
“27% workers, out of a labour force of eight million, are engaged in agricultural and related industries. There is a belief that the government banned agrochemicals due to the belief that excessive use and elevated exposure to fertilisers and agrochemicals might be a contributing factor to Chronic Kidney Disease. But this is not what scientists, economists or farmers believe,” he said.
In 2020, Sri Lanka imported through both state and private sector, fertilisers worth $259 million and this was 1.6% of the country’s total imports.
“The 2021 bill could have been anything between $300 and $400 million given international prices. The situation is even worse now because Russia, Belarus and China have limited their fertiliser exports. If we are to purchase a similar quantity of fertiliser as we did in 2020, we might have to spend 600 million US dollars,” Dr. Weerakoon said.
In 2019, the fertiliser subsidy programme cost the government around 46 billion rupees or $253 million, which is roughly 2% of the government’s recurring expenditure. Fully-subsidised fertiliser for smallholder rice production was one of the reasons why people overused fertiliser.
“The fertiliser subsidy was extended to other crops, including tea, vegetables, coconut, rubber, potatoes, fruit, and minor export crops. The government subsidises anywhere from 48-to-88 percent of the market price of a 50-kilo bag of fertiliser. In 2019, the government distributed around 300,000 MT of subsidised imported fertiliser among the cultivators of other crops. 44% went to tea plantations, 24% to vegetable producers, and 12% to coconut plantations with the balance being allocated to rubber, fruit, potatoes, and minor export crops,” Dr. Weerakoon said.
“There have been many attempts by the government and NGOs to promote more effective use of chemicals in agriculture for decades. These have not been successful and our agricultural systems are unsustainable. Given this context the decision to go organic was a very bad idea.
“There was a better plan in 2015. It was a soft shift to organic agriculture. The overall management of the country under the incumbent government has been disastrous. The current chaos in agriculture sector is a good example,” the senior scientist said.