Located in the central district, Dombullah is the major distribution junction of food and other commodities in Sri Lanka. Image procured by author
Dombulla, about 150 km north east of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo is one of the major junctions for the distribution of food and other products in the island nation. It is in places like these in the hinterland that one can gauge the impact of an ill-conceived fertilizer ban imposed by the Rajapaksa government.
Punchipada, a small farmer who has been growing vegetables on his farm on the outskirts of the town. says his production over the last one year has plummeted to the extent that is “not enough to even feed my family.”
“When the government announced that we should use organic fertilizer we used it”; he rues.
The results of the sudden and overnight transition have been devastating for the island nation’s 1.7 million farmers who rely on their produce for sustenance. A majority sow paddy to meet almost 80 per cent of Sri Lanka’s rice requirements, the staple food in this part of the world.
The trouble for the agriculture industry started with the Rajapakse government banning the import of all chemical fertilizers last year. Within six months, the government had to partially revoke its policy on the use of organic fertilizer as farmers started to report a sudden and sharp fall in production.
In 2019, Sri Lanka produced 3.5 billion kgs of grain. The output fell by almost 43 per cent last year. Despite the lifting of the ban, both rice and maize yields are expected to remain well below what Sri Lanka farmers produce in a normal sowing season.
Ripple effect of fertilizer ban
Sri Lanka has two sowing seasons: Yala and Maha.
Mala or the main season stretches over three months from Sept to Nov when the north-east monsoon brings in rains. Yala or the other season starts in May and is dependent on the south-west monsoons.
Paddy, fruits and vegetables are the staple produce for small farmers. Estate farming which is a source of export commodities like tea, rubber, coconut and spices is a major source of foreign exchange for the country.
The livelihood of an additional 1 to 1.5 million families who work in the food and tea processing business is directly linked to estate farming.
All cash crops are cash-intensive. They need certain inputs in terms of chemicals, fertilizers, insecticides and weedicides.
With the government encouraging organic farming as a state policy, most of the companies dealing in fertilizer imports pared down their stocks last year.
When the ban was lifted, most companies did not have sufficient resources and foreign exchange to replenish their stocks.
“We estimate that if it goes on like this there is only 30 per cent input left to meet the fertilizer requirement for the current Yala season but almost nothing for the coming Maha season. Which means we are talking about seeds, we are talking about fertilizer, we are talking about chemicals, we are talking about vet medicines for the animals and we are also talking about the feed for the animal husbandry”; says Mario De Alwis, Managing Director of MA’s Kitchen, a leading food manufacturer in Sri Lanka who run a food processing plant at Dombulla.
Tea production hit
Over 1 billion dollars of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange was brought in by the tea industry alone. 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s tea production is dependent on small farmers.
However, in the last few months, the tea productivity has gone down due to the unavailability of urea needed to optimise leaf production.
Tea bush needs regular and proper maintenance as it is a long-standing crop that has to be nurtured over a period of time and can not be replenished quickly.
Lack of urea and weedicides has brought down the production of Sri Lanka tea by 15 to 20 per cent this year.
The fuel shortage has only aggravated the situation as factories are under-producing due to power outages and lorries are not being able to pick up the leaves from the farm gate.
The quality of the produce drops sharply if the leaves dumped at tea factories are fermented and are not processed in time.
“When the tea industry collapses, the problem is that you can not go and claim those markets again. Suppose if you are supplying to a brand and are not able to deliver goods on time, your buyer will not wait because there are other tea producing countries in the world. And they will move to those countries and we will lose our markets”; says Dhammika Gunasekara, MD and CEO, of Tropical Life, a market leader in the export of agriculture commodities.
The industry also fears that low yield and high cost of production will make it increasingly difficult for Sri Lanka to offer its tea at competitive prices in the international markets.
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