Enriched soil, Enriched nation | Daily News
Fertilizer issue:

Enriched soil, Enriched nation

The ban which was imposed on chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals in the country has been growing into a controversial issue. A large number of farmers, public organisations and also the intelligentsia are vehemently opposing the Government’s decision to stop the import of chemical fertilizers in order to promote the usage of organic fertilizers islandwide.

It has been reported from different parts of the country about many acres of unsuccessful Yala cultivations due to the shortage of fertilizer varieties such as urea, Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) and Muriate of Potash (MOP). But the Government sources are of the opinion that there is a fertilizer mafia being purposely created by fertilizer companies and unscrupulous traders to exploit the situation and bring the Government into disrepute.

In this context, the Daily News gathered views of experts in the field. It should be noted that by applying fertilizers extravagantly contrary to the recommended dose the fertility in the soil diminishes and become barren. This concept among the farmers is totally an illusion and a mythical belief.

In Sri Lanka, among many other crops, paddy is grown in a vast area. Since paddy cultivation is in regular traditional practice in both Yala and Maha seasons, the nutrient elements in the soil are simultaneously disappearing. The farmers in general are concerned only about collecting the biggest possible yield. In our country, some farmers who lack knowledge are used to set fire to the paddy straw after the harvesting is over which makes it the reason for the decrease of fertility in the soil from one season to the other.

The purpose of applying fertilizers to the soil is to refill the lost richness and fertility in the soil. The bitter truth is that the farmers use only chemical fertilizers to revive the fertility in the soil without taking steps to apply organic or compost fertilizers in the same turn. In the 1950s, parallel to the green revolution, the Agriculture Department introduced the application of chemical fertilizers to paddy cultivation. Not only some farmers but also officials are still not aware of the fact that the Agriculture Department simultaneously recommended the use of organic fertilizer as well for gaining bountiful harvests. Consequently, due to this erroneous cultivation pattern, a higher percentage of soil infertility has been noticed today. Under these circumstances, the Government, after about 60–70 year delay, recently embarked on a countrywide programme to check soil samples in paddy fields for ascertaining the level of fertility, and the percentage of nutrient elements in it etc. The soil tests have revealed that the level of organic elements in the majority of the paddy fields is two percent whereas it should be at least five percent or above for the soil to uphold its richness, as well as the environmental and qualitative friendliness. The recommendation of agricultural and soil experts is that a minimum of 2,000 kilogrammes per acre has to be applied to a paddy field for maintaining the required positive organic percentage in the soil.

According to agricultural scientists and soil conservationists, for successful paddy cultivation, a compound of 16 nutrient elements is required to be in the soil in addition to some other essential components. “Of them, nine main elements are Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, and Sulphate. Chlorine, Iron, Manganese, Boron, Zinc, and Copper etc. should also be present. The Government, as a relief measure and an incentive to boost the cultivation of this crop, issues subsidised fertilizers containing only Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium while farmers are used to depend only on these three elements when the above-mentioned ingredients as a whole are vitally required for a paddy plant to grow healthily. As a result of this lapse, from one cultivation season to the other, the fertility level in the soil diminishes and infertility prevails. This grave insufficiency could only be done away with applying organic fertilizers to the field as recommended.

There should be a much sophisticated strategical approach to educate farmers to take to most appropriate agricultural methodologies especially in catering and feeding the soil, without confining only to use more and more chemical fertilizers for gaining more and more harvest which leads to a flop. The farmers should also be made aware that the application of organic fertilizers as recommended would increase the harvest by 25 to 30 percent when compared to the usage of chemical fertilizers. It has been scientifically observed during recent soil tests that in many parts of the country especially in the Dry Zone, that the Phosphorus content in the soil is above the recommended levels due to the over usage of TSP fertilizer (Mada Pohora).

Even at this late stage, the Government has taken a decision to decrease the quantity of TSP subsidy by 50 percent. It is learnt that in some instances, when there is adequate Phosphorus content available in the soil, there is no necessity at all to apply it again for the crops. What happens when TSP is added unnecessarily is the soil only absorbs what it requires from chemical fertilizers and the extra amount is get deposited in the soil as how it has happened at present, making the soil poisonous, contaminated and infertile while the soil-friendly creatures diminish. In addition to this, other destructive features are the increase of Potassium content in the soil, making the soil unable to absorb essential nutrients, fertilizer allergy, and lower yield etc.

On many occasions, the main reason leading to the scarcity of fertilizers in the market is the extravagant usage of fertilizers for crops. Under the impression that the fertilizer subsidy is inadequate, the farmers are used to purchase fertilizers reserved for additional crops as well thus creating a fertilizer crisis. Usually, the farmers perturb or get excited when the growing paddy plants wear a yellowish colour compelling them to apply more fertilizer to the cultivation to get back the greenish look, mythically believing that such colour transformation could get them a high yield. On the other hand, heavy metal molecules emitted to the soil by uncontrolled usage of chemical fertilizers create large scale contamination in water sources contributing to the spread of kidney diseases among the farmers, mainly in the Dry Zone.

It has also been observed that most paddy farmers are distancing from animal husbandry. This is supposed to be the main reason which prevents organic fertilizers from enriching crop cultivation. There shall be an amalgamation mechanism for creating close coordination between dairy farmers and paddy farmers, under the Government’s new fertilizer usage policy. Animal excrement (cow, poultry etc.) along with natural organic fertilizers such as Gliricidia Erabadhu, Ipil-Ipil, Sun hemp, Gonsooriya and Sooriyakantha have already been recommended to be used as organic and compost fertilizer varieties in agriculture in the Subsidized Fertilizer Act No. 68 of 1988.

It is emphasised in the Act that a major prerequisite for becoming eligible for paddy fertilizer subsidy is that the particular farmer should confirm that he uses straw and organic fertilizers for paddy cultivation. Today’s problematic situation has been created in consequence of not adhering to the norms and criteria concerning the correct usage of both chemical and organic fertilizers having solely depended on chemical fertilizers. The most acceptable theory in the utilisation of fertilizer is to apply both chemical and organic/compost fertilizers for crops in the most correct and appropriate portions. Also, the combustion of straw should be prohibited and apply burnt chaff for cultivation. It should be made compulsory to use a minimum of 1,000–2,000 kg of organic fertilisers in paddy cultivation per acre, in addition to the correct dosage of chemical fertilizers. The farmers should also be suitably encouraged to follow soil testing at the mini soil testing labs attached to the agrarian development centres islandwide.

However, the Government is going to introduce mobile soil testing units in the paddy field without calling farmers to visit the Agrarian centers for a soil test. This, if realised as reported, will be a turning point in the endeavours to revive the lost fertility in the soil. It is further learnt that the Agriculture Ministry is going to offer an incentive of around Rs. 15,000 to every farmer who produces organic fertilizers sufficient for one hectare aiming at the forthcoming 2021/22 Maha season. According to Anuradhapura agrarian development information sources, the programme to establish mini soil testing labs attaching to the 43 Agrarian Development Centres in the district is showing very slow progress limiting it to 20 so far. The sources indicate that at these mini labs, there are no facilities to test the level of Potassium, Nitrogen and Phosphorus in soil samples but only facilitates the detection of pH value and conductivity.

In the meantime, the Anuradhapura District Assistant Agrarian Development Commissioner H.M. Kulathunga told the Daily News that there has been a growing interest among farmers in joining the Government-sponsored organic fertilizer manufacturing programme. He said 27,754 small-scale, 2,046 medium-scale and 530 large-scale prospective organic fertilizer producers have already been registered under the Agrarian Development Department of the district. He said 43 mobile soil testing tool kits are expected to be mobilised through nearly 550 agriculture production and research assistants before 2021/22 Maha cultivation starts.

Kulathunga said it was envisaged in view of the present trend a minimum of 65,000 metric tonnes of quality organic fertilizer could be manufactured for distributing during 2021/22 Maha cultivation. Anuradhapura Government Agent R.M. Wanninayake, referring to the organic fertilizer issue, said a special task force for accelerating the district organic fertilizer production has already been appointed under his supervision. The task force consists of the Government Agent, Additional Government Agent, Divisional Heads of District Agriculture Department, Provincial Agriculture Department, Provincial Irrigation Department, Agrarian Development Department, National Fertilizer Secretariat, Mahaweli Authority and the Central Environment Authority. In order to save huge foreign exchange amounting to nearly Rs. 60,000 million spent annually for fertilizer import and in view of the necessity of utilising chemical fertilizers in the recommended correct dosage for paddy, the only and the most acceptable solution is to exploit the apatite resources in the Eppawala phosphate deposit. The experts say that with an affordable expenditure, there is potential and possibility to manufacture Single Super Phosphate (SSP) suitable for paddy using rock phosphate in order to stop the import of TSP. Eppawala phosphate deposit has 60 million metric tonnes of phosphate out of which since 1974 we have consumed only three percent. That is also for producing phosphate powder suitable only for tea, rubber and coconut.

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