Going “Organic” - The Farmers’ Tales
Mar 23, 2022
This article is about the country's swtich to organic fertilizer.

Rice laid out to dry on the long roads between Polonnaruwa and Medirigiriya. The yield has nearly halved in these areas.

  • Farmers received no training or specific instructions on how to switch to organic farming
  • Many young people leaving the agri/farming sector for more lucrative and stable options
  • Urban communities and urban poor will be hard-hit
  • Effects of the Govt’s overnight fertiliser ban is now compounded with the fuel crisis - leading to food shortages

The Journey

Where we went

Why should you care about farmers?

Failure across the field

Organic farming

Unique stories across geographies

Hambantota: ‘development’ projects

Sammanthurai: water and elephant movements

Walapane: a bountiful deception

Polonnaruwa: linking CKDu to hard water

Jaffna: war, militarisation, and fertiliser

Organic done right

Other issues


Footnote - Types of Organic Fertiliser

Footnote - Organic vs Conventional

Data for this piece

The Journey

In the first week of April 2022, Watchdog travelled to five locations across Sri Lanka to listen to farmers who were impacted by the now-former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overnight ban on chemical fertiliser.

These farmers’ experiences drive home how short-sighted and gravely impactful the policy truly was. The Government’s reversal of the policy almost one year later cannot make up for the loss of livelihood for most farmers, and the strain placed on them over the last year. To add insult to injury, the compensation promised to them has not been fulfilled.

We thank all the individuals who facilitated our conversations with the farmers; and most importantly, the farmers who gave their time, insights and knowledge to make this series possible.

Where we went

In our initial piece for this story, we explored the reality for farmers in Hambantota, the Rajapaksa heartland. It was the starting point of a journey across the main agricultural areas in the country. Let’s do a quick recap of our route:

Sammanthurai: The Eastern Rice Bowl has just seen the harvest season. Empty paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see on the A31 road between Ampara and the small town. Tributaries of the Gal Oya — the country’s first irrigation scheme — should cut under the road as they run to supply the fields, but remain dry - we’ll see why later. In between seasons, elephants roam the empty fields, munching on ‘leftovers’. We drove a long way off this main road, along a dirt path through the fields that is probably more used to tractors and bikes, to visit the Pattampitti anicut, where farmers are preparing for a lunch meeting with the Divisional Secretary.

Walapane: While curfew has just set in, we walk a steep climb up from the Haragama Road, into the fields of Tennehenwala. Paddy grown on terraces and small vegetable patches are ringed by mountains at this height. These fields are balanced along the hills’ inclines and are inaccessible to mechanised farming machines. Traditional methods of sowing and harvesting by hand are still practiced. We are told the area has also become a lot warmer in the last ten years, signalling at the slow creep of climate change.

Polonnaruwa: The landscape of the North-Central province is a patchwork of paddy fields, vegetable farms and the irrigation tanks created to sustain their cultivation. Newly-harvested rice dries along the long roads at Medirigiriya and in Hingurakgoda, as the farmers who’ve spent decades in agriculture recall their memories. Fed by the channels of the Mahaweli irrigation scheme, the region has recorded high number of CKDu cases, which President Rajapaksa cited as one of the main reasons for the chemical fertiliser ban.

Jaffna: We cross the causeways into the peninsula, and the colours change from pale ocean blues to stretches of red earth. The rich soil holds fruit trees, paddy, and tobacco for miles. Across Maruthanarmadam, Inuvil and Kandarodai, we meet farmers who grow some of Jaffna’s well-known and loved items. Driving along a single small road, one will see these fields on one side, and a fence dotted with military watch-towers on the other.

Why should you care about farmers?

The Government reversed the ban on chemical fertiliser about a month after we did the research for this piece. One year after its disastrous and ill-informed enactment. Compensation remains to be paid for the damage caused. Fertiliser remains inaccessible to many farmers, as prices have now tripled. Add this to the fuel shortages, and they are moving from one crisis to another.

We recently released Watchdog’s Inflation Tracker, looking at how prices of food items have shot up over the last few months. What do the farmers have to do with these numbers?

Sri Lanka does not have enough foreign reserves to import what it needs. As it is, we are relying on credit lines and aid shipments of food to reach vulnerable communities. Should all these avenues dry up, farmers’ ability to meet the needs are severely restricted right now. Prices are likely to continue to shoot up.

A seemingly obvious solution to this would be to divert energy and resources into supporting local producers such as these farmers. We are yet to see any plans like this being rolled out on a national level.

Farmers would once sell to the market and still have enough for their families to eat. Over the last two seasons, struggling with the loss in harvest, it has become one or the other. They are the cornerstone of many things that we eat on a daily basis. Any crisis they face can have - and is having - an impact on how and what we can consume.

Failure across the field

The more ground we covered on our journey, the more the stories ran into one another. Across the board, farmers had been devastated by the impact of the sudden ban, and many were struggling to break even.

Here’s a look at issues that we heard at all our five destinations:

  • Historical government intervention - all ‘changes’ came from them

In Broken Promises and Policy Blunders, we explored how the Sri Lankan Government’s intervention in agriculture spanned nearly 80 years. The farmers we met on this journey also told us of how changes in their cultivations were on the government’s orders. For them, this was also an indicator that the government must answer for any losses that happened as a result of their decisions.

“1962, who told us to use fertiliser and hybrid seeds? The Government did. Now who told us to use organic fertiliser? The Government did. They dictated the terms and now they are responsible for this.” - Pattampitti, Sammanthurai

  • Lack of support and comprehensive training from the government

Many of the areas we visited saw little to no support from government agriculture officers. This was evident not only for the rain-fed farms in Jaffna and Walapane, but also in Polonnaruwa and Sammanthurai, fed by the Mahaweli and Gal Oya irrigation schemes respectively. This meant there were no regular check-ins on the cultivation, nor in navigating drastic shifts such as the fertiliser ban. Most of the farmers also felt the technical training was more theoretical than practical.

Farmers also claimed that the agricultural officers weren’t sold on the fertiliser ban. They also claim these officers lacked enthusiasm when it came to answering their questions. In some cases where the state distributed nano nitrogen liquid fertiliser in November last year, farmers said they were not given specific instructions on how it should be used, in what quantity, and at which point in the crop’s life cycle.

“The officers come here to train us, but we end up having to advise them! Those officers who are assigned to do these trainings are they themselves repeating what they have read in a circular or notice. If we have questions based on our practical experiences, they don’t have answers” - Tennehenwala, Walapane

  • Fuel issues

At the time of the research, the fuel crisis was just beginning to worsen. Even farmers who had shelled out large amounts of money to buy chemical fertiliser had to put their work on hold. Delays in obtaining fuel delay the harvest, and can further delay the transportation to economic centres. This means the produce that reaches the market and consumer is not consumable. That is, if it even reaches them at all.

“We managed to get diesel for this harvester just in time. That also, after waiting in queues for days. There is a point which the paddy ripens too much. If we had to wait one more day, we would have crossed that mark - it could not have been harvested or processed for consumption.” - Welangahawela, Hambantota

  • Youth leaving the field faster

Older farmers agreed that more youth were turning away from the traditional vocation every year. Since the ban, and with the economic crisis now aggravating their difficulties, the speed of this had doubled. Younger men and women choose to take up a range of work, travelling to the nearest cities, to Colombo or even overseas in search of jobs that will secure a monthly wage.

This is corroborated by figures in the most recent economic census conducted in 2013/14. Almost 50% of farmers in all of the regions we visited were over the age of 50. The 2013/14 economic census shows this is even more pronounced in the Valikamam region in Jaffna where 66% of farmers are over the age of 50.

“While youth may have had some interest in cultivation earlier, the chemical fertiliser ban has completely ruined that - they want a sustainable life, and now farming is more unsustainable than ever. For many youth though, they have no option but agriculture in terms of earning a living. This maybe due to their education status or needing to care for older relatives. This way, another generation will get trapped recovering from the current crisis.” - Kandarodai, Jaffna

  • Organic could have worked if done properly

None of the farmers we spoke to were opposed to the idea of organic cultivation. They were, however, angered at the overnight decision made by the Government.

Many believed that a slow roll-out of the process would have given them time to adapt, and also protected them from the rapid drop in income.

“A slow transition to organic methods might have worked, for all we know. But the overnight change left us marooned - it’s like getting your neck chopped off in one go.” Medirigiriya, Polonnaruwa

Organic farming

After listening to these experiences, we were left with many questions. One that was truly puzzling was wondering if the President’s plan would have resulted in fully organic produce to begin with.

For 60 years now, farmers across the country have been using chemical fertiliser for cultivation. Many who we met said that the sustained use has a definite impact on the soil - the soil is now ‘used to’ the chemical in order to bear crops. Therefore, even if you were to reduce or remove the chemicals in one season of cultivation, because the earth has absorbed it all up like a sponge, some chemicals remains for a few more seasons. Asking farmers to stop using chemicals overnight and still expecting the yield to remain the same is futile.

Another question that arose is that farmers were still using the hybrid high-yielding varieties [HYV] of seeds to cultivate with compost. All the farmers we spoke to believed that there was a fundamental mismatch here. Not just believed, but had seen it in their practice.

“Hybrid seeds don’t produce well with compost fertilisers. Traditional seeds don’t produce well with chemical fertilisers. “If they had given us the correct seeds to match with the compost, then maybe something would have worked out.” Hambantota

Leading agronomists including Prof. Buddhi Marambe at the University of Peradeniya have questioned the reasoning behind the organic farming policy. On our podcast The Doghouse, Prof. Marambe highlighted that whilst organic farming could potentially be promoted as a foreign exchange earner, hedging the entire country’s food security on it is unwise.

Unique stories across geographies

These similarities form the foundation on which the story is based. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to ban chemical fertiliser had a destructive effect for cultivators across the country. However, within this general sense of disaster are finer details that differ from one location to another.

It is important to note that while the base layer remains, farmers’ experience of the ban was also based on their location, their crops and the politics of where they live.

Hambantota: ‘development’ projects

Walking through a paddy field that surrounds a small vegetable patch, an example of the mixed cultivation farmers undertake to maximise income, or at the very least for their family’s meals. In the distance we see the extended Southern Expressway cutting through the fields. Acres of cultivation have been reduced since the highway bisected these vast fields. Two years since the highway was opened to the public, the compensation promised to many of the farmers for the loss of cultivation land hasn’t come through. In their network of villages and societies, the farmers we spoke to knew only one person across all of them had received a fraction of the compensation he was due.

“We lost a lot of farming land when the highway came through. Even the man we know who has gotten some compensation, got only a small amount of what he is due. Most farmers haven’t seen a cent.”

Sammanthurai: water and elephant movements

The fields of Sammanthurai had been freshly harvested following the end of the Maha season, while preparation for cultivation in the Yala season has been delayed. Farmers informed irrigation officers not to release water since there was no fuel for the tractors to plow the fields.

The channels along which water from the Senanayake Samudraya would flow were mostly dry and sandy. The farmers themselves had told the Irrigation Department not to channel any water to them. The longer they wait, the more the weather patterns will be incompatible with the markers of the cultivation season, which could result in another ruined crop.

“What’s the point of having the water sent? The fields are not ready. It would be a waste to release the water now. The whole season gets changed. Everything is so balanced, the way the crop grows and weather changes, now it’s hard to say if we’ll be able to grow anything of worth.”

Most areas practice some sort of crop rotation. After rice is grown, farmers in other areas generally switch to paddy and other field-crops during the seasons. This isn’t possible for those in Sammanthurai though, because of elephants’ movement patterns.

The wide open fields of the Eastern cultivation belt are home to elephants from all the wildlife reserves that surround these farming villages. Years of cohabitation with the elephants means that they are familiar with the cultivation cycles. Seedlings are planted into the earth three weeks before the water is released. And yet these intelligent creatures would not step into the fields once the planting begins. They would only roam to eat the ‘piduru’, or what’s left of the paddy after harvesting, in between the seasons.

Owing to the risk from wild elephants, farmers are prevented from planting any other crops in the shoulder season.

A giant takes a stroll down the main road dividing the Yala and Lunugamvehera National Parks - July 2020. Image credit: Nadim Majeed.Walapane: a bountiful deception

To produce compost at home, farmers like Kalu Malli purchased compost machines for around Rs. 650,000. However, the trade-off of raw materials to produce is just too high. In addition to organic matter like foliage which is readily available on his farm, he also has to purchase chicken manure and other additives. This is all before he gets to the gargantuan task of obtaining fuel to operate the machine. He and other farmers have taken to pawning their gold and items just to cover the cost of running the machine.

“We would anyway use leaves like gansooriya that grow wild and other traditional compost methods passed down over generations. But you need 3kgs of the organic matter to make 1kg of organic fertiliser. These methods were always to supplement the chemical fertiliser. On their own, they don’t help with the yield.”

He refers to the organic fertiliser provided by the state as ‘diyaru pohora’, a watered-down substance meant only for paddy. The price of this has increased since the ban, from Rs. 450 to Rs. 4,500. He bears the cost to purchase it. It is necessary, he says; with solely the compost he makes at home, they wouldn’t even have the small harvest they do.

Walking around the hills in the area, we are taken aback by a sea of green that runs into the distance. Paddy terraces in bright green, ringed with mountains on the horizon, seem abundant despite all the challenges. However, Senevi, the farmer showing us around, asks us to look closer.

”By this stage, the paddy should have been taller. Maybe up to my waist. Yes, it looks green and healthy but look a little closer, can you tell me how many stalks of grain you see here?”

”For all this green, you can count the amount of grain-bearing stalks on one hand. Also the season has shifted, because we got fertiliser late, that means the paddy is in a stage where, if there is one strong rain, we will lose the crop. And I feel like there is going to be rain in a few days.”

Polonnaruwa: linking CKDu to hard water

President Rajapaksa cited the widespread Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown aetiology (CKDu) as the reason for stopping the use of chemical fertiliser. The farmers here, where CKDu prevalence is highest, say it is not the sole cause of the disease. Water quality is also a key factor - the quality changes from region to region, dependent on the presence of heavy metals and minerals in aquifers.

An aquifer is a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. Groundwater enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil. It can move through the aquifer and resurface through springs and wells.

‘Hard water’ has had a role to play in the incidence of CKDu, they told us. They also note that they would have all contracted the disease if the link between fertiliser and CKDu was causal.

“We are sure of our rice. They say CKDu, ask us to grow organic and then import rice from other countries. Do we know if that rice is organic? No, we don’t know. Our fathers also died of CKDu, but we know it doesn’t come only from the fertiliser. But I suppose in these times, it would be better to die of CKDu than die of hunger.”

In the year 2018, then President Maithripala Sirisena initiated a one-year project on organic farming in the district — his electorate — in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Selected farmers were taken for trainings to visit compost production sites and greenhouses over the period of a year. They received training on all stages of the organic process. Eventually the program ground to a halt, as most grant-funded actions do. “That program was more useful than the help given during the fertiliser ban this time,” they say.

“I myself switched 50% of my cultivation to organic after that training. Quite a few of us did. It takes some time to really see results but it helped me during the ban. I have something to sell and something to take home as well.”

Jaffna: war, militarisation, and fertiliser

Driving through the cultivation areas in the peninsula, we note the diversity of crops in the area - grapes, onions, tobacco, paddy, banana and mango trees grow out of the red soil.

Tobacco leaves are draped to dry on the fence of a vegetable plot. The farmer in the photo is planting a new crop of onions, because he says it is a ‘good time’ to do it, and because they are drawing a good price.

Between smaller vegetable plots, a vast tobacco field opens up. The farmer says more people are growing tobacco now, because it used to draw a high price. Middlemen would buy one tobacco leaf for Rs. 100. As we chat, we ask him what his experience has been like now, in comparison to during the war.

He laughs.

“At least during the war, we had a constant supply of fertiliser. The Agriculture offices in Vavuniya sent us the fertiliser regularly, so we were able to keep cultivating.”

Offices of the Sri Lankan government supplied essentials such as fertiliser to the North while the de-facto administration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was in place. The latter handled the distribution of the food that was produced in the region.

We spoke to farmers who live and cultivate in the Valikamam West region. If one were to head slightly further North, you’d eventually arrive at the gates of the Palaly-Kankesanthurai High Security Zone. While tracts of it have been released to their civilian owners, this sizeable portion of the peninsula remains under Army occupation. Within this Zone falls more of the fertile land, once inhabited and cultivated by now-displaced Tamil families.

While the Government pushes the concept of home-gardening to respond to the crisis it created, this situation across the Northern Province is a stark contrast. Many have no stable homes and gardens - that would have sustained them through this crisis - due to continued militarisation. To add salt to the people’s wounds, the Army undertakes cultivation on the land it occupies. Farmers tell us that the Army sells the produce into the local market.

This is a lament echoed by others across the Province. It is also a cry for justice, as many of these displaced communities have been protesting for their lands back for years at a stretch.

“On our lands that are now inside the Army camp, are trees we used to care for and gardens we cultivated. We plucked and ate from them. We can survive this crisis if we had those trees to live off, if we had our land back.”

Organic done right

While in Polonnaruwa, we detoured off into the small roads of Hingurakgoda, lined by water channels. We meet with M.K Jayatissa - Kaudulle Jayatissa or Jayatissa maama, depending on how one knows him. An organic farmer and community organiser, he has years of knowledge about cultivation but also public mobilisation around these issues. He remembers witnessing the change, when his father and peers were introduced to chemical fertiliser and HYV seeds in the 1960s.

Jayatissa and his wife Rani have cultivated fully organic produce on their plot of land for nearly three decades now. When they first switched, the farm took a few years to show results, he said. Rani explains that it still takes hours of dedication - paying close attention to the weeds, the rains and the produce. “When I started, people thought I was crazy,” Jayatissa said, but now the small farm produces an abundance of healthy, local produce. They grow a variety of grains, vegetables, and leaves, all with nutritional value.

”We grow different things based on the season, and the rains that fall. There’s no part of the year when we are not growing anything. There’s always something we can pick off the trees and use in a meal at any given time.”

”There are about five types of traditional rice that we grow, harvest and store. Families with children and elders make the journey here to purchase these types of rice from us, because of their health benefits.”

They use local seeds as well, many of which they have learned to preserve and cultivate themselves. These are not HYVs - they are not undertaking mass cultivation. The farm is a comparatively small few acres. The produce feeds them, their children’s families, and a large number in the community around them. It comes with an overhaul of the current large-scale farming that we mostly see at present.

Jayatissa and Rani are one unit in the larger patchwork of organic cultivation in Sri Lanka. We can’t generalise their experience across the board, but read on for questions on scale.

He says with time, more farmers could have been equipped with knowledge that would have helped them face the ban. In the long run, it could have been a more sustainable method of diversifying what they grew and ate. But he echoes many others who told us that no such training was provided to farmers; “In a country where we have schools for soldiers on how to kill people, we don’t have schools for farmers to improve their knowledge.”

Other issues

  • Issues with compensation

On 01 March 2022, the Government announced that it would be paying Rs. 50,000 per hectare to all farmers who experienced crop damage during the last cultivation season.

None of the farmers we spoke to received compensation for the losses incurred by the ban. The worst part is, all of them were also pretty sure they would never see a cent of what was promised to them. Some had heard about the government reparations, others were not sure if they were eligible for it, while still others had little faith in officers who collected their information to issue such payments but never followed up.

There are some issues, however, that arise with regard to compensation. Access to the payout is contingent on one being a member of a Govijana Seva Sangamaya (Farmers’ Services Association). Being a member of the Sangamaya is contingent on one owning the land that they cultivate.

In Sammanthurai, we encountered widespread use of what’s called the ‘anda govi’ scheme, where a landowner leases their land to a farmer to cultivate in the season. The land owner gives a consent letter, a registration of sorts, to the cultivating person for the season. Compensation is then payable to the one registered as the cultivator for the season.

But what happens when you don’t own, or don’t have such documents, for the land you cultivate on?

In the hill country tea estates, Malaiyaha/up-country Tamil workers sometimes cultivate vegetables in small plots that are not being used for tea. The farmer cultivating it, however, is in a precarious situation. They have no legal claim to the land. The estate management could ask them to stop cultivating, and does restrict their cultivation to an extent. In addition, they are also not eligible for the compensation for crop losses that the government promised. This is despite being farmers too, and putting money and effort into cultivating to supply nearby markets.

  • Wastage created due to lack of distribution/storage network

The fuel crisis has impacted the range at which farmers can sell their produce. However, the gaps in the food distribution network precede the ongoing shortages. During a stopover at the Dambulla Economic Centre, many traders told us that they were receiving more produce from a closer radius.

However, even if vehicles were arriving at the market as scheduled, storage and preservation remain unaddressed. There are several warehouses behind the Dambulla Centre that we are told remain unused to their full potential. Vimukthi de Silva, an organic farmer and a social activist, stressed on the amount of food that goes to waste at this one location alone.

A man loads boxes and sacks laden with produce into a lorry leaving the Dambulla market, most likely for another market outside the city.De Silva cultivates in her village of Rajanganaya, alongside other farmers. She sees the amount of produce that never makes it to a market, even after the village’s needs are met. In addition, she points out that tonnes of food remain unsold at Dambulla and other economic centres daily. “Yes, the ban did have an impact on how much we could grow, but not being able to collect, store and distribute what we do produce is aggravating this crisis.”

Research into wastage at the Dambulla Economic Centre estimate that as much as 30% of the produce brought to the centre daily, is wasted. Factors contributing to this wastage include the quality of transportation, packaging, storage conditions, lapses in the communication of information, and excess supply.

As far back as 2008, the use of ICT tools have been proposed to resolve the absence of an agricultural information market in the case of the Dambulla Economic Centre. A study on the transactional costs of agriculture found that information related costs form 70% of total transaction costs, which is 15% of the total production cost; which is incurred by farmers supplying produce to the centre. The authors argue that a simple mobile phone based platform can reduce these costs significantly.

  • Urban communities and the urban poor will be the hardest hit

We are used to hearing people in urban areas saying “people in the villages must have it difficult”. Throughout this journey and on other visits, we heard the reverse from the ‘people in the villages’. They ask with worried concern, “how are the people in Colombo doing, do they have food?”

Even with the fertiliser ban and ongoing fuel issues, farmers out station consistently say they can grow at least a small amount to feed their families. Many others who live outside urban areas also speak about access to trees, plants and fields where they grow food items, or they grow wild.

“We can at least pluck the jak fruit from the tree, or use the leafy greens in a porridge, or have even a small amount of paddy left to make rice. People in the cities have nowhere to grow anything no, in the middle of all the concrete.” Walapane

It is also an issue raised in discussions about community kitchens, slowly beginning as a means to respond to the food crisis. Organisers in the village of Sapumalthenna say the needs for cooking are supplied by the residents. One person brings manioc, the other brings banana blossom, and people contribute what they have. Community leaders in Slave Island, Colombo, however, say they will need to rely on items bought from nearby stores — even as prices increase — to make a meal.


At the end of this long journey, where are we?

The fertiliser ban has set off a domino effect devastating Sri Lanka’s food security. Many of the farmers we met with had seen their Maha season crops drop anywhere from 20% to 90%. Those who reported smaller losses were those who were able to access reserve stocks of chemical fertiliser or those who could afford to pay a premium.

The expected crop loss for paddy in the ongoing Yala season is about 60% across the island. The maize (corn) harvest has been hit especially hard, with expected losses of about 75% according to Prof. Marambe. This in turn impacts the animal feed produced, which decimates the poultry and livestock industries.

Another domino that hasn’t received as much attention amidst the ongoing crises is the seed paddy. Prof. Anura Kumara of the Ruhuna University warns that cultivation for the 2022/23 Maha season will be impacted if the current Yala season does not produce enough seed paddy.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear is that organic farming as a method is not a problem in itself. The implementation of the ban by the Rajapaksa government - an overnight change with no avenues of support or preparation - put the country at risk. Also, the organic farmers we spoke to — like Jayatissa and Rani — operate on a small scale. Whether these small cultivations could be scaled up to meet the entire country’s food needs, remains to be seen. None of this had been considered when the ban was immediately rolled out.

In the months since our journey, farmers have gone from not being able to afford fertiliser, to not being able to access fuel. This means they cannot carry out the farming process as needed, and cannot deliver produce for sale to markets. This could alter the food network in Sri Lanka as we know it, more drastically than it already has.

The stories we’ve recorded from across the island come back to your daily meal plate. We hope you’ll keep this in mind when you hear of price increases in the news. Maybe also when you go out shopping; if you notice that there are less produce items on the shelf, while the rest are priced high. Any crisis that affects farmers, affects us all.

Footnote - Types of Organic Fertiliser

There are a plethora of organic fertilisers out there. Organic fertilizers contain plant- or animal-based materials that are either a byproduct or end product of naturally occurring processes, such as animal manure and composted organic materials.

The most widely used organic fertilisers are -

  • Manure - One of the most commonly used types of organic fertiliser in Sri Lanka, comprising primarily of cow dung. Cattle Manure is a good source of nitrogen and organic carbon while goat manure is rich in nitrogen and potash.
  • Guano - Made up of the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats over many years, Guano was widely used by Native Americans for thousands of years prior to the Columbian exchange. Guano has an exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, all key nutrients essential for plant growth. The discovery of Guano is in fact the source of today’s input intensive agricultural methods.
  • Compost - At the simplest level, composting requires gathering a mix of 'greens' (green waste) and 'browns' (brown waste). Greens are materials that are rich in nitrogen such as leaves, grass, and food scraps. Browns are more woody materials that are rich in carbon, such as stalks, paper, and wood chips. Water is then added to the mix as it decomposes. Composting can also take place as a multi-step, closely monitored process with measured inputs of water, air, and carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials.
  • Biosolids - Any organic matter recovered from a sewage treatment process and used as fertiliser. Biosolids contain similar nutrients to those in animal manures. Biosolids that are used as fertiliser in farming are usually treated to help to prevent disease-causing pathogens from spreading to the public.

There are types of inorganic compounds used in organic agriculture too. The most commonly used mineral compounds are - rock phosphate, raw langbeinite, rockdust, and unprocessed natural potassium sulfate. In Sri Lanka, Eppawala Rock Phosphate is commonly used by farmers as a source of phosphorous.

Footnote - Organic vs Conventional

The organic vs conventional farming debate has been raging in recent years, with equally vociferous proponents and detractors. There are many who espouse the health and environmental benefits of an organic diet whilst many scientists and agronomists question the backpedaling on advancements in agriculture.

Our months of research into this evolving field has shown us that there are no simple answers. We’ve had to challenge our own pre-conceived notions and listen to a variety of voices with differing opinions.

Between 1999 and 2014, global sales of organic food and beverages is estimated to have increased from USD 15.2 billion to USD 80 billion. But what is organic? Hop across the pond from the European Union to the USA and you will find different requirements for a product to be certified organic. However, a generally accepted standard across the board is that in order for produce to be considered organic there can be no use of GMO seeds, synthetic fertilisers, and synthetic pesticides. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘organic’ policy failed to consider even this general standard.

The more reading we did into organic farming, the more evident it became to us that very little thinking had been done on the part of authorities here when devising Sri Lanka’s organic policy. In order to save you the trouble of wading through thousands of pages of research, we recommend watching the two videos below which ask and to an extent answer, a lot of the questions we found ourselves asking.

Data for this piece

DSC Paddy Data - 2020_2021Maha_Metric (2).pdf 60118

2013_14 Economic Census - JaffnaSH2Report.pdf 3525163

2013_14 Economic Census - PolonnaruwaSH2Report.pdf 3745358

2013_14 Economic Census - NuwaraEliyaSH2Report.pdf 1827542

2013_14 Economic Census - AmparaSH2Report.pdf 3539063