Discussion on "Development of Susutainabe Agriculture in Sri Lanka"

The Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) organized a webinar on “Development of Sustainable Agriculture in Sri Lanka”, on 22nd June 2020 at 4.00pm via zoom. The panel consisted of Dr. RSK Keerthisena, Additional Director General (Research), Department of Agriculture; Mr. Mahesh Gammanpila, Director, National Fertilizer Secretariat and Dr. Terney Pradeep, General Manager, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA). The discussion was moderated by Admiral (Prof.) Jayanath Colombgae, Director General, Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This was attended by local and international scholars.

We are self-sufficient in rice, coconut and tea. No matter how much dependent we are on dhal, we learnt to survive without dhal during the pandemic. But the question lies as to why Sri Lanka, being a tropical country with arable land, continues to import fruits and vegetables. COVID-19 has opened our eyes for the need of self-sufficiency. 400,000 hectares of land has been cultivated during the pandemic. It is unfortunate that with the high demand, there is an increased usage of fertilizer with adverse effects on soil and water.

Dr. RSK Keerthisena highlighted that in modern farming “there are many and little over 80 varieties of rice in Sri Lanka, but nearly 90% of rice lands are cultivated with only 10 varieties. Traditional varieties are cultivated in less than 1% of total rice lands.” He also mentioned that there’s a tendency for traditional varieties to disappear. These are challenges to soil fertility as intensive cultivated crops remove significant amount of nutrients from the soil through harvest. Therefore, nutrients are substituted with chemical fertilizers. It is alarming to hear that “we use around 4000 tons of pesticides per year”.

Sri Lanka ranks 26th place in fertilizer usage in the world. According to Mr. Mahesh Gammanpila, 225kg/ha of fertilizer is used for paddy cultivation, while the average production per hectare is 4.2 metric tons. It is needed to understand that more fertilizer doesn’t mean more harvest. He added that “we are adding more than 20000-23000 kg of arsenic, 40,000-50,000 kg of chromium and 20,000-30,000 kg of lead to the soil”. What is the need of importing 800,000 of metric tons straight chemical fertilizer per annum if less than 20% of fertilizers are absorbed by plants?

Mr. Gammanpila noted that what is important is improving soil texture, structure and health as this is what retains the sustainable development of agriculture. He suggested that there should be a paradigm shift from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers.

A stark image was further painted by Dr Terney Pradeep while mentioning that only about 3% of the earth is left to grow food. He mentioned that ocean is widely used for energy, transportation, mineral, water, leisure and health, however less used for food. He said that “International rice research institute study estimated that 83% of applied fertilizer entered surface and subsoil waters which is finally end up in the sea.” According to him, the adverse effects can be named as health toxicity, cancer, eutrophication and water quality pathogen. Due to eutrophication, there is algal bloom in the top layer and a dead zone in the bottom layer. Dr Pradeep further added that there is competition in nature, as corals are faced to compete with large algal blooms. His question remains unaddressed as to why people don’t comprehend the gravity of all chemicals used, end up in tissues and muscles of human beings in high dozes. One issue is lack of scientific research in the field.

Ocean plays the role of the largest carbon sink, absorbing one third of carbon emitted by human activities, which accounts to roughly two billion metric tons per year. Dr Pradeep emphasized that “ocean is our lifeline. Ocean is the blue heart of our planet. If we don’t allow the blue heart to be beaten, life in the whole planet will be end up”.

We are glad to hear that His Excellency the President has signed Colombo Declaration reforming the resolution of sustainable nitrogen management, which was adopted at 4th session of the UN environment assembly. As per Mr. Gammanpila, the global economy wide nitrogen usage is currently ineffective with extremely large proportions reactive nitrogen in the environment. It is a good step forward that Sri Lanka has pledged to reduce 50% nitrogen waste by 2030. He mentioned that “the vision is to have sustainable, economic and quality crop productions and ecofriendly inputs that will ensure food security and food safety to the consumers. The mission is to have a fertilizer industry that provides affordable and accessible fertilizer to farmers to achieve increased sustainable agricultural productivity and improve farm incomes”. Moreover, Sri Lanka has become a member for the International Nitrogen Management System. However, if the policies are confined to be policies without implementation, that is where we fail. Admiral Colombage highlighted that it is important to ensure sustainable development of agriculture with minimum damage to the environment.

Ministry of Agriculture has been developing a National Agricultural Policy, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for 10 years. It is necessary to accelerate the process as this will provide solutions for issues of sustainability as well. Dr Pradeep proposed that short. Medium and long term action plans are crucial. Adding to that our way forward should consist of awareness, alternatives, reverting back to environmentally friendly systems, intensive aquaculture, monitoring and law enforcement.