CHEDDIKULAM, SRI LANKA — Sellan Yogarasa returned to Sri Lanka in 2014, after more than two decades of exile in India. He leased 9 acres of agricultural land and began growing rice, a staple food for the island’s 22 million inhabitants. A harvest typically yielded about 288 bags of paddy, each weighing 25 kilograms (55 pounds), enough for a decent livelihood. But overnight this calculus crumbled for Sellan — and for many others in the Sri Lankan labor force, over a third of whom are involved in the paddy sector.
In May 2021, the government banned agrochemicals, with the professed aim of becoming the world’s first country free of chemical fertilizer. A year on, as the country reaps the consequences of that decision — while also grappling with a broader economic crisis — its new prime minister has warned of an impending food shortage.
Sri Lanka harvests rice twice a year, contingent on its two monsoon seasons. During the maha cycle — maha means “bigger” in Sinhala — rice is sown in September and harvested by March, while the yala, or “lesser,” cycle begins in May and ends by August. Although the agrochemical ban was partially rolled back in November, its impact on the island’s ability to feed itself was immediately evident. Rice imports in Sri Lanka, which is usually self-sufficient in its staple crop, leaped from 15,770 metric tons in 2020 to 147,091 metric tons in 2021, and more than 90% was imported in the last two months of the year. Nationwide data is not yet available, but experts estimate that the rice harvest could decline by about 33%.
Across northern Sri Lanka’s Vavuniya district, the average annual paddy yield has decreased from 101,831 tons to 49,218 tons following the ban on chemical fertilizers, says Nesarathinam Vishnuthasan, assistant commissioner at the district department for agrarian development. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sellan, 63, says his yield plummeted by more than 60%. His 9 acres produced just 108 bags of paddy, a decline so precipitous that this season he is only cultivating groundnut, a legume crop that he says doesn’t require chemical fertilizer.
Farmers are not necessarily opposed to organic farming. A nationwide survey of farmers in July 2021 by Verité Research, a Colombo-based research firm, indicated a majority (64%) favored moving away from agrochemicals, but a higher number (78%) requested more than one year to transition. Eighty-five percent of surveyed farmers predicted a decline in harvest. Sellathambi Sritharan, head of a farmers federation in Vavuniya district, says organic agriculture is welcome but should not be forced upon farmers — especially overnight.
“It will take some time,” he says, “for the soil and man to get used to organic farming.”
Ninety-four percent of paddy farmers use chemical fertilizer, according to Verité Research, and many don’t have sufficient knowledge of organic alternatives. Kantaiya Kanagalingam, 62, has been cultivating rice for 25 years but struggled to sustain yields without chemical fertilizers. “In all my years, the last harvest was the only time I saw a massive drop in yields,” he says, gloomily spraying pesticide on fledgling stalks. They are pale and drained of color, he says, because of deficiency in soil nutrients, due to the limited application of fertilizer.
Selvarathinam Santhirasegaram, an economics professor at the University of Jaffna, says the government will have to make peace with agrochemicals for now if it wants to resuscitate local production and limit its import bill.
“Food is essential for survival,” he says.
Despite a rollback of the ban — which was ostensibly imposed to tackle chronic kidney disease among farmers, though the country’s dwindling foreign reserves may also have been a factor — supplies remain limited, partly due to a global spike in prices.
According to the United Nations, global fertilizer rates have increased by more than half in the past year, a spillover effect of the Ukraine crisis, since Russia and Belarus are the world’s second- and third-biggest producers of potash, a key fertilizer ingredient — and due to Sri Lanka’s depleted coffers. In Vavuniya district, the price of urea, a low-cost nitrogen fertilizer favored by local farmers, has increased by a factor of 25, says Antony Kamilas Mathusan, a local seller.
“Farmers who bought 50 or 100 kilos of fertilizer now buy 5 or 10 kilos after hearing the price,” he says.
The government announced compensation for those affected by last year’s ban, but Vavuniya farmers say they have yet to receive any. The nationwide political and economic crisis has led to delays, says Nesarathinam. Sellan intends to cultivate rice on just 1.5 of his 9 acres next season unless fertilizer prices decline or are further subsidized by the government. If other farmers make similar reductions, it’s likely to prolong the island’s food crisis.
THAYALINI INDRAKULARASA, GPJ SRI LANKA
Kantaiya Kanagalingam sprays his paddy crop with chemical fertilizer in mid-May. The government imposed a short-lived ban on chemical fertilizer last year.
Meanwhile, the market price of rice has also skyrocketed — from 145 Sri Lankan rupees (40 cents) per kilogram in May 2021 to 230 rupees (64 cents). Sellathurai Mohanadevi, who sells ilia kanji, a traditional herbal gruel made from raw rice, coconut milk and leafy greens, saw his customers dwindle when he raised the price by 10 rupees (3 cents). “I do not know how to live with the current price,” he says. He has resorted to skipping a meal each day.
Earlier this month, on Twitter, Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, acknowledged the country’s declining harvests. “Around $150m [million] is required for our monthly food imports,” he wrote. “We require around $600m a year to ensure an adequate supply [of] fertilizer for our local and export crops. We are working on international assistance to obtain this.”
Sri Lanka’s crisis, albeit aggravated by government missteps, reflects a worldwide emergency. Global hunger has reached unprecedented levels, the U.N. has warned, with the number of severely food insecure people doubling in just two years, from 135 million before the pandemic to 276 million as of May 2022. “At today’s prices, farmers cannot afford seeds, fuel and fertilizers,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said last month. “There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets — despite the war.”
Sellan’s 90-year-old mother, Sellan Valliyammai, remembers the last time there was a food crisis of the sort now looming over Sri Lanka — decades ago, in 1974. Villagers rose before the sun to line up for rice, wheat and sugar. Mothers despaired over hungry children. She doesn’t want to revisit that time, even in her memories. Nor does she want her children and grandchildren to experience anything like it.
Thayalini Indrakularasa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka.
Crisis-hit Sri Lanka has decided to import 50,000 metric tonnes of rice under the Indian credit line to curb an abnormal rise in rice prices, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Thursday
Crisis-hit Sri Lanka has decided to import 50,000 metric tonnes of rice under the Indian credit line to curb an abnormal rise in rice prices, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Thursday, as the island nation is grappling with an impending food shortage.
The decision was taken after a discussion held at the Prime Minister's Office to allocate funds to the State Trading Corporation under the Indian loan assistance programme, news portal EconomyNext reported.
This is expected to avert a possible rice shortage in the future and to curb the abnormal rise in rice prices, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement on Thursday.
In March, India extended a USD 1 billion credit line to the cash-strapped Sri Lankan government to tide over the current economic turmoil as well as in dealing with the food shortage.
After an agreement to extend the line of credit was inked, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said India has always stood with the people of Sri Lanka and will continue to extend all possible support to the country.
In April 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a ban on chemical fertilisers, which led to a crippling blow to the production of rice and other essential food items.
Prior to the fertiliser ban, Sri Lanka was self-sufficient in rice production.
The situation was exacerbated by an acute scarcity of foreign exchange reserves, which meant that the Sri Lankan economy would head into a tailspin.
The UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy had said that nearly 4.9 million are currently in need of food assistance, making up for nearly 25 per cent of the country's population.
With Sri Lanka in the throes of an impending food shortage, Wickremesinghe has invited David Beasley, the Executive Director at the United Nations World Food Programme to visit Sri Lanka.
The nearly bankrupt country, with an acute foreign currency crisis that resulted in foreign debt default, announced in April that it is suspending nearly USD 7 billion foreign debt repayment due for this year out of about USD 25 billion due through 2026.
Sri Lanka's total foreign debt stands at USD 51 billion.
(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka may have to import about 800,000 metric tonnes of rice amid a crop shortfall created by a chemical fertilizer ban in the 2022 main season and under cultivation in the current season, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said.
The 800,000 metric tonnes is enough to meet the domestic demand for about four months.
In a good year, Sri Lanka can produce about 3 million tonnes of paddy which turns out to be about 3.0 million tonnes of milled rice.
Already Sri Lanka had imported 339,000 metric tonnes of rice up to the end of the year, he said.
Sri Lanka’s monthly rice demand is estimated at around 190,000 to 200,000 metric tonnes.
“The current rice stocks are enough to meet the demand for up to about the middle of October,” Minister Amaraweera told Sri Lanka’s Derana Television.
“This year’s Yala harvest is estimated to be enough for about two months, due to lower cultivation.”
“That will take the rice availability up to November.”
This year’s Yala season has been hit by fertilizer shortages and diesel for agricultural equipment.
The government is planning to get 65,000 MT of fertilizer from India which can be used in the current season, he said.
However there is late cultivation seen, Minister Amaraweera said with renewed interest in cultivation due to food shortage fears which may take rice availability up to mid-December, he said.
“There is no need to have undue fears that there will be food shortages from August,” Minister Amaraweera said.
“The trade minister is planning to order rice from abroad. It was also discussed at the cabinet today. So we will import the shortfall.
“We will have to import about 800,000 metric tonnes of rice from abroad.”
The Maha main cultivation season starts at the end of the year and harvests begin from around February the following year.
Sri Lanka had seen rice shortfalls of one million tonnes or more in 2016 and 2018 which had been imported.
Global rice prices are now around 375 to 450 dollars a tonne, requiring around 300 to 360 million US dollars to import 800,000 metric tonnes.
Global commodity prices have shot up after US money printing pushed inflation to 40-year highs under the so-called Powell Bubble.
Classical economists have warned for over two years that Fed policy would trigger a commodity bubble and a wide miss in its inflation target. (Conditions ripe for global commodity super-cycle: Steve Hanke)
In the Bernanke-Greenspan bubble which collapsed in 2008/2009 triggering a global economic contraction, several countries banned grain exports.
Minister Amaraweera said Sri Lanka was trying to place import orders early because prices can move up further and there was a danger that rice-producing countries may ban exports.
Though Sri Lanka has easily imported food in the past, now the country is in the middle of a severe foreign exchange shortage, he said.
The government is in the process of raising funds to finance imports from bi-lateral partners, officials have said.
Sri Lanka earns about a billion US dollars through exports, and about 600 million US dollars from remittances where about half comes through official channels. But the balance can be used for food imports anytime open account imports are allowed.
Sri Lanka is currently facing foreign exchange shortages due to monetary instability coming from the lack of a working monetary regime after a soft-peg lost credibility.
Sri Lanka’s central bank has hiked rates to slow domestic credit and reduce outflows. There have been calls to shift away from the unstable intermediate regime which breaks under ‘flexible’ monetary policy to a single anchor regime with tight rules to prevent (Colombo/June07/2022)
Sri Lanka wants farmers to plant more rice as part of plans to avert a severe food shortage, a top official said on Tuesday, as experts warned of a 50% drop in production that would worsen the impact of its already-severe financial crisis.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst such crisis in more than seven decades. The island of 22 million people has run out of foreign exchange reserves and is unable to pay for critical imports including fuel, food and medicine.
“It is clear the food situation is becoming worse. We request all farmers to step into their fields in the next five to ten days and cultivate paddy,” Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told a press conference on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka’s new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned of a severe food shortage by August and estimates $600 million will be needed to import fertliser, which the country is struggling to raise.
Most fertliser will arrive too late for the next cultivation cycle that usually kicks off in early June, a group of agriculture experts have warned. In the next two seasons, sufficient quantities of fertilizer will not be available to fulfill the nutrient requirements of any of the major crops of rice, tea and maize.
Buddhi Marambe, an agriculture professor at the University of Peradeniya, said some areas will lose more than 50% of the paddy yield even if action is taken.
“Even if we bring fertilizer today, it will be too late to have a good harvest,” he said.
Talks are underway with India to procure 65,000 tonnes of fertliser and appeals have been made to seven other countries, Amaraweera said. But he did not disclose details of when shipments would arrive.
Last month the central bank announced it would “preemptively” default on some of its external debt as the currency depreciated more than 50% and food inflation hit 46% in April.
Sri Lanka economic crisis pushes price of food items to ‘unbearable levels’, rice now selling at over Rs 200 per kg
Weaning Away From “Green Revolution” TechnologyWith many vested interests at work, the government is learning a bitter lesson that it is not easy to wean away farmers from the use of chemicals in farming. It needs careful planning and closer consultations with farmers. The agricultural production system in Sri Lanka consists of two traditional and well-defined components. One is the plantation section, established during the colonial period, consisting of large units, and producing perennial crops such as coffee, tea, rubber, and coconut mainly for export. The other is the smallholder sector comprised of small farms, which produce most of the country’s rice, vegetables, legumes, tubers, spices, and fruits. While, fertilizers and pesticides have long been used for the production of plantation crops in Sri Lanka, until several decades ago, most of the smallholder operations were farmed with little or no input of agricultural chemicals. Wide use of chemical fertilizer was introduced to the country during the so-called ‘green revolution’ in the decades 1960-70 along with “high-yielding” seeds.
Costly Fertilizer Imports and SubsidyIn 2020, Sri Lanka imported (both state and private sector) foreign fertilizers worth $259 million, representing 1.6 percent of the country’s total imports by value according to Central Bank statistics. Sources indicate that the 2021 import bill could potentially total in the range of $300-$400 million given current international prices. By limiting and/or banning costly foreign exchange draining fertilizer and agrochemical imports, the Sri Lankan government aims to generate significant import cost savings. But, Professor Buddhi Marambe, a former Dean of Agriculture Faculty at the University of Peradeniya in recent newspaper articles has warned that an overnight shift to organic fertilizer could lead to crop declines that in turn cause huge food shortages within months. “We have spoken based on science. Without going for evidence-based decisions, nothing will go right,” he argues, refuting claims by the government that they are being manipulated. “Food security is national security,” he stresses, adding, “we must have sustainable policies to ensure food security because there is no point relying on food imports from outside”.
Rice Farmers’ GrievancesSome rural farmers have already decided not to cultivate Sri Lanka’s staple rice in the ongoing ‘Maha’ or next ‘Yala’ cultivation seasons, because of the government’s failure to supply necessary fertilizers. Farmers here are deeply unhappy at the sudden banning of the import of chemical fertilizer. They mainly cultivate paddy, low country vegetables, cereals, grains, and onions. However, in this ‘Maha’ season, they could not use chemical fertilizer, If the government promised to supply the required organic fertilizer, farmers say they didn’t receive it at the correct time. Rice farmers have thus used different fertilizer that is normally used for tea, cinnamon, and coconut. They say this season’s rice harvest is very disappointing with resulting low incomes. Piyarathna, Chairman, Eksath Sulu Farmer Organization, representing farmers from Dehiyannewela, Divilunkadawala ,Viharagama, Medirigiriya areas told IDN that there are 142 farmers in their farmer organization and they cultivate more than 190 acres using minor irrigation water. “Our farmers normally harvest 100- 120 bushel (2500-3000 kg) per acre using chemical fertilizer. However, this time farmers can’t expect such harvest due to improper fertilizer usage” he says, adding, “farming is now a business enterprise, (and) farmers cultivate not only for (their)consumption”. Paddy plants take around 3–6 months to grow from seeds to mature plants, depending on the variety and environmental conditions. They undergo three general growth phases: vegetative, reproductive, and ripening. “Our farmers cultivate two groups: the short-duration varieties which mature in 105–120 days and the long-duration varieties which mature in 150 days”, he explained. “They (farmers) use hybrid seed and not traditional varieties. These hybrids varieties need quality fertilizer to increase the harvest. By using organic fertilizer farmers can’t expect high yield”. Piyarathna says that farmers in the Polonnaruwa area have complained that the compost they have received is of inferior quality with most of the purchased compost having debris, seeds and stones. Kapila Ariyawasnsa, a 38 year old farmer from the Ekamuthu Bedum Ela Farmer Organization in Mahaweli river irrigation System B told IDN that he cultivate 8 acres of low land both in Yala and Maha seasons – mainly paddy – and there are also 206 rice farmers belonging to his organization. He thinks that the proposed organic fertilizer program is not practical in their area. “There are not enough resources to make compost in our village. Greenery vegetables can be cultivated using compost, not paddy,” he argues, because “there is no traditional varieties and only have all hybrid seeds (and) these hybrid seeds need required fertilizer for bumper harvest”. Further, he said that he had to spend Rs 23000 (USD 115) to purchase Yuria in black market. Ariyawasnsa, predicts that the rural economy will collapse after the coming rice harvest. “Farmers won’t have the yield this time, they would get only 30 per cent of the harvest” he predicts. “Most of the people in Mahaweli area depend on agriculture”. He added that not only Mahaweli B zone, but most farmers in the Polonnaruwa District, would face bad harvests due to the government’s organic fertilizer program. “The current government’s policy (has been based on) unplanned policy decisions” he laments.
Farmer’s ExpectationThere is also growing interest among farmers for producing organically-grown food products and they understand the export potential for it. Some farm production units have already experienced considerable success in such ventures. Organic food production and marketing could be greatly expanded in Sri Lanka. But, research is needed to develop organic farming systems and practices that are efficient, productive, and profitable. This is the criticism the government is facing at the moment. M.G. Dayawathi Chairman of Kalukele People’s company said that banning of chemical fertilizer has affected their company’s microfinance system too. “We have given more than 52 lakhs (5.2 million) of cultivation loans to 75 farmers for this Maha season. Unfortunately, farmers would not make the expected income and they are not in position to repay loans” she told IDN “Moreover, farmers mortgage their gold and their vehicles to purchase chemical fertilizer in the black market. They are trapped in a loan cycle. Government cannot expect livelihood improvement (among farmers) with this kind of unplanned program”.
ECONOMYNEXT - Sri Lanka expects to harvest 988,000 metric tonnes of paddy (rough rice) during the ongoing drought stricken Yala minor cultivation season, down 35 percent from a year earlier, the lowest in a decade, data from the state agriculture agency showed.
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