Effects of chemical fertiliser on human health and environment | Sunday Observer

Effects of chemical fertiliser on human health and environment

4 July, 2021

Utilising chemicals as fertiliser and pesticides have dramatically escalated during the past several decades in Sri Lanka and around the world. Chemical fertiliser, despite its extremely harmful impact, has become a boon to farmers in Sri Lanka to harvest enhanced agricultural yield although the long-term adverse effects to human health and the environment, in general, are immense.

Hence, the issue of organic fertiliser and farming was one of the most enthusiastically discussed topics in the country during the past several weeks. The ban of import of chemical fertiliser by the Government has earned tribute on one hand and also came under fire from part of the farming community due to short supply of fertiliser for the crops in the ongoing agriculture farming.

Long term negative effects

In principle, everybody agrees that the effect of utilising chemicals in agriculture produces long-term negative effects. The good impression of organic farming and the bad impact of chemical fertiliser in Sri Lanka was on dialogue for several years. It is said that the usage of chemical fertiliser in Sri Lanka is much higher than the world average.

There is no argument that the benefits of organic fertiliser in agriculture outweigh the synthetic man-made chemical fertiliser by leaps and bounds. Organic fertilisers are beneficial to the environment; boost both nutrient efficiency and organic matter content in the soil, enhance the quality of the produce, and provide many other benefits and advantages to society at large.

Keeping in line with the vision and the policy framework in ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speaking at a recent meeting held with the members of the ‘Presidential Task Force on Creating a Green Sri Lanka with Sustainable Solutions to Climate Change’, said that the agriculture sector of the country must be transformed to use organic fertilisers entirely.

Extending further, in his address to the nation on 25th June, President Rajapaksa stated that he has initiated a pragmatic action plan for an issue that has been in debate for decades. In the speech, he divulged that the discontinuation of chemical fertiliser imports was not a hasty decision but a result of many lengthy discussions with local and foreign experts and intellectuals.

The President reiterated that according to specialists, the long-term benefits to the nation are immense once the organic farming program is in place as a policy. He further said that international export markets for Sri Lanka will open up due to the huge global demand for organic fertiliser. Hence, farmers will have a better price for their produce, and more profits for entrepreneurs who will enter into organic food production will also have a heyday.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) in Sri Lanka is an extremely credible example of the harmful effects of chemical fertiliser. The International Water Management Institute suggests that over 150,000 people have been affected by CKD in rural communities.

Also, Professor Channa Jayasumena, a medical professional specialised in the subject who has researched CKD, through a research paper suggests that agrochemicals are a major source of inorganic arsenic in Sri Lanka and the increased arsenic contamination of soil and groundwater can adulterate food and drinking water. He also recently declared that over 30,000 patients are awaiting kidney transplants, revealing a devastating fact on the magnitude of the bad effects of chemicals used in agriculture. Hence, the Government’s move to restrict chemical fertiliser is an enormously important decision that must have been made long ago.

At worst, apart from chronic kidney disease that is common in some parts of the country, chemical fertilisers also can increase the risk of cancer in adults and children. According to studies, chemically fertilised food consumed can adversely affect fetal brain development, an area that has not been on discussion adequately thus far in Sri Lanka.

A study by the University of Wisconsin suggests that typical concentrations of nitrate (a common fertiliser) and a pesticide in the groundwater may compromise the nervous, endocrine, and immune system of young children and developing foetuses. Further, it was revealed that high levels of sodium nitrate in groundwater can cause gastric cancer and testicular cancer.

As discussed, the use of organic-based fertiliser in agriculture immensely benefits both growers, consumers, and the environment in many ways. Organic fertiliser boosts both nutrient efficiency and organic substance content in the soil. It also nurtures the soil with natural matter that reduces the dependency on destructive chemical inputs and increases soil fertility to plant growth. Organic fertiliser also improves the efficiency of nutrients use to produce healthier food.

Farmers taking face value

At the face value, one might think that chemical fertilisers give farmers more control over crop production. In some cases, this may be correct although the result usually is short-term because of the possible complexities of soil health that may occur in the long run.

One of the key environmental issues in chemical fertiliser is that the hazardous chemicals seeping through the soil into the groundwater. The seeping of chemicals into the ground can easily contaminate the water resources, initiating a chain reaction that may harm the balance of nature and also human health. Particularly, the damage to the groundwater resources can produce critical problems to the entire country in many ways.

The cumulative effect on the health of people who consume food grown by using chemical fertiliser can be exceedingly perilous. Food crops produced using chemicals may not be nutritious as they should be. Although using artificial fertiliser on crops may produce faster growth and some enhancement in the harvest in some cases, the nutritional value is far less compared to organic food products. Chemical fertiliser produces fewer essential nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron, according to various studies.

Chemical fertiliser contamination is dangerous to both rural and urban communities as the drinking water in the country draws predominantly from rivers, lakes, or other resources.

Although pipe-borne water commonly used in urban areas is purified before distribution, the river water contaminated by chemicals is creating a lethal danger to people when consumed. In rural areas where agriculture is being done traditionally can cause similar harm when groundwater is contaminated due to the usage of chemical fertilizer.

Regrettably, in Sri Lanka, a small segment of people still attempts to justify the use of chemical fertiliser in agriculture for unknown reasons, perhaps for monetary gains from chemical fertiliser manufacturers and their agents. Although there can be temporary practicality issues, in principle the notion is unassailable.


There may be certain uses in chemical fertiliser as per their explanations. Nevertheless, most of the research papers published throughout the world does not discard the fact that using such fertiliser trigger damage to the environment and human health.

It is known that such damage is most often long-term, cumulative, and can be fatal. So-called intellectuals who are in favour of the continuance of chemical fertiliser usage should be invited to research thousands of victims who are either deceased or undergoing serious treatment for kidney disease, cancer, skin-related illnesses, and many other ailments.

However, concerns raised by experts on the country’s agricultural output also must be taken into consideration seriously. Also, the ongoing protests by the farming community seem genuine and perhaps created due to the inefficiency of the relevant state institutions.

Nevertheless, the Government must extend the highest priority to the agriculture farming fraternity and offer them reasonable solutions until carbonic farming is properly placed.

At this juncture, the entire country should support the move to reduce and eliminate the use of chemical fertiliser, not because of the Presidential manifesto or the Government’s request but to safeguard human lives in the country and the environment from the toxic effects of chemical fertiliser.

The answer to the havoc created by chemical fertiliser is organic farming and an environmentally friendly agricultural approach. Now it is a well-established fact that there is a dire need to move towards the goals of nurturing organic farming systems.