The fertiliser ban that went awry | Sunday Observer

The fertiliser ban that went awry

20 November, 2022

Although Sri Lanka takes pride in being an agricultural economy, the agricultural sector only contributes to 7.4 percent of the national gross domestic production (GDP) out of which only 5.2 percent comes from farming. Despite the relatively low contribution to GDP, employment in the agricultural sector has remained disproportionately large.

In 2020, labour force participation in the agricultural sector was 23.7 percent, meaning that nearly a quarter of Sri Lanka’s labour force engages in natural resource dependent livelihoods. Being dependent on a natural resource base increases risks associated with vulnerable livelihoods due to plant growth aspects, market factors, and erratic changes in weather patterns, that have been both frequent and severe in the recent past. It is because farmers assume such financial risks, the fertiliser subsidy was introduced for paddy in 1962 to allow farmers to switch from farming traditional rice varieties to high yielding rice varieties and to meet the demand for paddy in Sri Lanka.

Overdependence on chemical fertiliser

Unforeseen at the time, the implementation of the policy has led to an overdependence on and overuse of chemical fertiliser by farmers, which has created somewhat of a detrimental effect on farming, farmer health, and the environment over the years. It is under this guise that the former administration led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned the importation of chemical fertiliser, essentially overnight, in a dramatic and an unforeseen speed. The subsidy was done away with once before in 1990 on account of its burden on the treasury but was re-implemented four years later.

The 2021 ban differs from its 1990 precursor, in that the fertiliser subsidy was reversed in favour of consumer health, as justified by the then President Rajapaksa. However, evidence coming to light shows that the ban was, perhaps, implemented in an attempt to curtail the mounting debt crisis Sri Lanka was facing as it was at the brink of bankruptcy in early 2020.

On the whole, the consequences of the ban on the economy and farmer livelihoods have been catastrophic. It has resulted in the Maha seasonal harvest in 2020/21 to drop by 37 percent as opposed to the previous year. In fact, the last Maha seasonal harvest was the record lowest yield Sri Lanka had witnessed since 2003/04, with the exception of 2016/17 which experienced prolonged droughts since mid-2016 due to a climate anomaly that caused an unusual switch between La Nina and El Nino phenomenon; a sequence witnessed only four times in the past 150 years.

The drop in yield in the 2020/21 Maha season has precipitated a national food crisis amid food shortages and price hikes and has drastically reduced the already-low income of a group of people that are vulnerable to climate challenges, essentially pushing them into a new class of poor.

Decline in yield

Anecdotal evidence from farmers interviewed in August 2022, for a study on the interlinkages of environmental and sustainable development policies in Sri Lanka, done in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), shows that farmers have seen a decline in their yield in the 2020/21 Maha season and were anticipating a further decline in the yield in the then-forthcoming Yala season. Farmers have offset the resultant decline in income by cutting down on major expense groups such as food expenditure. Some had even shifted from commercial farming to subsistence farming to ensure that their families had something to eat.

Exacerbating the existent situation of vulnerability, the rise in input cost following the fertiliser ban – including labour, fuel, and available inorganic fertiliser – has meant that farmers have shifted away from agriculture in search of other livelihood opportunities that help them make ends meet. This has essentially disrupted a livelihood system upon which the majority of rural dwellers depended.

In general, the safety nets available to farmers are the Farmers’ Pension and Social Security Scheme and Agricultural Insurance of which the latter covers crop damages from climate risks and wild animal attacks. Neither scheme was applicable to cover losses borne by the fertiliser ban. Even if they had been so, it would have been inaccessible to many beneficiaries as these two policies are known for being inefficient and/or having difficult bureaucratic and paperwork procedures.

The only relief made available to farmers during this period has been the haphazard handing out of the Rs 5,000 relief packages, and at times, the ration pack (Badu malla) which has been adopted as a quick response to crises since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been no cohesive way of addressing this issue as the uncoordinated distribution of relief packages has also put a strain on the national economy.

Grievance mechanism

In a way, such relief measures were designed to address the symptoms of a larger condition which the policymakers and other government officials had failed to acknowledge and address in the first place. When the farmers themselves raised their concerns over decreasing yields, incomes, and conditions of living, the then government decided to implement a grievance mechanism to compensate for the losses borne by farmers. However, this mechanism was conditional as the government required farmers to provide evidence of the lack of chemical fertiliser having caused the losses they experienced. Proper processes of acknowledgement and accountability could not be seen from the government.

The impact of this ad-hoc policy ban, unfortunately, was not the only thing that affected the farmers and their families. The political and economic crisis due to the cumulative result of Covid-19 coupled with inefficient and incompetent fiscal and monetary policy decisions by the previous government have also affected farmers. While the food prices skyrocketed, in part due to the chemical fertiliser ban, a situation arose wherein there was a supply shortage of produce and food in the domestic market.

As the foreign reserves declined, the government struggled to import the needed food items into the country. This provides great insights into the lack of synergy and incoherence between different policies, acting in silos within the national framework, deterring a conducive environment in achieving a larger national policy objective and/or goal.


Although the government entered into agreements, loans, and credit lines to secure food items and other essentials, they have not aided the public in a meaningful way. This is reflected in the ever-increasing inflation rates (69.8 percent as of September 2022), food insecurity (an estimated 6.3 million people as of September 2022) food inflation (94.9 percent as of September 2022), and malnutrition among people, especially children (an estimated 1.7 million children; the second-highest rate of malnutrition in children in South Asia). Apart from the credit lines secured for fuel, Sri Lanka secured a credit line of further $55 million from India Exim Bank to purchase fertiliser.

In hoping to address the lack of organic fertiliser, the government also attempted to import 20,000 tonnes of organic fertiliser from Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group based in China. However, as the fertiliser consignment reached the country, the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQ) released a statement claiming the imported batch of organic fertiliser not being sterile and, therefore, not suitable for use. Offended by this statement, Qingdao Seawin pressured the Sri Lankan government into compensating for the already shipped organic fertiliser consignment.

The government was compelled to pay Qingdao Seawin $6.87 million, pointing to the need for transparency, accountability, and standardisation processes in government decision making.

Perhaps, the most visible manifestation of this crisis is the fuel shortage which has made farming even more difficult. The effort required in securing fuel meant that farmers could no longer rely on machinery, which resultantly affected farmers’ productivity heavily.

RRDI recommendation

A report by the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI) of Sri Lanka in 2013 recommends that a mixture of both organic and chemical fertilisers at a ratio of 30:70 to be used, with organic fertiliser application not exceeding 50 percent. This proposition was drafted considering the difficulty or impossibility in switching completely to organic farming methods, which would need large amounts of organic material, and the likelihood of resulting in a possible food shortage due to lower yields as well as concerns over affordability.

However, this policy was not operationalised until the introduction of the chemical fertiliser ban in 2021. Although farmers were compelled to start using more organic fertiliser, it has indeed come at a significant cost at the farmers and food security.

Policymakers often forget that there is a nexus between the environment and society when policies are formulated, enacted, and implemented. Although the conservation of the environment and sustainable development are of utmost importance, implementing policies to this end could lead to major societal costs when there is no coherence between the implemented policies. There is more of a likelihood of such poorly implemented policies affecting those who lack the means and agency to protect themselves from their (un)intended consequences; the poor.

Banning chemical fertiliser was implemented to deal with avoiding bankruptcy under the guise of promoting organic and sustainable agriculture and nutritious food. Masking the real reason shows the lack of foresight and concern over the impact on its citizenry, wherein saving face by attempting to ease the country of its debt burdens, albeit strategically, comes first. However, in doing so, the government only succeeded in creating a new poor and adding further foreign debt and credit lines to its portfolio.