Nallathambi Mahendran walks through his 1.6 hectares of emerald green paddy fields in northern Sri Lanka’s Kilinochchi district, indicating the height the plants should have reached by now.
They are several feet too short. The standing paddy crop across most of this major rice-growing belt is stunted for the second successive season because of the lack of fertiliser, according to farmers, a union leader and local government officials.
In 10,900 hectares of land under cultivation in Kilinochchi, the average yield is likely to hit 2.3 metric tonnes per hectare, according to government estimates seen by Reuters.
Mr Mahendran gestures to show the ideal height of his rice paddy plants. ( ) Reuters: Devjyot Ghoshal In previous years, paddy fields in the area delivered around 4.5 tonnes per hectare, according to a local government official who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to media.
Across rice farms in this Indian Ocean island, the bleak picture is emerging that the summer harvest could be as low as half that of previous years, according to experts.
With rice being Sri Lanka’s staple food, it points to further pressure on a country already struggling with its worst economic crisis in modern times, including runaway inflation and growing levels of malnutrition.
The shortage of fertiliser is not the only problem for farmers. The country has hardly any currency reserves to import adequate fuel, so farm machinery and trucks that could be used to transport rice to markets are in short supply. Some farmers say their crops are not worth harvesting.
Compounding the economic misery, the stunted crop means the island will have to use some of its precious currency reserves, a credit line from India and foreign aid to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rice.
Across the country, paddy production during the ongoing “Yala”, or summer farming season, could be half the average 2 million tonnes of previous years, said Buddhi Marambe, a professor of crop science at Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya University.
“This is mainly because of the absence of fertiliser during the vegetative growth stages of the crops,” Professor Marambe said.
“Urea was made available with lots of effort but was too late for many areas.”
Sri Lanka has been self-sufficient in rice for decades, but went to international markets last year to buy 149,000 tonnes of the grain after the fertiliser shortage first hit production.
In 2022, the country has already contracted to import 424,000 tonnes.
Rice is the staple food of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, and its biggest crop. ( ) Reuters: Devjyot Ghoshal More imports may be needed to stave off food shortages in the first two months of 2023, or until the “Maha” crop that is planted in September is harvested, Professor Marambe said.
A committee appointed by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture is currently evaluating the need for additional imports, a ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Sri Lankan government did not respond to requests for comment on the food situation and likely imports.
Worse pain still yet to come Rice is the staple food of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people and its biggest crop.
According to government data, 2 million people in the country are rice farmers out of 8.1 million people engaged in fishing and agriculture in the largely rural economy.
Food inflation is already at more than 90 per cent year-on-year, according to July data, and the World Food Programme estimates about 6.7 million Sri Lankans out of a population of 22 million are not eating enough.
There may be more pain to come.
Hammered by the potential halving of the Yala crop, the shortage of fertiliser and soaring costs for inputs, some farmers in Kilinochchi, a fertile region served by an intricate system of irrigation ponds and canals, are considering sitting out the Maha farming season.
“Even though we worked in the paddy fields, we won’t make any money,” says Mahendran, a tall 67-year-old with a streak of silver in his hair.
“If there is no urea or fertiliser available, I won’t farm in the Maha season.”
The Iranaimadu Farmers’ Federation, which represents about 7,500 farming families in the Kilinochchi area, gave the same message to local government officials at a recent meeting.
“Fuel is our biggest problem,” said the federation’s secretary Muthu Sivamohan, speaking near a petrol and diesel station outside which a queue of vehicles stretched for 3 kilometres along the main road running through Kilinochchi town.
“We can’t harvest and we can’t sow the next crop,” Mr Sivamohan said.
People queue outside a fuel station in Kilinochchi. Sri Lanka is currently going through its worst economic crisis of modern times. ( ) Reuters: Devjyot Ghoshal He said most of Kilinochchi district’s paddy crop must be harvested within weeks, but “no lorries are coming from outside to buy and transport our crop”.
Diesel for combine harvesters is being rationed, and fewer trucks are available to transport rice because of the fuel crunch.
Some critics trace Sri Lanka’s unfolding food catastrophe to former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision in April last year to ban chemical fertilisers overnight, part of a drive to make the country’s produce more organic.
Faced with widespread protests from the farming community, the ban was lifted in November, but not before disrupting supplies and leaving most Sri Lankan farmers without essential fertilisers for last year’s Maha season.
The lack of hard currency at a time of spiralling prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also squeezed imports of essentials including fuel, cooking gas, medicines and food.
‘Now, we are dying every day’
The resulting shortages led to an outburst of public anger against the government and once-powerful president, and sometimes violent mass protests eventually forced Mr Rajapaksa to flee the country and quit the presidency.
In Kilinochchi, where the Sri Lankan military maintains an outsized presence — a vestige of a decades-long bloody civil war that ended in 2009 — there were no major anti-government demonstrations.
But the impact of the crumbling economy has rippled through the hinterland, leaving some farmers who survived the war that killed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people struggling.
To farm 30 hectares of land, Chinnathambi Lankeshwaran says he would typically spend about 175,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($693) per hectare and recover about 100 bags of rice from each of those hectares.
Chinnathambi Lankeswaran, 49, and farm worker Mohammed Meeran Vijay Kumar, 50, move sacks of freshly harvested rice paddy. ( ) Reuters: Devjyot Ghoshal A combination of shortages and inflation has led to his expenses more than doubling to 495,000 rupees ($1960) per hectare, each of which now yields only 45 to 50 bags of rice because of the lack of fertiliser and pesticides, Mr Lankeshwaran says.
The rising cost of farm inputs is striking, according to estimates provided by several farmers.
A bag of urea, previously costing 1,500 rupees ($5.95), is now 40,000 rupees ($158). A litre of Loyant, a popular rice herbicide, goes for more than 10 times its usual price at 100,000 rupees ($396) — when available.
A worker moves bags of urea fertiliser supplied through a credit line from India inside a warehouse in Kilinochchi. ( ) Reuters: Devkyot Ghoshal The price of an empty sack into which farmers put their harvest has tripled to 160 rupees (63 cents) each, and the thread they use to tie the sacks is sold for more than five times what it used to be, at around 1,200 rupees ($4.75) per kilogram.
The black market rate for diesel is hovering around 1,200 rupees ($4.75) per litre, much higher than the authorised pump price of 430 rupees ($1.70).
But supplies are scarce, and Mr Lankeshwaran says he has 300 bags of wheat stored at home because traders don’t have fuel to pick it up.
“In those days, we feared where the bombs would come from,” the 49-year-old farmer says, referring to the civil war that displaced his family of four.