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Towards phosphorus and climate smart agriculture (PACSA) in Sri Lanka

14 February 2017

Grocery store in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s food production is in the midst of a major transformation, largely driven by the President’s concerns about widespread Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin and his aspiration for a ‘Toxic Free Nation’.

This has already led to a nation-wide ban on glyphosate (‘Roundup’ weed killer), a new fertiliser subsidy program that encourages organic fertiliser use, and assistance for farmers to transition to organic agriculture.

As a low to middle income Asia-Pacific country with an agricultural sector comprised largely of smallholder farmers, rain-fed rice is often a staple and soils are largely phosphorus-deficient. Agricultural productivity in Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to two of the biggest global challenges for food security – phosphorus scarcity and climate change.

A research partnership between ISF researchers and Prof. Mohammed Esham at the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka aims to contribute to building resilience to climate change and phosphorus scarcity in Sri Lanka’s food systems.

Prof. Esham wrote about a Sri Lankan perspective on climate change and food security during a six-month Australian Endeavour Research Fellowship at ISF in 2015.

Whilst at ISF he became familiar with Dr Dana Cordell’s research on phosphorus futures and A/Prof. Brent Jacobs’ work using integrated vulnerability assessment frameworks.

This led to the establishment of the PACSA project, which is investigating the capacity of farmers, policy-makers, the agrochemical industry and other stakeholders in Sri Lanka to adapt to phosphorus scarcity and climate change via the development and testing of a novel rapid integrated vulnerability assessment framework.

Paddy farmers in southern Sri Lanka meeting with ISF researchers Dr Dana Cordell & Elsa Dominish, with Prof Mohamed Esham.

Paddy farmers in southern Sri Lanka meeting with ISF researchers Dr Dana Cordell & Elsa Dominish, with Prof Mohamed Esham.

Climate change projections indicate rice yields in Sri Lanka could drop by 40%, affect the majority of farmers and increase poverty levels by up to a third. Meanwhile, the removal of fertiliser subsidies could expose farmers in this import-dependent island state to future price fluctuations like the 2008 800% phosphate price spike.

While the stakeholders interviewed by the PACSA research team were unaware of global phosphorus risks and how this might impact their sectors, most reported strong awareness of climate change. In fact they are already experiencing the effects of climate change. In particular, farmers are on the front-line, suffering the effects of delayed monsoons and more extreme drought and rainfall patterns.

Sri Lankan vegetable farmers selling their produce to intermediaries at a Dedicated Economic Centre

Sri Lankan vegetable farmers selling their produce to intermediaries at a Dedicated Economic Centre (photo by Elsa Dominish)

The PACSA project team found that while Sri Lanka is vulnerable, there are many adaptive strategies already in place or planned, like small and large-scale waste-to-energy systems implemented through public-private partnerships, which although not necessarily directly driven by climate change or phosphorus scarcity, could be built upon to increase the resilience of the food system.

The team identified many opportunities for win-wins both on- and off-farm that address climate change and phosphorus scarcity together, such as developing crop varieties that are drought-tolerant and need less phosphorus fertiliser.    

Ultimately, this project aims to contribute to the resilience of Sri Lanka’s food system by increasing smallholder farmers’ capacity to adapt to phosphorus scarcity and climate change, while simultaneously improving national food security and the environmental integrity of agricultural land and waterways.

This week Dr Dana Cordell and A/Prof Brent Jacobs are presenting results of the PACSA’s first phase at the International Conference on Climate Change in Colombo. They will also meet with other government and non-government stakeholders there.

For more information, contact Dr Dana Cordell (Dana.Cordell@uts.edu.au) or A/Prof Brent Jacobs (Brent.Jacobs@uts.edu.au).