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Communicating policy

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Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector is hoping to receive good news on the reversal of the glyphosate ban shortly, ending nearly three years of appeals to have a universally-accepted weedicide freely available again. 

When a Government is appointed to power, consistent policymaking is at the core of public expectations. Yet formulating policies can be a tricky business, which sometimes can be hijacked by politics that could drown out rational discourse including basing them on scientific evidence. 

In the last three years Sri Lanka has had two such controversial policy decisions, one being the ban of glyphosate and, more recently, the proposed asbestos ban. The former has been roundly argued about as not being based on sound scientific evidence and implemented with little or no stakeholder consultation. The danger of this type of policymaking is that it can cause even bigger problems than what the policy was initially attempting to avert.

Sri Lanka’s tea industry is a prime example of this facing an estimated 5%-7% loss in production and about Rs. 15 billion revenue loss. 

According to top industry officials, due to the glyphosate ban the industry had resorted to using alternatives that could be considered as higher in toxicity by importing countries. In the absence of Glyphosate weedicide, tea plantations turned to an alternative weedicide named MCPA. This weedicide is considered to be far more harmful to human health with Japanese and European countries placing strict limits on the levels permissible for consumption. Unfortunately, most of the teas produced in Sri Lanka, except for a few plantations, produce teas which have MCPA residue levels in made tea far in excess of these limits.

Unfortunately changing to a different weedicide is not a simple matter as they have to be approved by the destination countries, sometimes years in advance. This is a very serious situation and directly the result of unconventional and irregular decision-making.

Of course the issue goes much deeper. Sri Lankans consuming this tea ingest this high level of toxicity as well, which is not being addressed. Commercial agriculture requires some percentage of chemicals and if Sri Lanka is unable to farm widely enough to feed its population then it must be ready to increase imports, which is also tricky given the country’s high debt levels and moderate foreign exchange reserves. 

At the recent National Economic Council meeting several key policy decisions including the proposal to reverse the Glyphosate ban bad been discussed and top officials have confirmed that it is to be implemented. However key organisations such as a the Planter’s Association is yet to be officially notified of the change, according to reports, emphasising the deep need of the government to not just make progressive decisions but also communicate them in a timely and comprehensive manner to avoid confusion. Policy consistency should be supported by policy communication or the job will not be fully done.

Science is not a smooth process where everyone arrives at universal agreement. Instead, it is a competitive, intellectual battle. Not all people of science think alike; in fact, advancement happens when ideas bang into one another and create new ideas and thoughts. But this process does not mean science should be ignored in the decision-making process but rather it should get a seat at the table along with social, economic and other considerations. If anything needs to be left out in the cold, it would best be politics.

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