Diseased Australian seed potatoes land northern farmers in a rotten deal

For decades, veteran vegetable farmer Selvaskantharajah Thusyanthan cultivated potatoes and red onions throughout the year, depending on the monsoons, in his small plot of fertile land in Punnalaikkadduvan North, Jaffna.

But he could not go ahead as planned this time due to the unavailability of seed potatoes. Yet, he is among the 300 beneficiaries of a joint initiative called the Agriculture Modernisation Project (ASMP), supported by the World Bank and the European Union, with the Ministry of Agriculture as an implementing partner to support smallholder farmers.

Farmers alleged that a massive consignment of 20 metric tonnes (MT) of imported seed potatoes turned out to be infected with harmful bacteria due to poor storage facilities in the region and import irregularities.

Imported seed potatoes being stored in Kuppilan Jaffna. They were found to be infected with fungi.

“For this season, we prepared our lands as usual for potato cultivation ahead of the monsoon despite many financial difficulties,” Mr. Thusyanthan, who also heads the Potato Farmers Union in Jaffna, told the Sunday Times. “But when we went to the store to collect seed potatoes, most of them were rotten and not in good condition. Now our lands are empty since it is too late.”

The whole consignment is now due to be disposed of in the coming days after pathological studies found it to be contaminated with harmful bacteria.

Most Northern vegetable farmers cultivate short-term crops such as potatoes, chili and red onion throughout the year, targeting harvest in early January after the North-East monsoon. “The Government should provide us relief to cover our expenses in preparing the land since unpredictable weather also made things very difficult for us,” Mr. Thusyanthan said.

Farmers alleged that an imported consignment of potatoes was brought to a store in Kupillan, Jaffna, on November 17 and was quarantined. Unlike in the past, where consignments were packaged in cardboard boxes, these were in jute bags. When they visited again on December 12, most of the potatoes had become rotten and a bad odour was emanating.

After initial laboratory investigations, the certificate issued by the National Plant Quarantine Service on November 22 indicated the presence of Geotrichum spp, a fungus found commonly in potato-cultivating soil.

“Geotrichum spp. were detected on culture plates; therefore, the importer must be strongly advised that additional care should be taken when storing the seed potatoes,” said the quarantine certificate, seen by the Sunday Times.

The cargo containers weighing 14.75 MT and 5.85 MT were imported by an Australia-based company named Campo Agriculture Holdings. The consignment was submitted for quarantine on November 15.

After the farmers informed officials of the status of the consignment, an inspection team led by the assistant director of agriculture (research) of the plant pathology division in Kilinochchi visited the facility on December 12. The team found that about 40% of the tubers had severely rotted and decayed.

Initial laboratory analysis confirmed the presence of fungal (Geotrichum spp) and bacterial (Pectobacterium carotovorum) infections, according to the report by the team.

A substantial level of infection has been attributed to unfavourable storage conditions for nearly three weeks in a poorly ventilated environment with elevated internal temperatures, the report said, adding this was likely to have created a microenvironment conducive to pathogen proliferation.

“These conditions contradicted the appropriate storage requirements recommended for the storage of seed potatoes by the Department of Agriculture, especially for Red Lasoda potatoes which exhibit heightened susceptibility to Geotrichum spp fungal infections under elevated temperatures,” the report noted.

ASMP Deputy Director Anura Wijetunga, who visited the store earlier this week, said the main reason for the poor quality of seed potatoes was the unpredicted weather patterns the region had witnessed in recent weeks with heavy rains across the province.

The decision to dispose of the consignment, he said, was taken based on the reports submitted by the teams, which recommended immediate disposal to prevent environmental contamination.

On Thursday, at the District Coordination Committee meeting co-chaired by Northern Province Governor P.S.M. Charles a decision was taken to call for quarantine certificates by the National Plant Quarantine Service of the Department of Agriculture on the consignment.

A committee was also appointed by the DCC to look into whether there were any violations of quarantine regulations or irregularities in the procurement of the 20 MT shipment for Northern farmers.

Also on Thursday, the Agriculture Department gave a report on the condition of the seed potato consignments to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, who instructed officials to investigate inadequate facilities and the loss incurred by the Government in the importation, maintenance and disposal of the consignment.

Farmer Thusyanthan said many farmers were already struggling to cope with mortgages and loans which they took to cover expenses in this crisis. “Even the climate was not helpful to us and makes engaging in farming more difficult now.”

The Sunday Times, SL

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