The disaster of organic farming in Sri Lanka explained

Sri Lanka’s economy is in free fall. Runaway inflation hit 54.6 percent last month, and the South Asian country is now heading towards bankruptcy. Nine out of 10 Sri Lankan families are forgoing meals, and many stand in line for days hoping for fuel.

The dire situation culminated last weekend with an uprising in which an estimated 300,000 protesters seized the home and offices of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and set fire to the home of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa resigned after fleeing the country, leaving Wickremesinghe as interim president.

There is no single cause for the crisis, which has been piling up for years due to political corruption and right-wing authoritarian policies that have weakened democracy. In April 2019, the crisis accelerated after suicide bombings in churches damaged the island nation’s vital tourism industry, weakening its currency and making it difficult for the government to import essential goods.

At the end of 2019, tax cuts slashed government revenue, while in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the tourism industry, as high inflation fueled the fire.

Regardless of the epidemic, this is not an atypical set of circumstances for the collapse of a developing country like Sri Lanka. But in the spring of 2021, President Rajapaksa made an unusual decision: He banned the import of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides overnight, forcing millions of Sri Lankan farmers to switch to organic products. It has proven disastrous, a group of Sri Lankan scientists and agriculture experts have warned.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2021 in New York City.
Justin Lin / Getty Images

According to one estimate, the president’s ban on agricultural chemicals was It prepares to save Sri Lanka with the $400 million it was spending annually on synthetic fertilizers, money it could use to increase Other merchandise imports. But Rajapaksa also argued that chemical fertilizers and pesticides were leading to “adverse health and environmental impacts” and that these industrial farming methods were incompatible with the country’s heritage of “sustainable food systems”.

“There is a section of the Sri Lankan NGO community and civil society, which has been advocating the spread of organic farming in Sri Lanka for a long time. Ramakumar, an agricultural economist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India told me…

But instead of fixing the crisis, this move exacerbated it.

“The organic policy has been implemented to mitigate an ongoing crisis… Ironically what it has done is it has exacerbated the crisis,” Ramakumar said.

The agrochemical ban caused rice production to drop by 20 percent in the six months after its implementation, causing a country that was self-sufficient in rice production to spend $450 million on rice imports — far more than the $400 million it could have spent. Savings were made by banning the import of fertilizers.

Tea production, Sri Lanka’s real cash crop – the country’s largest export – fell by 18 percent. The government has had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on subsidies and compensation to farmers in an attempt to make up for lost productivity.

Farmer MM Genasina works in a rice field in Tissamaharama, Hambantota County, in April 2022.
Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP via Getty Images

While agrochemicals cause a range of environmental and public health problems, which partly inspired the ban, they also help farmers grow more food on less land, which is critical for small developing countries like Sri Lanka that depend on agriculture for both sustenance and export. . Revenues. Moving away from a diet heavy with agrochemicals makes sense in many ways, but the example of Sri Lanka underscores the importance of paying attention to the economic, political and social context of any reform.

About five months after the ban, farmers were allowed to start using synthetic fertilizers on tea and some other crops while keeping the ban in place for others, but by that point, a lot of damage had been done.

The introduction of meager organic produce precipitated a long-running economic crisis, but it also crystallized the stakes of the conventional versus organic farming debate, demonstrating the importance of high-yield crops in economies still largely dependent on agriculture.

Sri Lanka, recently emerging from a disastrous civil war, has been a bright spot in international development: in 2000, 17 percent of Sri Lankans were undernourished, and by 2019, that number had dropped dramatically to 7 percent, taking out About 2 million people. from hunger. The economic crisis now reaching its boiling point, caused in part by the disaster of organic farming, will horribly, ironically, undo some of that progress.

Agriculture is all about trade-offs

Synthetic fertilizers make crops grow faster and larger than organic fertilizers, such as animal manure, and pesticides control pest and disease outbreaks that can destroy crops. Experts say the widespread adoption of agricultural inputs since the mid-20th century, known as the Green Revolution, has helped lift countries like Sri Lanka out of extreme poverty.

A Sri Lankan tomato farmer displays a pest infested crop he blames on the unavailability of chemical pesticides in Kiptipola, Sri Lanka on July 1, 2021.
Iranja Jayawardena/AFP

“Sri Lanka started subsidizing fertilizers in the 1960s and we saw rice yields triple,” says Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, a US-based environmental nonprofit that advocates for technology solutions. “[Sri Lanka] Becoming self-sufficient in rice… This is huge for all Asian countries, from a food security point of view. “

This has driven a lot of the workforce out of agriculture into higher-paying jobs, Shah says, a story that has spread around the world over the past 60 years. But the expansion of traditional farming was not without huge costs; The use of agrochemicals is also fraught with serious environmental and public health problems.

Pesticide exposure is associated with a range of health problems, including respiratory and central nervous system symptoms, and about 1 in 8 suicides worldwide are by ingestion of pesticides, with rates particularly high in South Asia.

When synthetic fertilizers and pesticides seep into waterways, they can kill wildlife and poison drinking water sources, and their production and application generate large amounts of greenhouse gases and degrade soils.

Many advocates of organic agriculture also argue that low-income countries’ dependence on chemicals imported from high-income countries deprives them of their food security and makes them vulnerable to the kind of agrochemical price hikes that Sri Lanka has experienced. The majority of Sri Lankan farmers supported the transition to organic, but they wanted more than one year to do so – and needed more support than they got to switch to organic.

In 2008, Indian farmers from the Farmers Heritage Movement demonstrated a can with natural fertilizer in Chyna Village.
Pedro Ugarte/AFP via Getty Images

As horrific as the effects of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are, they must be weighed against the consequences of lost crop yields: starvation, reduced export income, increased deforestation and, if completely banned, as Sri Lanka has shown, policy is a crisis. But there are ways to reduce the effects of agrochemicals without completely eliminating them.

Minimizing the damages of industrial agriculture

The US-based World Environmental Resources Institute (WRI) says it’s not enough just to maintain current yields – governments around the world need to increase yields per acre to feed 10 billion people by 2050, lest farmers have to evacuate More and more. To make up for lower yields, with massive environmental impacts.

Meeting this imperative demand – while also minimizing the environmental and public health problems caused by agrochemicals while still increasing crop yields – is challenging but possible. A more sustainable approach, says Shah, says a more sustainable approach requires making crops more productive through breeding, making nitrogen fertilizers more efficient, and establishing “precision farming” technologies, such as drones and sensors, to more accurately analyze where fertilizers are being used — or Not Applicable.

A 10-year study in China, where 21 million farmers were trained in how to better manage soil, water and fertilizer, shows progress can be made. The program resulted in an 11% increase in corn, wheat and rice yields, and a 15-18% decrease in the use of nitrogen fertilizers.

Common practices among supporters of organic farming may also help, such as using cover cultivation, double harvesting, adding organic fertilizers along with chemical fertilizers in fields, and growing trees and shrubs on farms, known as agroforestry.

A farmer at the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya, strives to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural landscapes. Agroforestry, the practice of planting shrubs and trees alongside crops, can increase farm productivity and improve soil health.
Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images

“I think in the Western world, we can get lost in the organic/traditional debate,” Shah said. Agriculture is the backbone of economic development – for livelihoods and food security. … It should be less about ideology and which is better, but more important what set of technologies, practices and market conditions would be useful to stimulate development and empower farmers.”

But implementing any of these practices in the near future will not be possible in Sri Lanka, given that they will all demand money that the government does not have.

“It seems that the road to recovery will be long,” Shah added. “It will depend on what kind of financial assistance package they can negotiate with [International Monetary Fund]. And if they are able to reduce some of the debt burden.”

“I am now expecting at this point, but if they follow the voice of science and reason, it will not be an irreparable situation… but it depends on who will rule my secret scrutiny,” said Ramakumar, the agricultural economist. Lanka and what policies do they adopt.”

Over time, Sri Lanka may get some relief from the stress of agricultural swaps. According to the economic theory of the ecological Kuznets curve, once countries reach a certain level of per capita income, economic growth and environmental pollution can decouple as the country can afford to implement stronger environmental regulations and practices without sacrificing economic growth, such as crop yields.

Separation of the two is far from guaranteed, but some countries have achieved this. As Sri Lanka gets richer, it will be better able to prioritize the environment and public health without millions going hungry, but the current crisis – exacerbated by a sudden, hastily implemented organic transition – has made that day so far away.

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