SRI Lanka, an island nation in southern India, is facing a food and economic emergency. Barely ten years ago, the country emerged victorious from the destructive and protracted war waged by the Tamil Tigers occupying the northeastern part of the country. After winning the battle against internal insurgents, the Sri Lankan government began to rebuild its economy. Its march towards recovery was successful until it was interrupted by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Already reeling from the adverse effects of Covid-19, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the costly mistake of banning the import of all chemical fertilizers. He wanted to make his country the first in the world to be recognized as a 100 percent organic producer. However, nature works differently and the decision backfired.
Organic farms have lower productivity levels than those using chemical fertilizers. So, overall, Sri Lanka‘s agricultural productivity declined at a time when its people were in desperate need of an adequate food supply. Due to the decrease in productivity, the prices of organic agricultural products are higher. Given the loss of jobs and income following the pandemic, organic farming has made it difficult for the Sri Lankan government to ensure an adequate food supply.
In a slight joke I had with a group of agronomists at the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, Dr. Emil Javier, former UP president and current national scientist, berated another colleague who advocates for a global adoption of organic farming in the country. Javier claimed that what they were doing was bordering on insanity and nowhere was it based on science. He cited that in the production of palay (unground rice), the plant must be bombarded with nitrogen when it is in the “panicle stage” to ensure that the kernels develop vigorously.
He then asked, “Where would you get this huge amount of organic fertilizer to provide the right amount of fertilizer for growing palay?” “So you have to pick up all the carabao, cow and horse droppings or pick up and process tons of rotten leaves to provide enough nitrogen for millions of acres of our Palay farms?” ” He continued. Unsurprisingly, our agronomist colleague, who associates himself with the country’s so-called “progressive groups”, has not been able to provide a satisfactory answer.
Make it worse
The Sri Lankan government made matters worse by subsidizing the import of organic fertilizers. This put enormous pressure on their foreign exchange reserves and led to the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee. The government tried to impose exchange controls to ensure access to much-needed foreign currency to purchase organic fertilizers, and ultimately, importing more food as the food supply situation tightened. Again, this led to further depletion of their foreign exchange reserves, the depreciation of the Sri Lankan currency and, as expected, higher inflation.
Eventually, the government had to call in the military to prevent hoarding, speculation by traders and to ensure orderly rationing of food products. He had to resort to foreign loans to gain access to valuable foreign currency because his reserves were already depleted. In such a stalemate, the Sri Lankan government will undoubtedly taste the bitter pill of conditionalities that its creditors impose. Certainly one of those bitter pills will be the abandonment of the overall organic farming program.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not an advocate of organic farming. The point I am coming to, as in many development issues, is that there is no absolute truth that one should peddle and prescribe as a panacea to the problems of a country, especially a country. in development. There is indeed a place for organic farming in the development of our agricultural sector. But its insertion must be done in a way where its benefits considerably outweigh its costs.
Agricultural products from organic farming serve a niche market. Those who can afford them and / or are health conscious are the safe consumers of these products. The rest of the consuming public, especially the poor, may not be able to afford them, unless they are farmers themselves who plant their farms or backyards with organic crops. Indeed, organic farming is more suitable for small farms because it benefits from a workforce released by family members. Organic farming is a labor intensive business.
It is with a sense of realism that the advocate of organic farming and my friend Pablito Villegas, co-organizer of One Organic Movement, admitted that “immediate conversion from chemical to organic is not recommended due to the resulting loss of crop yield “. This is the kind of mindset that needs to permeate pro-organic farming groups to be grounded in reality while slowly building the basis and strength of organic farming for greater acceptance and adoption. by the farming community.
Lessons from Sri Lanka
The most valuable lesson that can be learned from the economic and food emergency in Sri Lanka is that agriculture is a science and successful agriculture follows sound economic principles. The direction of agricultural development cannot be traced on the basis of intuition, common sense and, worse still, ideology. The result will be a disaster such as that manifested by the Sri Lankan experience.
The development of agriculture requires an understanding of the agronomic strengths of the country and of those among the crops / products grown in the country that have a comparative advantage. It requires a better understanding of markets (both local and international) and the strength of institutions mandated to promote agricultural development. A better appreciation of the behavior of agricultural producers is needed to determine which of the range of incentives will lead them to a certain desired change in direction. And more importantly, he seeks leadership dedicated to promoting the rapid and sustained growth of the sector in order to improve not only the general well-being of farmers and fishermen, but also of consumers who constitute the vast majority of the population. of a country.