Interpreting the failure of organic farming in Sri Lanka

On July 9, 2022, more than 100,000 Sri Lankan protesters stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, forcing the President to flee the country. It was the culmination of a major economic crisis This has left ordinary Sri Lankans struggling with runaway inflation and severe fuel and food shortages. The crisis has its roots in many causes, including excessive foreign borrowing, untimely tax cuts and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there was another unusual contributing factor: President Rajapaksa’s decision decision in April 2021 to ban all imported chemical fertilizers and forcibly switch Sri Lanka to organic farming. The experience of organic farming leads to a 40 percent drop in rice yields and an equally large drop in yields of many other crops, which exacerbated food shortages and contributed to the country’s economic downfall.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has become a talking point in the wider political debate over the merits of a large-scale environmental transition. Some critics cite Sri Lanka as an example of the danger of “green utopianismand argue that attempts to replace factory farming with organic farming are untenable. Others cite Sri Lanka as evidence that policies promoting greater sustainability often come up against significant economic costs. However, a comparative analysis of Sri Lanka and other developing economies reveals that the problem is not with organic farming policies per se, but with the top-down and indiscriminate manner in which the Sri Lankan government has implemented its policies. . The Sri Lankan crisis is therefore not a lesson in the danger of organic farming, but the danger of a government that favors drastic action over a nuanced analysis of economic realities.

Like many other policy issues, implementing organic farming comes with complex environmental and economic trade-offs. Although agricultural experts competition what constitutes “organic”, a baseline definition Organic farming is a farming system that avoids the use of outside chemical inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, during the growing process. The use of these agrochemicals has long been associated with environmental and human issues. costs such as soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and adverse health effects for farmers. Therefore, by promoting organic farming methods, countries can potentially limit the effects of agrochemicals on the environment. Proponents further argue that organic farming improves the food safety smallholders by reducing their need for expensive fertilizers.

On the other hand, some experts report that organic farming can lead to lower crop yields, requiring additional land use and therefore increased greenhouse gas emissions. However, the effect of organic farming on yields is largely dependent on geographic location and crop type. In a meta-analysis of 293 case studies, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan found that organic farming produced lower average yields than conventional farming in developed countries, but much higher average yields in developing countries. A explanation is that small, low-input farms, which make up a larger proportion of the agricultural sector in developing economies, can more easily adapt to organic farming practices. Thus, the trade-offs of organic farming depend strongly on the context and do not always lead to a drop in agricultural production.

The problem with Sri Lanka is the sudden and all-encompassing nature of its ban on chemical fertilizers. First, farmers in Sri Lanka were unprepared for organic farming. According to a national survey According to Verité Research, 64% of Sri Lankan farmers favored an eventual transition to organic farming, but only 22% of farmers said they could make the transition within a year. More importantly, only 20% of farmers said they knew how to apply natural fertilizers to their crops. In addition to the lack of preparation of farmers, it would also be necessary up to a decade to achieve the level of soil nutrients necessary for the growth of organic crops. Despite these complex realities, the Sri Lankan government pursued an immediate nationwide ban on agrochemicals without consulting either agricultural experts or farmers’ organisations. The ban gave farmers time to purchase organic farming supplies or acquire the knowledge necessary for organic farming. The result has been the devastation of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector.

“Despite claims to the contrary, the crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates not the price of environmentalism, but the price of bad governance.”

In contrast, countries that have taken a more gradual and localized approach to organic farming, such as India and China, have experienced much more favorable economic results. In India, regional governments took the lead in identifying suitable land for organic farming and in negotiating with farmers to implement organic farming practices. In an analysis of 50 organic farms in India, researchers found that organic farming led to marginal declines in yields, but 20% more profit for farmers, thanks to the lower cost of organic inputs. Similarly, in China, the government supported the gradual development of the organic farming sector by selecting land and subsidizing organic fertilizers. As a result, from 2011 to 2021, domestic sales of organic products in China increase from 313 billion to 521 billion yuan. Rather than implementing an indiscriminate ban on agrochemicals, policymakers in India and China made case-by-case judgments about the viability of organic farming and obtained consent from farmers on the ground. As a result, neither country has experienced economic destabilization due to organic farming. Despite claims to the contrary, the crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates not the price of environmentalism, but the price of bad governance.

So what drove Sri Lanka’s misguided organic farming policies? At least part of the explanation comes from the politicization of agriculture by Sri Lanka’s populist government. Before Rajapaksa started his presidential run in 2019, the Sri Lankan public knew him as the military general which ruthlessly ended the civil war between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils ​​in 2009. Leveraging his wartime reputation, Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of ethno-religious nationalism and promised to restore prosperity to the nation. One of the radicals campaign promises what he did was make the nation’s complete transition to organic farming in a decade. Although Rajapaksa lacked experience in civil politics, his populist rhetoric sounded with the country’s Sinhalese majority, and he won the presidency in a vote widely divided along ethnic lines.

However, once Rajapaksa took power, he exacerbated Sri Lanka’s already fragile finances with massive tax cuts. Faced with a shortfall, Rajapaksa answer was to implement a total ban on agrochemical imports, both to reduce cash outflows from fertilizer purchases and to deliver on his campaign promise. As a populist strongman with limited policy-making experience, Rajapaksa was more concerned with finding quick and politically appealing solutions than consulting stakeholders on the long-term implications of his decisions. In more ways than one, this political myopia contributed to the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy.

While it is convenient to attribute the Sri Lankan crisis to organic farming and the influence of the environmental movement, what happened in Sri Lanka is the product of political failure. If there are lessons to be learned from the Sri Lankan experience, it is that a government puts its people at risk when it favors grand ideological plans imposed from above over a careful analysis of realities. economic.

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