From the ethical produce shops of Islington to the chemical-free acres of Prince of Wales’ Highgrove Farm, you could almost hear the cheers three years ago when Sri Lanka’s future president promised a revolution.
It wouldn’t be in the streets but in the fields – as Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised during his successful 2019 election campaign to turn the country into the world’s first all-organic farming nation.
Repeating the assertions made for years by Prince Charles and other ‘sustainable agriculture’ advocates, the politician cited health and environmental reasons for the sweeping move – in particular brandishing unproven claims of a link between chemical fertilizers and high rates of kidney disease chronicles in Sri Lanka.+3See the gallery
Police use tear gas to break up a protest by Higher National Diploma (HND) students demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Rajapaksa’s commitment to produce 100% of Sri Lanka‘s food organically within a decade has been accompanied by a ban on the use of all chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
The consequences were simply catastrophic. Going organic – the bold, modern vision of the UK’s green lobby – has unleashed devastation on Sri Lanka’s economy, plunging much of its 22 million people into dire straits.
The chaos that has engulfed the country – including growing poverty, long lines for basic necessities, deadly street battles and attacks on the homes of government leaders – is a direct result of this decision alone. .
Rajapaksa’s announcement last April that the country’s two million farmers were to switch to organic overnight – and the ensuing disaster – is a timely lesson for anyone caught up in the hype around of organic food and its promise not only to improve our health but also to help save the planet.
Ironically, Sri Lanka had one of the best performing economies in Asia. In 2019, the World Bank raised its status to upper-middle-income status – only to reverse its decision just months after Rajapaksa was elected.
Shortly after ordering the organic transition, agronomists from the Agricultural Economics Association of Sri Lanka warned that he was making a terrible mistake. For all his concerns about water contamination, soil degradation, kidney disease and damage to biodiversity, the downsides of going organic far outweighed the benefits, they said.
Studies show that crop yields drop by 30% under organic farming. Since the 1960s, Sri Lanka has subsidized farmers to use synthetic fertilizers, the main catalyst for doubling yields of many crops.
Outside the echo chamber of sustainable agriculture advocates, chemical fertilizers, along with pesticides and herbicides, are universally accepted as essential tools for modern agriculture.
Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on rice for food and tea for export. Forcing growers of both crops to go all-organic, experts have warned, would dramatically reduce their yields – by 35% and 50% respectively. Rice is a nitrogen-intensive crop and therefore it is tricky and expensive to grow it without chemical fertilizers.
But Rajapaksa and his government did not heed the warnings. When his brother, Mahinda, was president ten years ago, he also encouraged organic farming.
They will no doubt have been motivated by Sri Lanka’s growing reputation as a top destination for ecotourists, attracted by luxury hotels that serve organic food, produced on their own farms.
Shunning the pundits of conventional food production, the Rajapaksas drew inspiration from a grouchy “civil society movement” called Viyathmaga, which sums up its values as “spiritual on the inside, technocratic on the outside”.+3See the gallery
Sri Lankan university students holding placards march towards the presidential secretariat
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His plans include developing two million organic vegetable gardens and turning millions of acres of Sri Lankan forests and wetlands into organic fertilizer production.
The whole project has been accelerated by the pandemic, which has destroyed the country’s tourism industry.
Sri Lanka’s ruling family saw a perfect opportunity to reduce its crippling balance of payments deficit and embrace organic farming by phasing out the $500 million a year it usually spends on manufactured chemical fertilizers abroad and subsidizing farmers to use them.
Instead, the opposite happened and Sri Lanka’s balance of payments deficit soared as agricultural production fell and the price of vegetables, rice and sugar soared. soared. Sri Lanka has failed to source much organic fertilizer, leaving many farmers without fertilizer of any kind.
The government has also failed to offer them guidance on how to farm organically. Many farmers, desperate to ever make a profit, gave up, accelerating food shortages.
The loss of revenue from tea and other export crops far outweighed any savings from stopping the import of fertilizers. In a final humiliation, Sri Lanka – a country until recently self-sufficient in rice – had to spend $450 million to import large quantities, which the government then had to subsidize.
In October last year, he desperately backed down, relaxing a ban on fertilizers for crucial export crops including tea, rubber and coconuts. That humiliating U-turn didn’t stop President Rajapaksa from bragging about his organic credentials a month later at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow.
The descent came too late to avoid economic collapse. Annual food price inflation is currently running at 50%, with vegetables like carrots and tomatoes up to five times more expensive than they were last year.
Sri Lanka, which owes $51 billion to international creditors, last week defaulted on its debts for the first time since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.
The country has been paralyzed by strikes and violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Rajapaksa in which people have died.
A museum dedicated to the reigning family was set on fire: the organic dream literally went up in smoke.
Prince Charles was widely mocked by farmers when he transformed his 1,000-acre farm at Highgrove in Gloucestershire to go completely organic in 1985.
He said: “In farming, as in gardening, I believe that if you treat the land with love and respect. . . then he will reimburse you in kind.+3See the gallery
A Higher National Diploma (HND) student gestures to riot police during a protest demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the country’s crippling economic crisis, in Colombo this month
According to experts, such thinking may be appropriate in a home garden or hobby farm, but not in international agriculture.
Almost all organic farming, they note, only serves the world’s richest and poorest people. While the latter are forced to do so out of necessity, as they cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides, for the former it is an expensive lifestyle choice.
As illustrated by the success of Prince Charles’ organic range (Waitrose Duchy Organic), there is no shortage of UK customers willing to pay extra for this all-important organic label.
Skeptics wonder why, citing tests that show organic foods don’t taste better or are more nutritious (although the organic lobby insists they contain higher levels of vitamin C and omega 3s). in milk). Critics add that there is also no conclusive evidence of the health effects of pesticides.
And organic farming isn’t always greener either, mainly because the lower yields it offers mean a lot more land has to be farmed – land that could be used to grow trees and reduce emissions. of carbon. It is also heavily dependent on the plowing of fields which can accelerate soil depletion.
As Sri Lanka descends into chaos and its leaders go into hiding, the smug proponents of sustainable agriculture must share the blame – for convincing them that their delusional dream was even possible.