Sri Lanka’s decision to switch to organic farming is not the root of its food shortage as a majority of farmers have not even started the transition process
On August 30, 2021, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajpaksa declared an economic emergency. The decision was taken to curb the hoarding of basic necessities and to control inflation, as the country faces a shortage of food products and a sharp rise in the prices of basic necessities.
Sri Lanka is in the throes of a pandemic-induced economic crisis, with growing external debt, depleted foreign exchange reserves and a devalued currency. Media reports linked the food shortage and economic crisis to a government decision earlier this year.
In April, President Rajapaksa announced that only organic farming would be allowed in Sri Lanka, with the aim of becoming the first country to do so. On April 27, the Sri Lankan Cabinet banned the import of more than 600 items, including chemical fertilizers and foods such as oats, soy milk, dairy products and apple juice. In his pre-summit address to the United Nations Food System Summit held July 26-28, 2021, Rajapaksa cited widespread chronic health problems and ecological destruction in the country due to agrochemicals as the reasons. of the ban.
Earlier, a government press release dated February 3 linked the excessive use of agrochemicals to the increase in kidney disease, cancer cases and non-communicable diseases.
Besides health reasons, Rajapaksa also spoke of the need to reduce imports due to the economic crisis in a special address to the nation on June 26. Sri Lanka’s imports of chemical fertilizers in 2020 were 1.26 million tonnes, according to its National Fertilizer Secretariat.
“In 2020, Sri Lankan imports (both public and private) of foreign fertilizers reached $ 259 million, or 1.6% of the country’s total imports by value,” Sri Lanka said restricted and banned importing fertilizers and agrochemicals, a report from the Foreign Agriculture Service of the United States Department of Agriculture dated February 28, 2021. The report also suggests that the fertilizer import bill Sri Lanka for 2021 could be $ 300-400 million, given current high international prices.
The media have wrongly blamed the food crisis in Sri Lanka on organic farming. There are two growing seasons in the country: yala (April-May to August-September) and maha (September-October to February-March). Most Sri Lankan farmers have already used government-supplied chemical fertilizers during the current yala season.
The media quoted the country’s Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage as saying the country faces a shortage of chemical fertilizers of just 5 percent this season. The loss of yield, if any, after this yala season’s harvest will be related to chemical fertilizer farming and has nothing to do with organic farming, said Suresh Del Mel, member of the Sri Lanka Presidential Working Group on Organic Agriculture. Down to earth (DTE). The crisis is linked to economic factors leading to the depletion of foreign exchange reserves and the restriction of food imports.
However, the sudden decision to ban chemical fertilizers and pesticides triggered the hoarding of traders and businesses, leading to the black market. There were numerous protests in July from farmers, who complained about a shortage of fertilizers, and led to government raids on the grabbers. The army was deployed to stop hoarding of essentials and to seize food stocks held by traders and retailers.
Aluthgamage accuses the fertilizer mafia of fueling fear among the public and creating disruption. In a media interaction on June 14, he said chemical fertilizers was the third-largest company with annual sales of 100 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($ 0.5 billion) and that it was never easy to defeat this mafia. He also said that the farmers are not against the use of organic farming.
Successive Sri Lankan governments, including the previous one, have discussed scaling up organic farming in the country. Prior to the president’s announcement, the government’s 2021 National Agricultural Policy called for increasing the use of organic fertilizers in Sri Lanka from 1% to 30% within three years.
However, the majority of Sri Lankan farmers have not yet learned and started organic farming. According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2020000 published by the International Federation of the Organic Agriculture Movement, an umbrella organization of the organic agriculture movement with affiliates in more than 100 countries, only 2.8% of the total agricultural land in the country. Sri Lanka are organic.
However, the actual number of farmers practicing organic and natural agriculture may be higher in Sri Lanka, as only certified organic farmers are counted, said Anuka Vimukthi, member of the International Coordinating Committee of La Via Campesina, an organization international association of farmers headquartered in Belgium.
A smooth transition from chemical agriculture to organic or natural agriculture requires a well thought out plan. Sri Lanka does not have a roadmap or transition plan, and the decision to switch to organic farming appears to have been made under economic duress.
Civil society and organizations promoting organic and natural agriculture in Sri Lanka are happy with the announcement of the switch to organic farming, said Linus Jayatilake, a former union leader who now works to promote natural agriculture and farmers. native breeds of cattle.
Many farmers want to switch to organic farming in Sri Lanka but lack the proper support, said Shammika Liyanege, senior lecturer, public policy, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.
Chintaka Rajapakse, moderator of the Land and Agricultural Reform Movement, a Sri Lanka-based nonprofit, commended the government for the initiative but warned that if it was done without an appropriate policy framework, farmers could lose confidence. in such practices. We must learn from the experience of similar work done in other countries, Liyanege said.
Sri Lanka doesn’t need to look too far. India’s experience with organic farming shows the need for an appropriate plan for such a massive transition.
T Vijay Kumar, ex officio special chief secretary, Natural Farming, Andhra Pradesh, who has helped 128,000 farmers switch from natural to chemical agriculture since 2016, said it can take 3 to 5 years to a farmer to switch completely to organic farming. and an entire village can take 5-8 years.
Coverage is gradually increasing, and only after farmers have changed their minds and learned and adopted organic practices, he said. It must also be voluntary.
For now, the Sri Lankan government is only talking about promoting organic fertilizers and educating farmers. Financial incentives of 12,500 Sri Lankan rupees per hectare up to a maximum of two hectares will be provided to farmers to encourage organic farming.
Government officials said the mechanism was formulated to provide the organic fertilizers needed for the maha season. President Rajapaksa called on the authorities to import the required amount of high quality organic fertilizer if the amount of locally produced fertilizer is not sufficient.
The government has allocated Sri Lanka Rs 3.8 billion for the purchase of organic fertilizers in the coming season. However, GV Ramanjaneyulu, an agricultural scientist working on organic farming with the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit research organization based in Telangana, said DTE this transition is not just about providing subsidies or organic fertilizers; emphasis should be placed on building the capacity of important stakeholders such as farmers, agriculture department officials and scientists.
It also requires a grip, quality organic inputs and support for transitional losses. We started with small initiatives around organic farming in 2003 and became a 100% organic farming state in 2016, said S Anbalagan, CEO of Organic Mission, Sikkim, the first state in the world to go fully organic. The transition from chemical farming to organic farming takes time because several challenges have to be overcome, Anbalagan said.
There is more and more research into the success of organic and natural farming and the number of farmers adopting organic has also increased across the world.
Several Food and Agriculture Organization publications have indicated that sustainable farming methods, such as organic farming, are more viable and sustainable than chemical farming in terms of yield, food production of nutritious quality, ecological and economic sustainability.
N Ravisankar, National Senior Researcher of the All India Network Program on Organic Agriculture of the Indian Agricultural Research Council-Indian Agricultural Systems Research Institute, said that the long-term assessment of organic farming systems in different Agro-climatic conditions in India indicated that the yield of organic farming is comparable or slightly higher in around 18 crops compared to conventional chemical farming, especially after the conversion period of 2-3 years.
Rajinder Chaudhary, former professor of economics, MD University, Haryana agreed. Any farmer adopting and practicing all the principles of organic farming – changing a whole set of agronomic practices – is able to achieve a comparable or even better yield in all crops in organic than chemical farming, he added. .
The story first appeared in the September 1–15 print edition of DTE.
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