Sri Lanka found itself in economic crisis as it continued to produce 100% organic food
‘The food crisis in Lanka shows the dangers of organic farming ”.
It was the title of a column by Indian economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, published recently in a national daily. Aiyar’s article analyzed the food crisis in Sri Lanka, which was triggered by the president’s recent decision to switch from chemical farming to organic farming.
As the media blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for clearly underestimating declining agricultural yields, Aiyar blamed the crisis on organic farming. He warned Indian states against this and expressed his hope for genetically modified crops.
The negative social and environmental impacts of the Green Revolution are recognized as much as the lower agricultural yields and higher prices associated with organic products. However, a growing body of research has placed its hope in organic farming to meet global climate goals and conserve natural ecosystems.
When a country’s food security is at stake, it is ludicrous to turn the decision into a binary choice of conventional or organic farming. The question then is: does the Sri Lankan crisis offer sufficient justification to refute organic farming? Or is it a poorly documented political decision?
The decision, as reported on the president’s office website, was not sudden. It began in 2019, aspiring for a “healthy and productive nation guaranteeing people’s right to safe food” within the national policy framework titled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor”, followed by a Gazette resolution on May 6, 2021 , banning imports of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Here are some questions that might reveal whether the president was misguided in this decision.
It is well known that the yields of organic farms are significantly lower (19-25 percent lower, as cited by Aiyar in the article) and its prices higher. What is less well known are the reasons why the yields of chemical agriculture are high.
As the yield increases, its prices decrease. Each of the three pillars of GR – irrigation, chemical inputs and pesticides – has weakened the natural environment. The high irrigation requirements of High Yield Variety (HYV) crops have led to an alarming reduction in groundwater levels in most parts of India.
Excessive use of fertilizers has polluted ground and surface water, while high nitrate levels cause eutrophication and disruption of aquatic ecosystems. Chronic kidney failure in Sri Lanka has been linked to cadmium contamination from fertilizer runoff in water, and pesticides are linked to the increasing incidence of some forms of cancer.
Every year, hundreds of farmers die from spraying them on farms.
In short, the costs of ORVs are “externalized” to the natural environment. These costs are borne by people with health problems and by taxpayers when the government spends its money on alleviating pollution.
Externalized costs therefore keep the prices of agricultural chemicals at fictitious low levels. The Sri Lankan government advisory team would be quite naive if it ignored the looming price hike for organic agricultural products.
What the Green Revolution called “low yield” was much less nutrient-extracting from the soil. This agriculture required much less money for inputs, which meant that the farmers borrowed less.
When it is evident that agricultural production is going to decline, it is extremely important for a small country like Sri Lanka to consider what percentage of its farms produce “real” food and how much is used for plantations.
Tea, rubber, cashews, coconuts, sugarcane and oil palm cannot substitute for food. Agricultural activities are carried out on 41.63 percent of the total land area of Sri Lanka. Of this total, 23.45 percent is used for growing rice and other major crops; 10.32 percent of the land is devoted to plantations.
Given Sri Lanka’s consistently lower paddy yield compared to international averages, would this land be sufficient to store reserves for a predominantly rice-consuming nation? Was this factor taken into account in the decision?
Food and beverages accounted for 7.2% in 2019 of total imports. This includes wheat, rice, potatoes, onions, and other agricultural products. Has it been increased to close the looming performance gap?
Ironically, the document “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” mentions “exporting crops” as an activity and provides grants and guaranteed price programs. Was this reconsidered after the organic farming decision?
While generations of farmers have embraced Green Revolution farming, the skills and knowledge required for organic farming are scarce today. Can Sri Lankan farmers make the right seed choices? Do they have access to seed banks? Do they know about organic soil nutrients and bio-pesticides?
Giving NPK to the soil is not the same as treating it with organic fertilizers, and saving seeds is different from buying new seeds every season. Have these skills and knowledge been shared with or made available to farmers?
Apparently not, as revealed by a survey which showed that only 20 percent of farmers had the knowledge to switch to fully organic production and 63 percent of those surveyed received no guidance on organic farming.
What logically follows is the question of whether there was sufficient compost, organic fertilizers, biopesticides and related inputs. The president’s office mentions “a sufficient amount of fertilizer has been imported” but does not say anything about other agricultural inputs.
Compost, manure and other organic matter are of crucial importance in organic farming. Has a supply chain been established to connect manufacturing locations with users?
These questions and many more make Aiyar’s arguments against organic farming seem weak. Assuming that organic farming has been practiced in a scientifically proven way (which is also doubtful), the fault lies in the research, planning and execution. The survey also indicated that 64 percent of farmers supported government policy, but only with a transitional approach.
The key to success therefore does not lie in a bold decision to go organic, but in educating farmers, raising citizens’ awareness of what they stand to gain, creating appropriate infrastructure and maintaining a agricultural input supply chain.
This must be completed by choosing a transition path and rethinking policies to support plantations and exports. Without these measures, the future of organic farming, not science, is in jeopardy.
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