It’s August 2019, a former military officer from a powerful political family is campaigning to be Sri Lanka’s next leader.
Three months later, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is sworn in as the country’s president. He won the election with a new vision for Sri Lanka, including a bold policy for the whole country to switch to all-organic food production within 10 years.
This plan was hugely ambitious, but it was also deeply flawed. It is now cited as one of the reasons Sri Lanka has descended into its worst economic crisis in decades, sparking outrage, protest and a reversal.
At the time President Rajapaksa was elected, agriculture-related industries were vital to the economy. Around 80% of Sri Lanka’s national food supply was produced by the country’s smallholder farmers. It had taken many years to get there.
In the 1960s, a global initiative to combat malnutrition in developing countries was rolled out in several countries, including Sri Lanka. It was called the green revolution. He boosted production by using high-yielding varieties of traditional crops. Along with modern cultivation techniques like nutrient rich cultivation methods.
The majority of smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka are poor and cannot afford to buy chemical fertilizers without government support. Substantial discounts have been introduced, sometimes up to 90% off market prices. The idea of ending the regime was a step that no politician dared to take. There is another significant price attached to this essential raw material for Sri Lanka’s economic growth, the cost of importing it as well as the fact that Sri Lanka also has to import supplies of sugar, wheat and milk. Traditionally, Sri Lanka has paid for these necessities by using money to sell crops like tea, coconut and spices overseas.
Agriculture before the pandemic accounted for around 20% of the country’s total exports. It is paid in dollars, which has inflated Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves, which were hit hard when COVID hit in early 2020 as the country’s lucrative flow of foreign tourists suddenly evaporated. The first cases of CKD or Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin appeared in the mid-1990s. By 2021, Sri Lanka will become a KDU maritime hotspot. So the government decided it was time for an agricultural revolution.
Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa announced last April that he would tackle these health concerns head-on with a sweeping new policy, a total ban on chemical fertilizers, Sri Lankan farms would become 100% organic. At the time, there were questions about the scientific evidence supporting this plan.
The global market for premium-priced organic produce can be lucrative, but not everyone was convinced it would work for Sri Lanka. Organic farming is not new to Sri Lanka; tea and vegetable growers have been doing this for years on a much smaller scale.
Sri Lanka was also not the first country to try to go completely organic. In 2014, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan announced it would try to make the switch, but struggled to make it happen. Warning signs indicated that accelerating to 100% organic was impossible even with years of planning. Back in Sri Lanka, similar concerns from agricultural experts are ignored. With the world overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic and Sri Lanka’s economy already struggling due to the absence of tourists, this organic revolution couldn’t have come at a worse time.
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Saloni Shah is a food and agriculture analyst at the California-based breakthrough institute and environmental think tank. She says problems with this organic plan surfaced early on in its rollout. While the Sri Lankan government was quick to ban chemical fertilizers, it hadn’t given much thought to what was needed to replace them. Hopes of making money from the growing global demand for organic products have also been overstated. Producing and selling organic food around the world requires detailed inspections and testing over time to meet strict legal standards. None of this was in place. And it soon became clear that farmers risked losing their crops and their livelihoods. Within months of its introduction, the organic plan was falling apart and the public was reacting violently. This sharp decline in rice yields has forced the Sri Lankan government to a drastic and costly solution. Despite the obvious policy failures, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reinforced his commitment to organic farming at the cop 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. But only a few weeks after this speech, and seven months after the start of the project, the Sri Lankan government was forced to turn around.
The lingering scars of the failed organic switch have only exacerbated Sri Lanka’s wider financial crisis. So far, Sri Lanka has defaulted on at least $51 billion in external debt. He said it was difficult and impossible to make repayments from foreign exchange reserves, as he still had to pay to import essential goods. Pandemic trade losses, supply chain disruptions and soaring inflation have led to shortages of essential commodities, including medical supplies.
Today, the country experiences prolonged daily power cuts because it cannot afford to import fuel. To make matters worse, the government made an earlier decision three years ago when it reduced some taxes or even abolished others altogether. And that is revenue the country desperately needs and is now looking to borrow. The ban on chemical fertilizers may have been reversed, but the situation remains critical. The wider financial crisis and growing public anger has recently seen protesters occupy the entrance to the presidential palace. Twenty-six cabinet members also resigned, leaving the president and his brother, the prime minister in charge, a new cabinet sworn in. The government has announced a $200 million package to compensate more than a million farmers whose crops have been affected by the chemical fertilizer ban. But Sri Lanka’s failed experiment in organic farming has not only caused enormous damage to the economy, but it has also damaged an admirable idea.
So why has Sri Lanka’s organic farming dream failed? There are economic issues beyond his control, such as record world prices for imported goods that he purchases with dwindling foreign exchange funds. But the ban and the fallout are self-inflicted. Basic considerations were not taken into account: the shortage of natural fertilizers, the lack of preparation time for farmers and the absence of contingency plans to fill the gap due to declining organic yields . The government has underestimated the magnitude and consequences of its policy. It was a short-sighted decision, which will have consequences for many years to come.
We need to understand what happened in Sri Lanka and make sure we don’t make drastic changes to our farming system here in New Zealand that could have similar consequences.
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Angus Kebbell is the producer of Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.