Sri Lanka’s organic farming crisis: Learning from failures

Sri Lanka has found itself in an economic crisis in pursuit of producing 100% organic food  

By Gurudas Nulkar
Published: Wednesday 22 September 2021

Lankan food crisis shows perils of organic farming’.

This was the headline of a column by Indian economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar column published in a national daily recently. Aiyar’s article analysed the Sri Lankan food crisis, which has been triggered by the President’s recent decision to shift from chemical to organic farming.

While the media pinned the blame on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which obviously underestimated the drop in farm yields, Aiyar attributed the crisis to organic farming. He warned Indian states against it and expressed hope for genetically modified crops.

The negative social and environmental impacts of the Green Revolution are recognised as much as the lower farm yields and higher prices associated with organic produce are. However, an increasing body of research has placed its hope on organic farming to meet the global climate targets and conserve natural ecosystems.

When the food security of a country 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 researched political decision?

The decision, as mentioned on the website of the President’s office, was not a sudden one. It started off in 2019, aspiring for a ‘healthy and productive nation guaranteeing people’s right for safe food’ in the National policy framework titled ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, followed by a Gazette resolution on May 6, 2021, banning imports of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Here are some questions that could reveal if the President was ill-advised in this decision.

That organic farm yields are significantly lower (19-25 per cent lower, as cited by Aiyar in the article) and its prices higher, is well-known. What is less known are the reasons why chemical farming yields are high.

As yield increases, its prices decrease. Each of the three pillars of the GR — irrigation, chemical inputs and pesticides — has left the natural environment weaker. High irrigation requirement of the High-Yielding Variety (HYV) crops has led to an alarming reduction in groundwater levels in most parts of India.

Over-use of fertilisers has polluted ground and surface water, while high nitrates are causing eutrophication and disruption of aquatic ecosystems. Chronic renal failures in Sri Lanka have been linked to cadmium contamination from fertiliser run-off in water, and pesticides are linked to the rising incidence of some forms of cancer.

Every year, hundreds of farmers die spraying them in farms.

In short, the costs of the HYVs are ‘externalised’ to the natural environment. These costs are borne by individuals who suffer health ailments, and by taxpayers when the government spends their money for pollution mitigation.

The externalised costs, therefore, keep the prices of chemical farm produce fictitiously low. The Sri Lankan government advisory team would be utterly naïve if they did not consider the imminent price rise of organic farm produce.

What the green revolution labeled as ‘low yield’ was far less extractive of soil nutrients. This farming demanded much less cash for inputs, which meant farmers borrowed less.

When it is evident that farm output will decline, it is critically 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, cashew, coconut, sugarcane and oil palm cannot be substituted for food. Agricultural activities are carried out on 41.63 per cent of the total land in Sri Lanka. Of this, 23.45 per cent is used to grow paddy and other field crops; 10.32 per cent land is devoted to plantations.

Considering a consistently lower yield of paddy in Sri Lanka compared to international averages, would this land be sufficient to stockpile supplies for a primarily rice-eating nation? Was this factor considered in the decision?

Food and beverage accounted for 7.2 per cent in 2019 of the total imports. This includes wheat, rice, potatoes, onions and other farm produce. Was this increased to meet the imminent yield gap?

Ironically the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ document mentions ‘crop export’ as an activity, and provides subsidies and guaranteed price schemes. Was this reconsidered after the organic farming decision?

As generations of farmers have adopted green revolution farming, the skills and knowledge required for organic farming are scarce today. Can Sri Lankan farmers make the right choices regarding seeds? Do they have access to seed banks? Are they aware of organic soil nutrients and bio-pesticides?

Administering NPK to soil is not the same as treating it with organic fertilisers, and saving seeds is different from buying new ones every season. Were these skills and knowledge shared with or made available to the farmers?

Apparently not, as revealed in one survey that showed that only 20 per cent of farmers had the knowledge to transition to completely organic production and 63 per cent of respondents did not receive any guidance on organic cultivation.

What logically follows is the question of whether there was enough supply of compost, organic fertilisers, biopesticides and allied inputs. The President’s office mentions ‘sufficient fertilizer has been imported’ but does not say anything about other farm inputs.

Compost, manure and other organic matter are critically important in organic farming. Was a supply chain established to connect the places of manufacture with the users?

These and many other questions make Aiyar’s arguments against organic farming appear weak. Assuming that organic farming was done in scientifically proven ways (which is also doubtful), the fault lies in research, planning and execution. The survey also pointed that 64 per cent of farmers supported the government policy, but only with a transitionary approach.

The key to success, then, lies not in a bold decision to turn organic, but in educating farmers, making citizens aware of what they stand to gain, creating appropriate infrastructure and maintaining a supply chain of farm inputs.

This must be complemented by choosing a path of transition and rethinking policies supporting plantations and exports. Without these measures, the future of organic cultivation, not of science, is in peril.

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