Sri Lanka's organic farming crisis

Photo by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash

On the 29th of April 2021, the President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, announced a total ban on agrochemicals, proposing that Sri Lankan farming would be 100% organic. The aim was to make the nation the first in the world to practice organic only agriculture. What followed this announcement can only be described as a crisis, and so on the 19th of October 2021, Rajapaksa backed down from these ambitious plans and reversed the ban. What led to this turnaround and how could this have gone so wrong?

Sri Lanka was in an economic emergency following Covid-19, with food inflation, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and sinking currency making up some of the issues the country faced. Rajapaksa, elected in 2019, had taken a military approach to tackling Covid-19 and was successful in fully vaccinating over 70% of over 11s. This military approach matches his harsh and fast stance on fertiliser use, leading to a complete ban on the 29th of April.

However, this ban was not met with celebration. Sri Lanka’s tea industry was severely impacted with The Planters Association predicting a drop of around 25% in tea production and export revenue. As tea is the single largest export in Sri Lanka, this statistic was worrying. The industry brings in $1.25billion a year which is 10% of the country’s export income. In a country already struggling economically, fuelled by the collapsing tourism industry due to Covid-19, this move to organic farming only succeeded in making the struggle even greater.

In addition to the tea industry, it was reported that coconut yields would go down by 30% if chemical fertilisers and pesticides were not applied. This creates problems with fresh coconuts as well as other coconut products such as coconut oil and desiccated coconut.

The Government’s response to these concerns drove the panic to greater heights. On August the 31st, Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and appointed army officers to regulate the market. Furthermore, on September the 29th, he lifted the ceiling on the price of rice which stimulated a jump of around 17-32%. He followed this on October the 8th by lifting price controls on milk powder, sugar, wheat flour and cooking gas. In the middle of October, the government was reported to breach its own fertiliser ban by importing 30,000 tonnes of potassium chloride from Lithuania under the pretence that it was called “organic fertiliser.” Therefore, it comes as a relief that on the 9th of October, the ban was reversed. But why was this ban introduced in the first place?

Organic farming in America is defined as food that is “grown and processed following a set of regulations which include using only approved pest-control methods, such as eggshells or crop rotation, to act as natural deterrents.” Conventional farming practices have led to loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the environment. They can severely impact ecosystems, an example of which is that fertilisers used in farming can run off into nearby water sources which causes eutrophication. This is when algae grows, and disrupts the way in which a normal ecosystem functions by using up all the oxygen in the water and therefore resulting in the death of aquatic organisms and equally, preventing photosynthesis occurring so marine plants also are unable to survive. The damage caused by fertilisers has a significant, disastrous impact on the food chain.

A move to organic farming will lead to better soil quality, reduced soil erosion, less water pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions, greater biodiversity, and reduced exposure to pesticides. Environmentally, organic farming is a great option. On a commercial level, consumers are willing to pay more which is more profitable and it can create more jobs. Additionally, consumer demand for organic food is growing steadily. Therefore, the appeal of switching to organic farming for the Sri Lankan government is evident.

However, there is always a downside. Organic farming requires much more land to yield the same amount of food as conventional farming, hence the unsympathetic quote from Earl Butz, the US Secretary of Agriculture in 1971,Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.

Organic agriculture produces yields on average 10-20% less than conventional agriculture and the transition into organic farming can be perilous. Farmers must keep their land free of chemicals for three years before they can be classed as organic. Essentially, they must farm organically for three years before being able to sell their produce for premium organic price. Casey Bailey, a farmer in Montana, claims he was “scared to death” at the transition of his 5,000 acres to organic farming methods.

Therefore, whilst a future of organic farming would be beneficial for the environment, it must be a long, slow, and precise process following scientific research and guidelines. The drastic and impulsive switch to a complete ban in Sri Lanka, especially considering the current economic state of the country, was simply a recipe for disaster and put livelihoods at risk. Jeevika Weerahewa, an agricultural economist at Peradeniya University says that due to the "unnecessary experiment" rice yields are not expected to recover till late 2022 and "the crop will not recover."

This disastrous journey of experimentation with organic farming may be viewed as "a warning to developing countries across the world against falling into a similar trap.”