In April, the Sri Lankan government banned the import and use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, including insecticides and herbicides, marking a significant step in their goal to become the world’s first country to produce 100% organic agriculture.
According to President Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the move was necessary to reverse the country’s overuse of harmful chemicals, which he says has led to “environmental degradation, water pollution, and has caused increased greenhouse gas emissions.”
Now, just months after the decision, the country’s food supply is already in crisis.
Rajapakse has declared an economic emergency, issuing new price controls and regulations in an attempt to curb food hoarding and inflation. Despite government claims to the contrary, the country is experiencing a significant food shortage. According to The Print’s Samyak Pandey, “a former army general has been appointed as ‘commissioner general of essential services’ to raid and seize food stocks.”
It’s an unfortunate chapter in Sri Lanka’s steady decline in GDP, a trend that hasn’t been helped by COVID-19, which continues to cripple the nation’s tourism industry. It was from this already precarious position that the government issued its organic mandate — blocking a range of imports and further inhibiting the ability of its citizens to create and innovate for their families and communities. Given the disruptions, experts now expect crops to produce roughly half of the country’s typical output.
According to W.A. Wijewardena, Sri Lanka’s former central bank deputy governor, the policy is “a dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs.”
The South China Morning Post summarizes the situation as follows
“Tea plantation owners are predicting crops could fail as soon as October, with cinnamon, pepper and staples such as rice also facing trouble.
“Master tea maker Herman Gunaratne, one of 46 experts picked by Rajapaksa to guide the organic revolution, fears the worst. ‘The ban has drawn the tea industry into complete disarray,’ Gunaratne said at his plantation in Ahangama, in rolling hills 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Colombo. The consequences for the country are unimaginable.
“The 76-year-old, who grows one of the world’s most expensive teas, fears that Sri Lanka’s average annual crop of 300,000 tonnes will be slashed by half unless the government changes course.”
In a different interview, Gunaratne notes that “if we go completely organic, we will lose 50 percent of the crop, (but) we are not going to get 50 percent higher prices.” As the country’s largest export, tea would normally yield around $1.25 billion a year.
Even in a best-case scenario — where the most innovative methods in organic farming were used and properly implemented — the country’s yields would still be greatly diminished. But through the rushed, overnight roll-out, results have been worse than many imagined, exposing the state’s many blind spots one day at a time.
According to Pandey, the majority of Sri Lanka’s farmers still lack the knowledge and organic fertilizers they need to execute on the government’s demands:
“An island-wide survey of farmers found out that 90 per cent use chemicals for farming and 85 per cent expected sizable reductions in their harvest if disallowed to use fertilisers. Moreover, the survey said that only 20 per cent farmers had the knowledge to transition to completely organic production.
“It also found that 44 per cent farmers are experiencing a decline in harvests, and 85 per cent are expecting a fall in the future. The survey also revealed that many key crops in Sri Lanka depend on heavy use of chemical input for cultivation, with the highest dependency in paddy at 94 per cent, followed by tea and rubber at 89 per cent each.
“With the shift from chemical to organic cultivation, Sri Lanka needs a large domestic production of organic fertilisers and biofertilisers. However, the situation is very bleak.
“According to an estimate, the country generates about 3,500 tonnes of municipal organic waste every day. About 2-3 million tonnes of compost can be produced from this on an annual basis. However, just organic paddy cultivation requires nearly 4 million tonnes of compost annually at a rate of 5 tonnes per hectare. For tea plantations, the demand for organic manure could be another 3 million tonnes.”
At this point, one might be tempted to take solace in the nobility of the original cause — long-term environmental health and sustainability. Surely these “unimaginable costs” are all for something?
But even here, the desired results seem unlikely. As the Hoover Institution’s Henry Miller explains, “the fatal flaw of organic agriculture is the low yields that cause it to be wasteful of water and farmland.” According to a study by plant pathologist Steven Savage, organic farming has its own share of environmental costs and side effects: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land — an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.”
Another study in the Annual Review of Resource Economics came to a similar conclusion:
“In terms of environmental and climate change effects, organic farming is less polluting than conventional farming when measured per unit of land but not when measured per unit of output. Organic farming, which currently accounts for only 1% of global agricultural land, is lower yielding on average.
“Due to higher knowledge requirements, observed yield gaps might further increase if a larger number of farmers would switch to organic practices. Widespread upscaling of organic agriculture would cause additional loss of natural habitats and also entail output price increases, making food less affordable for poor consumers in developing countries. Organic farming is not the paradigm for sustainable agriculture and food security, but smart combinations of organic and conventional methods could contribute toward sustainable productivity increases in global agriculture.”
Yet one needn’t take a position on organic farming to see the folly in Sri Lanka’s decision. This is a classic case of fatal conceits run amok — of lofty ideas and one-dimensional strategies that hold little regard for localized knowledge and the complexity of the human person. The politician plays the master, the planner plays the soothsayer, and the economist plays the “savior” and social engineer — all to the detriment of the searchers on the ground who actually create and innovate and do the hard and dirty work.
The impoverishing effects on material wellbeing are already evident, but such intrusions touch on so much more. By waving the grand-master’s wand over the entire agricultural sector, Sri Lanka is treating its dignified citizens as controllable pieces in a larger game, as mere cogs in a clever bureaucrat’s machine.
If environmental stewardship is truly the goal, Sri Lanka will not make strides by steamrolling individual and institutional freedoms for the sake of a narrow top-down plan. Instead, it ought to find ways to better empower and unleash the farmers and entrepreneurs it already has, allowing for the strength of their diversity and creativity to manifest across crops, enterprises, and institutions.