Sri Lanka has found itself in an economic crisis to produce 100% organic food
‘The food crisis in Lanka shows the dangers of organic farming.
This was the headline of a column by the Indian economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, which was recently published in a national daily newspaper. Aiyar’s article analyzed the food crisis in Sri Lanka triggered by the president’s recent decision to switch from chemical to organic farming.
While the media blamed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who obviously underestimated the decline in agricultural yields, Aiyar attributed the crisis to organic farming. He warned Indian states and expressed hope for genetically modified plants.
The negative social and environmental effects of the Green Revolution are recognized as well as the lower agricultural yields and higher prices for organic products. However, more and more research is relying on organic farming to achieve global climate goals and preserve natural ecosystems.
When a country’s food security is at stake, turning the decision into a binary choice between conventional or organic farming is ridiculous. The question then is: does the crisis in Sri Lanka offer sufficient justification for organic farming? Or is it a poorly researched political decision?
The decision, as mentioned on the website of the President’s Office, was no accident. It began in 2019 with the pursuit of a “healthy and productive nation that guarantees people’s right to safe food” in the national political framework with the title “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor”, followed by a Gazette resolution on March 6. May 2021, which bans the import of chemicals fertilizers and pesticides.
Here are some questions that could indicate whether the president was ill-advised in making this decision.
It is well known that organic yields are significantly lower (19-25 percent lower, as quoted by Aiyar in the article) and prices are higher. The reasons for the high yields of chemical agriculture are less well known.
When the yield increases, the prices decrease. Each of the three pillars of the GR – irrigation, chemical use and pesticides – has weakened the natural environment. The high need for irrigation of the high-yielding variety (HYV) crops has resulted in an alarming decline in the water table in most parts of India.
Overuse of fertilizers has polluted ground and surface water, while high nitrates lead to 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 have been linked to the rising incidence of some cancers.
Hundreds of farmers die every year by spraying them on farms.
In short, the cost of the HYVs is “externalized” to the natural environment. These costs are borne by people who have health problems and by taxpayers when the government spends their money on pollution reduction.
The externalized costs therefore keep the prices of chemical agricultural products fictitiously low. The Sri Lankan government advisory team would be completely naive if it did not consider the imminent rise in the price of organic farm products.
What the green revolution called “low yield” was far less extractive for soil nutrients. This farming required much less cash for inputs, which meant the farmers had less credit.
If it is foreseeable that agricultural production will decline, it is of crucial importance 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, gum, cashew, coconut, sugar cane and oil palm cannot replace food. Agricultural activities are carried out on 41.63 percent of the total area of Sri Lanka. 23.45 percent of this is used for growing rice and other crops; 10.32 percent of the area is used for plantations.
Given a consistently lower rice yield in Sri Lanka by international comparison, would this country be enough to store supplies for a nation that mainly eats rice? Was this factor taken into account in the decision?
Food and beverages made up 7.2 percent of total imports in 2019. These include wheat, rice, potatoes, onions, and other agricultural products. Has this been increased in order to close the looming return gap?
Ironically, the document “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor” mentions “exporting crops” as an activity and offers subsidies and guaranteed pricing. Has this been reconsidered after the decision for organic farming?
With generations of farmers adopting revolutionary green farming, the skills and knowledge required to become organic farming are now scarce. Can Sri Lankan Farmers Make The Right Choices About Seeds? Do they have access to seed banks? Are you familiar with organic soil nutrients and organic pesticides?
Applying NPK to the soil is not the same as treating it with organic fertilizer, and storing seeds is different from buying new seeds each season. Have these skills and knowledge been shared with or made available to the farmers?
Apparently not, as a survey found that only 20 percent of farmers had the knowledge to convert to fully organic farming and 63 percent of those questioned received no guidance on organic farming.
Logically, the question arises whether sufficient compost, organic fertilizers, biopesticides and related resources were available. The President’s Office mentions that “sufficient manure has been imported” but does not say anything about other agricultural inputs.
Compost, manure and other organic matter are of vital importance in organic farming. Has a supply chain been established to connect the manufacturing sites with the users?
These and many other questions make Aiyar’s arguments against organic farming seem weak. Assuming that organic farming has been scientifically proven (which is also dubious), the error lies in the research, planning and implementation. The survey also showed that 64 percent of farmers supported government policies, but only with a transitional approach.
So the key to success does not lie in making a bold decision to switch to organic, but in educating farmers, making citizens aware of their benefits, creating suitable infrastructure and maintaining a supply chain for agricultural inputs.
This needs to be complemented by choosing a path of transition 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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