Sri Lanka’s transition to organic farming

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On August 30, 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency. The decision was made to curb vital goods hoarding and control inflation as the country faces food shortages and a sharp rise in the prices of essential goods.

Sri Lanka is in a pandemic-induced economic crisis with rising foreign debt, exhausted foreign exchange reserves and a depreciating currency. Media reports have linked food shortages and the economic crisis to a government decision earlier this year.

In April, President Rajapaksa announced that only organic farming would be allowed in Sri Lanka, making it the first country to do so. On April 27, the Sri Lankan cabinet banned imports of over 600 items, including chemical fertilizers and foods like oats, soy milk, dairy products and apple juice. In his address to the pre-summit of the United Nations Food System Summit from July 26-28, 2021, Rajapaksa cited widespread chronic health problems and the ecological destruction of the country by agrochemicals as the reasons for the ban.

Previously, a February 3 government press release linked overuse of agrochemicals to increases in kidney disease, cancer and non-communicable diseases.

Aside from health concerns, Rajapaksa also spoke in a special address to the nation on June 26th about the need to cut imports due to the economic crisis. Sri Lanka’s chemical fertilizer import totaled 1.26 million tons in 2020, according to the National Fertilizer Secretariat.

“In 2020, Sri Lankan imports (both government and private sectors) of foreign fertilizers reached $ 259 million, which is 1.6 percent of the country’s total imports by value,” stated Sri Lanka’s Restricts and Bans the Import of Fertilizers and Agrochemicals, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service dated Feb. 28, 2021. The report also suggested that Sri Lanka’s fertilizer import bill for 2021 could be $ 300 million to $ 400 million given the current high international prices.

Wrong goal

The media wrongly blames organic farming for the food crisis in Sri Lanka. There are two growing seasons in the country – Yala (April-May to August-September) and Maha (September-October to February-March). Most Sri Lankan farmers have already used government-provided chemical fertilizers in the current Yala season.

In media reports, the country’s agriculture minister, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, was quoted as saying that the country was facing a chemical fertilizer shortage of just 5 percent this season. The loss of yield, if any, after harvest this Yala season will be related to chemical fertilizer farming and has nothing to do with organic, Suresh Del Mel, a member of the Sri Lankan Presidential Organic Farming Task Force, told Down To Earth ( DTE). The crisis is linked to economic factors that lead to the depletion of foreign exchange reserves and the restriction of food imports.

However, the sudden move to ban chemical fertilizers and pesticides sparked hoarding among traders and businesses, leading to black marketing. In July there were widespread protests from farmers complaining about fertilizer shortages and government raids against hoarders. The military was deployed to stop the hoarding of vital raw materials and to confiscate food supplies from traders and retailers.

Aluthgamage blames the fertilizer mafia for fueling public fear and causing disruption. During a media conversation on June 14, he said chemical fertilizers are the third largest company in Sri Lanka with annual sales of 100 billion rupees ($ 0.5 billion) and that defeating this mafia is never an easy task. He also said that farmers are not against the use of organic farming.

Old plan

Successive Sri Lankan governments, including the previous one, have spoken about expanding organic farming in the country. Before the President’s announcement, the government’s National Agricultural Policy in 2021 envisaged increasing the use of organic fertilizers in Sri Lanka from 1 percent to 30 percent within three years.

However, the majority of Sri Lankan farmers have yet to learn and start organic farming. According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2020 of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, an umbrella organization of the organic agriculture movement with member organizations in over 100 countries, only 2.8 percent of Sri Lanka’s total agricultural area is organic.

However, the actual number of organic and natural farmers may be higher in Sri Lanka as only certified organic farmers are counted, said Anuka Vimukthi, a member of the International Coordinating Committee of La Via Campesina, an international farmers’ organization based in Belgium.

A smooth transition from chemical-based farming to organic or natural farming requires a well-designed plan. Sri Lanka lacks a roadmap and transition plan and it appears that the decision to switch to organic farming was made under economic constraints.

Farmers Approve

Civil society and organizations promoting organic and natural farming in Sri Lanka are excited about the announcement to switch to organic farming, said Linus Jayatilake, a former union leader who is now committed to promoting natural farming and indigenous cattle breeds.

Many farmers in Sri Lanka want to switch to organic farming but lack adequate support, said Shammika Liyanage, senior lecturer, public policy, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

Chintaka Rajapakse, moderator of Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform, a non-profit organization based in Sri Lanka, congratulated the government on this initiative, but warned that farmers could lose confidence in such practices if to do so without an appropriate policy framework happens. We have to learn from the experience of similar work in other countries, said Liyanage.

Sri Lanka doesn’t need to look too far. India’s experience with organic farming shows the need for a proper plan for such a mass conversion.

T.Vijay Kumar, ex officio special chief secretary for Natural Farming, Andhra Pradesh, who has helped 128,000 farmers switch from chemical-based farming to natural farming since 2016, said it could take 3-5 years for a farmer to come up organic farming switched completely and an entire village can take 5-8 years.

Coverage is increasing gradually and only after farmers have changed their mindset and learned and adopted organic practices, he said. It should also be voluntary.

For now, the Sri Lankan government is only talking about promoting organic fertilizers and raising awareness among farmers. The farmers are offered financial incentives of 12,500 rupees from Sri Lanka per hectare up to a maximum of two hectares in order to promote organic farming.

Government officials said the mechanism was formulated to provide organic fertilizer needed for the Maha season. President Rajapaksa instructed officials to import the required amount of high quality organic fertilizer when the amount of locally produced fertilizer is insufficient.

The Sri Lankan government has allocated Rs 3.8 billion to purchase organic fertilizers in the coming season. However, GV Ramanjaneyulu, an agronomist who works on organic farming at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit research organization based in Telangana, told DTE that the transition is not just about providing subsidies or organic fertilizers; The focus needs to be on capacity building for key stakeholders such as farmers, Ministry of Agriculture officials and scientists.

It also requires holding hands, high quality organic inputs, and assistance with transition losses. We started small organic farming initiatives in 2003 and became a 100 percent organic farming state in 2016, said S Anbalagan, CEO, Organic Mission, Sikkim, the first state in the world to be fully organic. The transition from chemical farming to organic farming takes time because of multiple challenges to overcome, Anbalagan said.

Organic growth

The success of organic and near-natural farming is being researched more and more, and the number of farmers who rely on organic has also increased worldwide.

Several publications by the Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that sustainable farming methods, such as organic farming, are more viable and sustainable than chemical-based agriculture in terms of yield, nutrient-rich food production, and ecological and economic sustainability.

N. Ravisankar, National Principal Investigator of the All India Network Program on Organic Farming of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research-Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research, said that a long-term assessment of cultivation systems in organic farming under various agroclimatic conditions in India is indicated that the organic -Yield in about 18 crops is the same or slightly higher than conventional chemical cultivation, especially after the conversion period of 2-3 years.

Rajinder Chaudhary, a former economics professor at MD University in Haryana, agreed. Any farmer who applies and practices all of the principles of organic farming – changing a whole host of agronomic practices in the process – can achieve comparable or even better yields on all organic crops, he added.

(Stayed on the ground)


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