How Organic Farming Worsened Sri Lanka’s Economic and Political Crisis

WSri Lanka’s president fled amid massive protests. This has pushed it deeper into a political crisis that is spiraling further. It’s easy to forget in this meltdown, but the economic turmoil that has brought the South Asian nation to this point was precipitated by its disastrous shift to organic farming—posing new questions about the viability of sustainable agriculture. 22 million Indian Ocean islands would have been among the first to adopt organic farming in India. It plummeted into the worst social unrest.

In a country that is in chaos, the political parties desperately try to form an all-party government. Just hours before the official resignation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran to Maldives after protestors stormed and occupied a palace.

Nearly two years ago, the same Rajapaksa, having consolidated the grip of his powerful political dynasty—by installing his brother (and former president) Mahinda as prime minister—told a United Nations summit that Sri Lanka had been experiencing “increasing use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and weedicides that led to adverse health and environmental impacts”. The use of these instruments of industrial farming were incongruent with the “sustainable food systems” of Sri Lankan heritage, he declared.

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The widespread acceptance of industrial agriculture as unsustainable and an environmental threat is a sign that it’s becoming more prevalent. The modern agricultural sector contributes approximately a quarter to almost a third to greenhouse gas emissions. This sector consumes 70% of freshwater. It also uses up to 70% of all freshwater. Organic farming is becoming more popular because it advocates traditional methods of farming that are equally effective, sustainable, and safer.

Politicians tend to avoid the challenges of modern agriculture because they are caught in a difficult position between short-term and long-term livelihoods. Rajapaksa was an exception. He promised that Sri Lanka would transition to organic agriculture within a decade during his election campaign in 2019. In his spring election campaign, he made good on this promise and issued a blanket ban to all imports of any agrochemicals.

After speaking to parliament at the ceremonial induction of the session, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left Colombo (Sri Lanka) on January 3, 2020.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Two million farmers, which is approximately 27%, struggled to find natural fertilizers. It failed to provide subsidies for farmers to purchase organic fertilizers and pesticides, nor did it increase the domestic production. This sudden shift in policy has had a devastating impact on crop yields. Rice, Sri Lanka’s dietary staple that it used to produce adequately and even exported, saw average yields slashed by some 30%. Sri Lanka was forced to import rice for the first time since decades. The production of tea, the country’s prime export, fell by 18%, crimping its foreign exchange earnings. The November agrochemical import ban was lifted after farmers protested. There was no going back on subsidizing chemical fertilizers, as it was before.

The disruption this caused to Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector could not have come at a worse time. The tourism industry, the country’s foreign exchange earner and the backbone of its economy, had already been reeling from the 2019 Easter bombings–the deadliest terror attack since the 26-year civil war with Tamil rebels ended in 2009. This situation only got worse due to the pandemic.

Rajapaksa was on a massive borrowing spree to finance infrastructure projects and introduced tax reductions in an effort to spur the economy. However, it proved to be a disaster as the government lost $1.4 million in revenue. The government in Sri Lanka would soon be unable to import essentials such as fuel, medicines, and food due to low foreign currency reserves. With the escalating Russia-Ukraine War, the fuel prices reached a breaking point. Sri Lanka, which was drowning in $51billion in foreign debts, wasn’t even in the position to pay its interest obligations. For the first time ever, Sri Lanka defaulted in May on its debt.

Organic farming is severely under threat from the political and economic crises that have erupted due to the botched agricultural transition. Critics of organic farming now cite Sri Lanka as an example of how not to—or worse, Why? not to—go organic.

Dr. Shahidur Rashid, director for South Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in New Delhi, India, says: “Politicians will now think, ‘Why take the risk?’” Reducing chemical pollutants in soil, water, and air is undeniably good for the environment, he says. “But the question is, how do we do that? It should be a gradual process.”

Complex math is behind organic farming

Even though farmers protested against the import ban and the subsequent economic crisis that followed, organic farming in Sri Lanka has been supported by a significant amount. A July 2021 survey of Sri Lankan farmers by Colombo-based think-tank Verité Research found that 64% of the respondents were in favor of transitioning out of agrochemical-based farming, with some 78% asking for more than a year to effectively shift.

While the majority of farmers agreed to make the switch and expect a quick hit, the survey also revealed that not all were familiar with organic farming practices like composting. About 35% said that they were able to plant without the use of chemical fertilizers. Only 23% of those surveyed knew about organic options. Nearly three-quarters of respondents stated that they had not received any instruction on organic cultivation.

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It is not easy to transition fully into organic agriculture, even for countries that are committed. Bhutan had pledged in 2008 to complete its transition by 2020. Many of Bhutan’s farmers continue to use agrochemicals. Although the European Union pledged to promote organic farming, it still supports genetically modified crops which pose a threat to natural biodiversity.

The simple reason why it’s so difficult to step back from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrochemicals is that they enable stable and quick mass production of food. According to the World Food Programme there are 193 million people who face acute food insecurity. This means that fast, easy access to foodgrains is essential.

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, industrialized agriculture has been identified as the major driver of soil loss. Many fertilizers contain pesticides or nitrogenous compounds that can cause soil damage. These chemicals may leach into the groundwater. These chemicals can leach into groundwater, which could affect marine life, including fish.

Sri Lanka is a major exporter of tea.

CM Dixon/Heritage Images by Getty Images

A 2019 study found that organic farming can reduce total food production by up to 40%. This study shows that organic food can also be harmful to the environment. Direct greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 20% when organic crops are used. But, nations will turn to countries for assistance if they don’t have the resources to produce them. When you consider the amount of agricultural land that is used abroad, organic farming may result in net greenhouse gas emissions up to 1.7 times greater than traditional agriculture.

Organic agriculture would also require “building the soil”, which could take years. To make organic agriculture work, soil must be fertilized with nutrients such as bone meal and manure. These substances can also cause environmental damage. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture data 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions in livestock supply chains is due to manure storage and processing.

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“In order to give that recommended rate of nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium to a plant, you need large amounts of organic fertilizers,” Jeevika Weerahewa, an agricultural economist at the University of Peredaniya in Sri Lanka, tells TIME. Urea is an artificial fertilizer with 46% nitrogen. Manure has a single-digit nitrogen percentage.

Weerahewa says part of the reason Sri Lanka’s economy was badly hit following the agrochemical import ban was because it did not have an adequate national supply of organic options. The country had to depend on imports which came with their own problems. When India began importing high-end organic nanofertilizers to the United States, costs rose. Its strict sanitary policies led to it rejecting a large shipment of organic fertilizers from China. This led to a diplomatic impasse. (The company sued Sri Lankan government and was forced to settle for $6.9 million.

Sri Lanka’s lessons for the future

Organic farming is not to blame for the disastrous ban on fertilizer, according to agricultural experts. The speed and scale of the implementation was what made it so difficult.

Devesh Roy, a senior research fellow at the IFPRI, says that while a common argument for organic farming is food safety—it’s healthier because of less exposure to chemicals—it may not be sustainable from the economic perspective because of lower yield. Sri Lanka’s attempt to transition backfired since its thin portfolio of exports—tourism, tea, coconut, and rubber—increased its exposure to risks. “That’s such a short list; if your yield falls 50%, will you not have a foreign exchange crisis?” he says.

Rashid adds that sustainability requires the use of technology. Methods like vertical farming, which helps reduce the amount of land needed to grow food, and precision agriculture—which uses information technology and big data to regulate cultivation—can be useful if a country wants to pursue an all-organic or less resource-intensive agriculture. But some of the technology needed to support this green revolution is “not there yet,” Rashid says.

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