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Sri Lanka’s organic farming disaster, explained

A shift to better farming practices is possible, but Sri Lanka’s abrupt switch to organics offers a bitter lesson in how to change food systems in a sustainable way.

Workers hand-pick tea leaves in Ramboda, Sri Lanka.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

Sri Lanka’s economy is in free fall. Runaway inflation reached 54.6 percent last month, and the South Asian country is now headed toward bankruptcy. Nine in 10 Sri Lankan families are skipping meals, and many are standing in line for days in the hope of acquiring fuel.

The dire situation culminated last weekend in an uprising in which an estimated 300,000 protesters took over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home and offices and set fire to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s home. Rajapaksa resigned after fleeing the country, leaving Wickremesinghe as interim president.

There’s no singular cause for the crisis, which had been building for years due to political corruption and right-wing authoritarian politics that weakened democracy. In April 2019, the crisis accelerated after suicide bombings at churches hurt the island nation’s critical tourism industry, which weakened its currency and made it more difficult for the government to import essential goods.

At the end of 2019, tax cuts slashed government revenue, while in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic further decimated the tourism industry, with skyrocketing inflation pouring more fuel on the fire.

Pandemic aside, that’s not an atypical set of conditions for the collapse of a developing country like Sri Lanka. But in the spring of 2021, President Rajapaksa made an unusual decision: He banned synthetic fertilizer and pesticide imports practically overnight, forcing Sri Lanka’s millions of farmers to go organic. It proved disastrous, as a group of Sri Lankan scientists and agriculture experts had warned.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa standing behind a United Nations podium.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2021, in New York City.
Justin Lane/Getty Images

According to one estimate, the president’s agrochemical ban was poised to save Sri Lanka the $400 million it was spending yearly on synthetic fertilizer, money it could use toward increasing imports of other goods. But Rajapaksa also argued that chemical fertilizers and pesticides were leading to “adverse health and environmental impacts” and that such industrial farming methods went against the country’s heritage of “sustainable food systems.”

“There is a section of the Sri Lankan NGO society and civil society, which has been arguing for the spread of organic farming in Sri Lanka for quite a while. ... This has also been actively supported by many international groups,” R. Ramakumar, an agricultural economist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India, told me.

Instead of fixing the crisis, however, the move only worsened it.

“The organic policy was implemented to sort of ameliorate an ongoing crisis … ironically, what it did was that it ended up exacerbating the crisis,” Ramakumar said.

The agrochemical ban caused rice production to drop 20 percent in the six months after it was implemented, causing a country that had been self-sufficient in rice production to spend $450 million on rice imports — much more than the $400 million that would’ve been saved by banning fertilizer imports.

The production of tea, Sri Lanka’s literal cash crop — it’s the country’s biggest export — fell by 18 percent. The government has had to spend hundreds of millions on subsidies and compensation to farmers in an effort to make up for the loss of productivity.

Farmer MM Jinasena works in a paddy field in Tissamaharama, Hambantota district, in April 2022.
Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

While agrochemicals cause a host of environmental and public health problems, which in part inspired the ban, they also help farmers grow more food on less land, which is critical for small, developing countries like Sri Lanka that rely on agriculture for both sustenance and export income. Moving away from an agrochemical-heavy food system makes sense in a lot of ways, but the Sri Lanka example underscores the importance of being mindful of the economic, political, and social context of any reform.

Around five months into the ban, farmers were allowed to begin using synthetic fertilizers on tea and a few other crops while keeping the ban in place for others, but by that point, much of the damage was done.

The blinkered organic rollout accelerated an economic crisis long in motion, but it also crystallized the stakes of the debate over conventional versus organic farming, demonstrating just how critical high-yield crops are in economies still based largely on agriculture.

Sri Lanka, which only recently emerged from a catastrophic civil war, had been a bright spot in international development: In 2000, 17 percent of Sri Lankans were undernourished and by 2019, that figure fell dramatically to 7 percent, lifting around 2 million people out of hunger. The economic crisis that has now reached a boiling point, caused in part by the organic farming disaster, will horrifically, and ironically, undo some of that progress.

Agriculture is all about trade-offs

Synthetic fertilizer makes crops grow faster and bigger than organic fertilizer, such as animal manure, and pesticides control insect infestations and diseases that can destroy crops. Experts say the widespread adoption of the two agricultural inputs since the mid-20th century, known as the Green Revolution, helped lift countries like Sri Lanka out of grinding poverty.

A Sri Lankan tomato farmer shows pest-infected crop which he blames on unavailability of chemical pesticides in Keppetipola, Sri Lanka on July 1, 2021.
Eranga Jayawardena/AP

“Sri Lanka started subsidizing fertilizers in the 1960s and we saw that rice yields tripled,” says Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, a US-based environmental nonprofit that advocates for technological solutions. “[Sri Lanka] became self-sufficient in rice ... that’s huge for all Asian countries, from the food security standpoint.”

That resulted in much of the labor force moving out of agriculture and into higher-paying jobs, Shah says, a story that played out across the globe over the past 60 years. But the expansion of conventional agriculture hasn’t been without steep costs; agrochemical use is also rife with serious environmental and public health problems.

Pesticide exposure is linked to a range of health issues, including respiratory and central nervous system symptoms, and around 1 in every 8 suicides worldwide is done by ingesting pesticides, with especially high rates in South Asia.

When synthetic fertilizer and pesticides leach into waterways, they can kill off wildlife and poison drinking water sources, and their production and application emit high amounts of greenhouse gases and degrade soil.

Many organic agriculture advocates also argue that low-income countries’ reliance on imported chemicals from high-income countries strips them of their own food security and makes them vulnerable to the kind of agrochemical price hikes that Sri Lanka experienced. A majority of Sri Lankan farmers supported an organic transition, but wanted more than one year to do so — and they needed more support than they were given to switch to organic.

In 2008, Indian farmers from the Farmers Heritage Movement show a canister to be used with natural fertilizer in the village of Chaina.
Pedro Ugarte/AFP via Getty Images

As horrible as the effects of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are, they have to be weighed against the consequences brought to bear by crop yield loss: hunger, decreased export income, increased deforestation, and, if banned outright, as Sri Lanka has shown, political crisis. But there are ways to minimize the effects of agrochemicals without abandoning them altogether.

Minimizing the harms of industrial agriculture

The US-based environmental nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) says that it’s not enough to just maintain current yields — governments around the world need to increase yields per acre to feed 10 billion people by 2050, lest farmers be forced to clear more and more land to make up for lower yields, with massive environmental effects.

Meeting that inevitable demand — while also minimizing the environmental and public health issues brought about by agrochemicals while continuing to increase crop yields — is tricky but possible. Shah, the food and agriculture analyst, says a more sustainable approach requires making crops higher-yield through breeding, making nitrogen fertilizers more efficient, and instituting “precision farming” technologies, like drones and sensors, to more accurately analyze where fertilizer is being over- or under-applied.

A 10-year study in China, in which 21 million farmers were trained on how to better manage soil, water, and fertilizer, shows the progress that can be made. The program resulted in an 11 percent yield increase for maize, wheat, and rice, and a 15-18 percent reduction in nitrogen fertilizer use.

Practices popular among organic agriculture proponents would also help, like employing cover cropping, double cropping, adding organic fertilizer along with chemical fertilizer on fields, and planting trees and shrubs on farms, known as agroforestry.

A farmer at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, which strives to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural landscapes. Agroforestry, the practice of planting shrubs and trees beside crops, can increase farm productivity and improve soil health.
Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images

“I think that in the Western world, we can get lost in the organic/conventional debate,” Shah said. “Agriculture is the backbone of economic development — for livelihoods, for food security. … It should be less so about ideology and which one is better, but more so what combination of technologies, practices, and market conditions will be helpful to spur development and to empower farmers.”

But implementing any of these practices in the near future won’t be possible in Sri Lanka, given that they’d all require money the government doesn’t have.

“It seems like it’ll be a long road to recovery,” Shah added. “It’ll depend on what type of financial aid package they’re able to negotiate with the [International Monetary Fund]. And if they’re able to reduce some of the debt burdens.”

“I’m speculating now at this point,” Ramakumar, the agricultural economist, said, “but if they follow the voice of science and reason, then it is not an irretrievable situation ... But it depends on who comes to rule Sri Lanka and what policies they adopt.”

In time, Sri Lanka may get some relief from the tension of its agricultural trade-offs. According to the economic theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve, once countries reach a certain level of per capita income, economic growth and environmental pollution can decouple as the country can afford to implement stronger environmental regulations and practices without sacrificing economic growth, like crop yields.

Decoupling the two is far from guaranteed, but some countries have achieved it. As Sri Lanka gets richer, it’ll be more able to prioritize the environment and public health without millions going hungry, but the current crisis — made worse by the sudden, hastily executed organic transition — has made that day farther away.

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