Manmade food crisis in Sri Lanka red flag for abrupt pivot to organic farming

Leah ShortLeah Short | Updated: 14-01-2022 15:09 IST | Created: 14-01-2022 15:09 IST
Manmade food crisis in Sri Lanka red flag for abrupt pivot to organic farming
Image Credit: Flickr
  • Country:
  • Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is in dire straits, with food prices ballooning to record highs and the government and ordinary citizens alike in danger of running out of cash. Colombo has floated increasingly desperate measures to alleviate the crisis, including appealing to Beijing to ease its substantial debt burden, opening up credit lines to import food and medicine from India and rolling out a $1.1 billion relief package to help citizens cope with soaring food costs and subsidies to try and get people to grow their own food. The measure is desperately needed in the country after a poorly planned ban on agrochemicals crippled food production and saw prices spiral.

Despite its eco-friendly reputation, organic farming also reduces crop yields and requires more land to achieve the same productivity, something which is counterproductive both environmentally and economically when implemented on a large scale—particularly when carried out suddenly without preparing farmers for the dramatic change, as occurred in Sri Lanka. The serious food crisis now unfolding in Sri Lanka provides a cautionary tale to India and other developing countries that precipitous phase-outs of agrochemicals can send food security into a tailspin.

Short-sighted government schemes

The targeted relief package is Sri Lanka’s latest attempt to depressurize the mounting crisis in the food sector. In recent months, Sri Lankan supermarkets have begun rationing staple products like milk powder, sugar or lentils, while food prices rose by a record 22 percent in December.

Multiple factors have contributed to the crisis, including supply chain issues, a sinking currency and declining tourism revenue due to the coronavirus. The calamity, however, has been greatly catalysed by Colombo’s sudden decision last April to make Sri Lanka the world’s first country to embrace 100% organic farming. In order to achieve this goal it banned the import of chemical fertilizer and other agrochemicals—a strategy made all the more bizarre by the speed with which it was brought about. The prohibition went into effect suddenly right before the vital Yala planting season, giving farmers no time to prepare for the massive shift in agricultural practice.

With 85% of Sri Lankan farmers expecting a reduction in their harvest due to the agrochemical ban and more than half anticipating a 40% cut in crop yields, many farmers accustomed to relying heavily on fertilizers and pesticides decided not to cultivate crops at all. The results have been predictably catastrophic—food shortages have spread across the nation, with prices for basic products like rice and sugar doubling or even tripling in just a few months. As fears mount that Sri Lanka’s crucial agricultural exports— including cinnamon, pepper and most importantly tea, which makes up 10% of the country’s total exports—are in jeopardy, pundits have warned that Sri Lanka could go bankrupt in 2022.

The government has tried to minimize the crisis—a top agriculture official who warned last month that Sri Lanka could face a famine was fired hours later, while a minister was similarly dismissed last week after criticising the organic farming drive. After months of protests by farmers, Colombo caved in and partially lifted the agrochemical ban in late November, but the scheme had already crippled Sri Lanka’s food security, with one Sri Lankan economist lamenting the organic drive as “a dream with unimaginable social, political and economic costs”.

Cautionary tale for India and beyond

Sri Lanka’s example serves as a clear alert to developing countries around the world, particularly at this time of compounded global crises. With food prices rising across the world by a third in the last year, a hasty whole-hog shift towards organic farming could have devastating consequences for the developing world.

India, which has been aggressively pressing for more natural farming, should particularly heed Sri Lanka’s warning. Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has suggested that a so-called zero budget natural farming approach, deploying chemical-free agricultural methods and low-cost inputs, could double Indian farmers’ incomes in a matter of mere years, and PM Narendra Modi has repeatedly advocated for the practice in recent months.

This push has sparked some scepticism from scientists. Even before Sri Lanka’s catastrophic experiment with large-scale organic farming, India’s National Academy of Agricultural Sciences cautioned the government over rushing into an agricultural paradigm shift, highlighting the potential adverse effects of natural agriculture on farm incomes and food security.

Indeed, while proponents of organic farming have highlighted benefits including the preservation of heirloom cultivars, better soil quality and reduced energy requirements, scaling up the practice entails a number of problematic consequences. In particular, the greenhouse gas emissions from clearing the additional grasslands and forests required to produce the same amount of food organically would be far higher than the emissions saved by organic farming practices.  

Forward-looking agriculture

What’s more, agrochemicals themselves have come a long way from those which underpinned the Green Revolution which transformed agriculture in the 1960s, defying grim predictions that famines would kill hundreds of millions of people, particularly in India, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chemical innovation has reduced pesticide toxicity by up to 98%, for example, and dramatically reduced the quantity of pesticide which must be applied per acre. Fresh developments are taking place every year, with 21st-century agricultural research dominated by a strong focus on environmental impact. The culmination of these efforts is the advent of “smart agrochemicals”, biobased chemicals that seek to maximize yields while producing the smallest possible environmental footprint.

Organic farming will undoubtedly continue to be a tool in policymakers’ plans to curb emissions, but Sri Lanka’s unfurling crisis proves that eschewing modern agriculture means taking a dangerous gamble with food security.

Rather than resorting to similar experiments, developing countries need to harness the latest technological innovations—whether that’s modern agrochemicals or countless other technologies which help farmers increase productivity and make them more resistant to climate change. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion in just a few decades, agriculture cannot look anywhere but forwards.

(Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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