After several days of protests, defying troops who used tear gas, thousands of people in Sri Lanka forced the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amid a severe economic crisis on the Southeast Asian island.
“There is a shortage of fuel, of cooking gas, of many foods, and prices have gone up dramatically. The price of bread has tripled in the last six months. The price of rice has more than doubled, and there are long lines. Sometimes people wait days to get a few liters of petrol or diesel. The whole economy is at a standstill,” Ahilan Kadirgamar, professor of sociology at the University of Jaffna, told the BBC’s The Inquiry radio programme.
Some of the island’s economic problems have the same origin as those faced by other countries, such as the increase in world prices of products due to the end of the covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine. But an important part of this financial meltdown in Sri Lanka could have been avoided, says Kadirgamar.
Much of the outrage from the protesters who stormed the presidential palace was related to the president’s ambitious — but deeply misguided — plan to change the way agriculture is done in the country.
In April 2021, President Rajapaksa announced a plan for the country to produce fully organic food within 10 years. This marked the end of the use of synthetic fertilizers in crops.
“It was the fertilizer ban that led to the food crisis. And the economic crisis. If the government hadn’t banned fertilizers, at least now we would have had enough food. And the government has to take full responsibility for creating this food crisis by banning chemical fertilizers”, says the professor of Sociology.
For Kadirgamar, the ban — added to the fuel shortage — has created an unsustainable situation for the country’s agriculture: “Farmers are almost giving up on agriculture. Many of them are leaving their fields, which is affecting not only their livelihoods but also the lives of those who work on these plantations”.
But did organic farming really cause Sri Lanka’s collapse?
“Agriculture is very important, especially when it comes to employment,” Jeevika Weerahewa, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Peradeniya, tells the BBC, noting that 25% of the country’s workforce is dedicated to agriculture – or around 2 million. of people.
“In terms of GDP [Produto Interno Bruto], agriculture contributes about 7%. Another 6% is from food manufacturing. Therefore, agriculture and food constitute a very important part of the income.”
Small farmers are the backbone of the country’s rural economy
Sri Lanka depends on its smallholder farmers to about 80% of the national food supply.
“The main product is rice. It is our staple food and we need about 10 kilos per person per month. We were more than self-sufficient in rice and also in vegetables, tropical fruits, coconut and eggs”, says Weerahewa.
It took many years for Sri Lanka to achieve this self-sufficiency. In the 1960s, a global initiative was launched to alleviate malnutrition in developing nations, including Sri Lanka. This initiative was called the “Green Revolution.”
The idea was to give production a boost using high-yield varieties of traditional crops, along with modern farming techniques such as high-nutrient farming methods.
“We had to encourage farmers to use more and more chemical fertilizers because we would only get a good harvest of these improved varieties if we applied sufficient doses of synthetic fertilizers. So we started subsidizing farmers from 1962 onwards”, says the professor of Agricultural Economics.
The subsidies were necessary because most of the country’s small farmers could not buy chemical fertilizers without state help. That’s why significant discounts were given, sometimes up to 90% off market prices.
In addition, there is also the cost of importation, as Sri Lanka does not produce chemical fertilizers. Despite the expense, ending this practice was a step no politician dared to take.
However, decades after the green revolution substantially increased crop yields, reports of disease began to emerge.
In the mid-1990s, many farmers in the north of the island began to suffer from chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDU). In 2021, Sri Lanka became the focus of this disease.
“Some people suspected that this was because of the chemical fertilizers applied by these farmers, because farmers do not take precautions and do not follow safety guidelines when applying chemicals, fertilizers and also pesticides,” says Weerahewa.
“However, these were hypotheses. There is no scientific evidence to say that the disease is due to cadmium and arsenic that are present in chemical fertilizers. But this statement has become popular, as has the idea of agriculture without chemical fertilizers.”
At the same time, global supply chain problems have caused a shortage of fertilizer raw materials. Demand — and prices — soared. Sri Lanka’s economy suffered another setback: the end of tourism revenue, due to the pandemic.
In this context, the government decided it was time for another agricultural revolution.
“People are very concerned when they say that there are toxic substances in food that will shorten their life expectancy and that their children will get sick with chronic kidney disease,” Professor Buddhi Marambe, an agricultural scientist at the University of Peradeniya, told the BBC.
In April 2021, President Rajapaksa announced that he would address these health issues with a radical policy of 100% organic agriculture. At the time, the scientific evidence supporting the plan was questioned, but Marambe says that certain interests had been pressing the president for some time.
“There were people from the health sector, people from the agricultural sciences and also religious people, Buddhist clergy, and there were many other people from the private sector who had been doing this organic farming at a certain level in Sri Lanka.”
The global market for high-quality organic products can be profitable, but not everyone was convinced that it would be so in the country.
“We all clearly know that these are very small niche markets, but this was a kind of incentive that was used to tell us that we could make a lot of money from it. But originally, the idea was human health”, says the agricultural scientist.
Organic farming is nothing new in Sri Lanka. Tea and vegetable producers have been doing this on a much smaller scale for years. But after the presidential decision, the entire country followed suit.
Sri Lanka was not the first to try to have all-organic agriculture. Bhutan announced years ago that it planned to become the world’s first 100% eco-friendly nation, but has struggled with that plan.
“Bhutan began to prepare for this activity since 2003. But they had a big problem and were in a situation where more than 50% of the basic foods they consumed had to be imported”, says Marambe.
Warning signs indicated that moving to 100% organic production — even with years of planning — would be unfeasible. In Sri Lanka, agricultural experts have raised similar concerns.
“We always told the government that they had taken a nefarious decision. I myself, like other agricultural scientists from different universities, wrote to His Excellency asking for a hearing, even if it was half an hour, to explain the harmful impacts. But these things were not heard. , unfortunately,” says the professor at the University of Peradeniya.
With the world reeling from the Covid pandemic and Sri Lanka’s economy losing revenue from a lack of tourists, this organic revolution couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“Farmers were taken by surprise, and so was the rest of the country,” Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based environmental consultancy, told the BBC.
She says the problems with the organic plan were clear from the start. The government was quick to ban chemical fertilizers but did not think about what to do to replace them.
“There is also not enough capacity in the country to produce its own organic manure. It would take five to seven times as much organic manure to cover the nutrients that synthetic fertilizers provide. More animals are needed to produce that amount of manure.”
“Organic farming has a lower yield, so it takes more land to grow the same amount of produce. In a small island nation, there is not enough land to produce as much manure or to achieve the production that can be achieved with synthetic fertilizers. ”
“To put it in perspective, the country produces more tea than all of the organic tea in the world combined. If tea production were completely organic, it would end up flooding the organic tea market and that could cause prices to spiral down.” says Shah.
The production and sale of organic food around the world also requires detailed inspections and testing over time to meet strict legal regulations.
According to the specialist in Food and Agriculture, none of this existed in the country, not even a regulatory framework to guide farmers on which types of organic fertilizers to use and which ones were safe, nor technical guidelines or advice on what kind of practices to apply.
The ban also meant the end of the fertilizer subsidy just as world prices were rising. It soon became clear that farmers were facing the loss of their crops and their livelihoods due to a lack of fertilizer.
Within months of its introduction, the organic plan fell apart. According to Shah, 40% of the rice crop would have been lost, which was a severe blow to the country’s food security. The public reaction was quick in the face of food shortages and rising prices.
The sharp drop in rice production has forced Sri Lanka to take drastic and costly measures. Saloni Shah tells the BBC that the government had to import 400,000 tonnes of rice from India and Myanmar.
In early November last year, President Rajapaksa reinforced his commitment to organic agriculture at the COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
But just weeks after that speech, and seven months after the ban on synthetic fertilizers began, the Sri Lankan government was forced to back down.
“The government partially lifted the ban at the end of November to allow the import of synthetic fertilizers only for major export crops such as rubber, coconut and tea, as these crops are also an important source of foreign exchange,” says Saloni Shah.
“We know that in February 2022 tea production was 20% lower than February 2020, so combined there would be an economic and food security impact,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar.
So was it organic farming that caused Sri Lanka’s collapse?
Some economic problems are beyond the government’s direct control, such as record world prices for imported goods.
But the ban and its consequences were self-inflicted.
Basic considerations were not considered: the scarcity of natural fertilizers, the lack of preparation time for the farmers and the absence of contingency plans to cover the gap caused by the decrease in organic yields.
The move exacerbated the financial crisis and proved disastrous for the country’s food supply.
Now, food producers’ incomes have declined and the consequences continue. Without fuel for the machines, the farms cannot function.
With President Rajapaksa out of office, uncertainty remains. Ahilan Kadirgamar warns that famine is a terrifying possibility.
“It remains to be seen whether the new government and new leaders will give agriculture its due importance.”