It's August 2019, a former military officer from a powerful political family is campaigning to be Sri Lanka's next leader.
Three months later, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is sworn in as the country's president. He won the election with a new vision for Sri Lanka, including a bold policy for the entire country to switch to wholly organic food production within 10 years.
This plan was hugely ambitious, but it was also deeply flawed. It's now cited as one of the reasons Sri Lanka has sunk into its worst economic crisis for decades, sparking outrage, protest and a u-turn.
At the time that President Rajapaksa was elected, farming related industries were vital to the economy. Around 80% of Sri Lanka's domestic food supply was produced by the country smallholder farmers. It had taken many years to reach that point.
Back in the 1960s, a global initiative to tackle malnutrition in developing nations was rolled out in several countries, including Sri Lanka. It was called the Green Revolution. It boosted production using high yielding varieties of traditional crops. Alongside modern cultivation techniques like nutrient heavy growing methods.
The majority of Sri Lanka's small farmers are poor and can't afford chemical fertilisers without state help. Substantial discounts were introduced, sometimes up to 90% of market prices. The idea of ending the scheme was a step that no politician dared to take. There's another significant price attached to this raw material essential for Sri Lanka's economic growth, the cost of importing it as well as, that Sri Lanka also has to import supplies of sugar, wheat and milk. Traditionally, Sri Lanka has paid for these much needed goods using money makes selling crops like tea, coconut and spices overseas.
Pre pandemic agriculture represented around 20% of the country's total exports. It's paid for in dollars, which boosted Sri Lanka's foreign exchange reserves, which took a big hit when COVID struck early 2020 as the country's lucrative flow of foreign tourists suddenly evaporated. The first cases of CKD or chronic kidney disease of unknown origin emerged in the mid 1990s. By 2021 Sri Lanka become a sea KDU hotspot. So the government decided it was time for an agricultural revolution.
Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa announced last April that he would tackle these health concerns head on with a dramatic new policy, a total ban on chemical fertilisers, Sri Lanka's farms were going to go 100% organic. At the time there were questions about the scientific evidence supporting this plan.
The global market for premium priced organic produce can be lucrative, but not everyone was convinced that would work for Sri Lanka. Organic farming isn't new in Sri Lanka; tea and vegetable growers have been doing it for years on a much smaller scale.
Sri Lanka wasn't the first country to try and go fully organic either. In 2014, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan announced it would try to make the switch but it struggled to make that happen. Warning signs were there that accelerating to 100% Organic even with years of planning was unfeasible. Back in Sri Lanka, similar concerns from agricultural experts we're ignored. With the world overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic and Sri Lanka's economy already struggling as a result of absent tourists, this organic revolution could not have come at a worse time.
Saloni Shah is a food and agricultural analyst at the breakthrough Institute and environmental think tank based in California. She says problems with this organic plan emerged right at the beginning of its rollout. While the Sri Lankan government was quick to bring in a ban on chemical fertilisers, it hadn't really thought through what was needed to replace it. Hopes of making money from the rising global demand for organic produce were also overstated. Producing and selling organic food around the world requires detailed inspections and testing over time to meet strict legal standards. None of that was in place. And soon it became clear that farmers faced losing crops and livelihoods. Within just months of it being introduced, the organic plan was crumbling, and public backlash rowing. That sharp drop in rice yields forced the Sri Lankan government towards a drastic and expensive fix. Despite clear failures in the policy, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reinforced his commitment to organic agriculture of the cop 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. But just weeks after that speech, and seven months since the project began, Sri Lanka's government was forced into a U turn.
The ongoing after effects of the failed switch to organic farming have only exacerbated Sri Lanka's wider financial crisis. Sri Lanka has defaulted on at least US$51 bln dollars worth of foreign debt so far. It said making repayments from foreign exchange reserves is challenging and impossible, because it still needs to pay for importing essential goods. Pandemic business losses, supply chain interruptions, and soaring inflation have seen shortages of essentials, including medical supplies.
Today the country is experiencing daily extended power cuts because it can't afford to import fuel. Making things worse is an earlier government decision made three years ago when it reduced some taxes even abolished others altogether. And that's revenue the country desperately needs and is now looking to borrow. The chemical fertiliser ban may have been rolled back, but the situation remains critical. The wider financial crisis and increasing public anger recently saw protesters occupy the entrance to the President's Palace. Twentyu-six cabinet members also resigned, leaving the President and his brother, the prime minister in charge, a new cabinet was sworn in. The government has announced a $200 million package to compensate more than a million farmers whose harvests were affected by the chemical fertiliser ban. But Sri Lanka's failed experiment in organic farming has not only caused huge harm to the economy, but it's also damaged an admirable idea.
So why did Sri Lanka's organic farming dream fail? There are economic problems beyond its control, like record global prices for the imported goods it's buying with dwindling foreign exchange funds. But the ban and the fallout are self inflicted. Basic considerations were missed the natural fertiliser shortfall, a lack of preparation time for farmers, and no contingency plans to fill the gap from lower organic yields. The government underestimated the scale and consequences of its policy. It was a short sighted move, which will have consequences for many years to come.
We need to understand what happened in Sri Lanka, and ensure we don’t make drastic changes to our farming system here in New Zealand that could have similar consequences.