After several days of protests, defying forces that 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, cooking gas and many foods, and prices have gone up dramatically. The price of bread has tripled in the past six months. The price of rice has more than doubled, and there are long queues. Sometimes people wait for days to get a few liters of gasoline. Or diesel. The entire economy is at a standstill,” Ahilan Kadirgamar, professor of sociology at the University of Jaffna, told BBC radio program The Inquiry.
Some of the economic problems on the island have the same origin as those faced by other countries, such as the high global prices of products due to the end of the Covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine. Kadirgamar says an important part of this financial meltdown in Sri Lanka could have been avoided.
Much of the anger from the protesters who stormed the presidential palace has been linked to the president’s ambitious – but highly 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 marks 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 doesn’t ban fertilizers, at least now we have enough food. And the government has to take full responsibility for creating this food crisis by banning chemical fertilizers”, says Professor Sociology.
For Kadirgamar, the ban – which has increased fuel shortages – has created an unsustainable situation for agriculture in the country: “Farmers are almost giving up farming. Many are leaving their fields, which affects not only their livelihoods but also the lives of those who work on these farms.
But did organic farming really cause Sri Lanka’s collapse?
“Agriculture is very important, especially when it comes to employment,” Jevica Wirahiwa, professor of agricultural economics at Peradeniya University, told the BBC, noting that 25% of the country’s workforce is devoted to agriculture – or about 2 million. People.
In terms of GDP [Produto Interno Bruto]Agriculture contributes about 7%. Another 6% are from the food industry. Therefore, agriculture and food constitute a very important part of the income.”
Small farmers are the backbone of the country’s rural economy – Photo: Getty Images/BBC
Sri Lanka depends on smallholder farmers for About 80% of the national food supply.
“The main product is rice. It’s our staple food and we need about 10 kilograms per person per month. We were more than self-sufficient in rice as well as in vegetables, tropical fruits, coconut and eggs,” says Wiraha.
It has taken Sri Lanka many years 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 a boost to production using high-yielding 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 from these improved varieties if we applied adequate doses of synthetic fertilizers. So we started supporting farmers from 1962 onwards,” says the professor of agricultural economics. .
The support was necessary because most of the country’s small farmers could not buy chemical fertilizers without state assistance. That is why huge discounts are offered, sometimes up to 90% of market prices.
In addition, there is also the cost of importing, since Sri Lanka does not produce chemical fertilizers. Despite the cost, ending this practice was a step no politician would dare take.
However, after decades of the Green Revolution crop yields increased dramatically, reports of the 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 epicenter of this disease.
“Some people suspected that this was due to the chemical fertilizers these farmers used, because the farmers do not take precautions and do not follow safety guidelines when using chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides as well,” Weraha says.
“However, these were hypotheses. There is no scientific evidence to say that the disease was caused by the cadmium and arsenic present in chemical fertilizers. But this statement became popular, as did the idea of farming without chemical fertilizers.”
At the same time, global supply chain problems have caused a shortage of fertilizer raw materials. Demand and prices rose. Sri Lanka’s economy has suffered another setback: the end of tourism revenue, due to the pandemic.
In this context, the government decided that it was time for another agricultural revolution.
“People are very worried when they say there are toxic substances in food that shorten life expectancy and that their children will develop chronic kidney disease,” Professor Bodhi Marambi, an agricultural scientist at Peradeniya University, told the BBC.
In April 2021, President Rajapaksa announced that he would tackle these health issues with a radical policy of 100% organic farming. At the time, the scientific evidence supporting the plan was questioned, but Marambi says some interests had been lobbying the president for some time.
“There were people from the health sector, people from agricultural sciences and also religious people, Buddhist clergy, and there were many other people from the private sector who were doing this organic farming on a certain level in Sri Lanka.”
The global market for high-quality organic products could 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 that was the kind of incentive that was used to tell us we could make a lot of money out of it. But originally, the idea was human health,” says the agricultural sector 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 whole country followed suit.
Sri Lanka was not the first to attempt fully organic farming. Bhutan announced years ago that it planned to become the world’s first 100% eco-friendly country, but it has struggled with that plan.
“Bhutanese have been preparing for this activity since 2003. But they had a big problem and they were in a situation where more than 50% of the basic foods they consume had to be imported,” Marambi says.
Warning signs indicated that moving to 100% organic production – even with years of planning – would not be feasible. In Sri Lanka, agriculture experts have raised similar concerns.
“The government has always told us that they have made an outrageous 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 adverse effects. But these things did not hear., unfortunately, ”says the professor at Peradeniya University.
With the world reeling from the Covid pandemic and Sri Lanka’s economy losing revenue from a lack of tourists, this organic revolution could not have come at a worse time.
“Farmers have been surprised, and so is the rest of the country,” Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst at the California-based Breakthrough Institute for Environmental Consulting, 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.
“Also, there is not enough capacity in the country to produce its own compost. It would take five to seven times as much compost to cover the nutrients provided by the synthetic fertilizer. More animals are needed to produce this amount of compost.”
“Organic farming has lower yields, so it requires more land to grow the same amount of production. In a small island nation, there is not enough land to produce the same amount of compost or to achieve the production that can be achieved with synthetic fertilizers.”
“To put it in perspective, the country produces more tea than all the organic teas in the world combined. If the tea production was entirely organic, it would end up flooding the organic tea market and that could cause prices to drop.” Shah.
The production and sale of organic foods worldwide also requires detailed inspections and testing over time to meet strict legal regulations.
According to the food and agriculture specialist, none of this was in place in the country, not even a regulatory framework to guide farmers on what types of organic fertilizers to use and which are safe, nor technical guidelines or advice on what kind of practices to follow. Progressing.
The ban also ended fertilizer subsidies as global prices soared. It soon became clear that farmers were facing the loss of their crops and livelihoods due to a lack of fertilizer.
Within months of its introduction, the membership plan collapsed. According to Shah, 40% of the rice crop would have been lost, which is a severe blow to the country’s food security. The public reacted quickly in the face of food shortages and high prices.
The sharp decline in rice production has forced Sri Lanka to take drastic and costly measures. Saloni Shah told the BBC that the government had to import 400,000 tons of rice from India and Myanmar.
In early November last year, President Rajapaksa reinforced his commitment to organic farming at the COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
But a few weeks after this speech, and seven months after the start of the ban on synthetic fertilizers, the Sri Lankan government was forced to back off.
“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 in February 2020, so there will be an impact on the economy and food security together,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar.
Was it organic farming that caused Sri Lanka’s collapse?
Some economic problems are beyond the direct control of the government, such as the standard world prices of imported goods.
But the ban and its consequences imposed on itself.
Key considerations were not considered: the scarcity of natural fertilizers, the lack of preparation time for farmers, and the lack of contingency plans to cover the gap caused by low organic yields.
The move exacerbated the financial crisis and proved disastrous for the country’s food supply.
Now, food producers’ incomes have fallen and the consequences have persisted. 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 prospect.
“It remains to be seen whether the new government and new leaders will give agriculture due importance.”
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