The Sri Lanka Organic Experiment
Posted on November 1st, 2021

Published by  Courtesy Neurologicablog

Cautionary tales are extremely useful, as long as we take the right lessons away from them. As the saying goes, the best way to learn is from mistakes, but even better is to learn from someone else’s mistake without having to commit it yourself (and suffer the consequences). Sri Lanka has now made itself into a cautionary tale, and I would like to amplify any learning that can come from it. The primary conceptual lesson here is that – when ideology trumps science, the outcome is likely to be very bad.

There is also a specific lesson here. Organic farming may sound good in principle (if you just listen to the ideological marketing), but in practice it is a disaster. Sri Lanka has decided to do what other countries have done before, namely impose from above a commandment on how to run an industry based entirely on the philosophical beliefs of the leader. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union, where the archaic ideas of geneticist Trofim Lysenko were given official support and decimated Soviet agriculture, costing millions of lives.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has done something similar – banning agrichemicals in Sri Lanka and forcing all farmers to farm organically. The result was absolutely predictable, a crash in agricultural output. While Sri Lanka is a net food importer, they still are dependent on local rice and other staple crop productions. Their exports are also mainly agricultural, such as tea, rubber, and many spices. Some reporting has focused on the timing of the change, during a fragile recovery from a pandemic. Also some have pointed out that going suddenly full organic is a problem because most farmers don’t know how to do it, and there was no adjustment period.

But even if the change was handled optimally, there was still the unavoidable negative impacts inherent to organic farming. The European Union, for example, has already done an analysis and found that organic farming is not sustainable, and it is worse for the environment, mainly through increased land use. Organic food is also not healthier than conventional produce, as if often implied by proponents. Why, then, would Sri Lanka go full in on such a bad idea?

The answer is that organic marketing has worked. They have created a false impression about their brand, based on bad ideas and bad science, but it sounds superficially appealing and many people buy into it. Organic farming is based on the appeal to nature fallacy, that something which is natural” (which is arbitrarily defined) is inherently better than anything artificial”. Worse still, the origins of organic farming is pure magical pseudoscience, not even appeal to nature, but appeal to magic. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, their president has bought into the hype and marketing, and further still has the power to unilaterally impose their beliefs onto an entire industry.

As a result, across all crops, Sri Lanka farmers have had a 19-25% drop in their productivity on average (not evenly distributed, with some crops having a 50% drop or even complete failure). That figure is in line with previous research, showing similar levels of reduced productivity from organic farming. This is a disaster for the industry, and also the people, leading to food shortages and spikes in prices. Because exports are also hit hard, this is another strain on the overall economy.

The limitations inherent to organic farming are also exacerbated by trying to massively increase the scale. Right now organic farming accounts for about 1.5% of worldwide food production. It is only 0.6% in the US, and 8.5% in the EU where it is very popular. As you try to scale up industries, new problems are introduced, which is why we cannot just extrapolate from low levels of market penetration to very high levels. (The same issue arises when we talk about increasing renewable energy sources into the electricity supply, with the intermittency becoming a greater and greater problem.)

For organic farming one major issue with scaling up is the availability of organic fertilizer. When you are talking about one farm, you don’t necessarily have to consider the entire system at the scale of a nation or the world. But when you decide to make an entire country 100% organic, you do. Organic farming is possible at the 1-10% range because of the availability of organic fertilizer, which comes from composting and cattle manure. These are two ways of recycling nitrogen, but of course this recycling is not perfect, so we need to introduce nitrogen into the system. Some plants can fix nitrogen from the air (through soil bacteria) and these can be used as crops to put nitrogen into the soil. All this works if the percentage of crops grown without external inputs of nitrogen is kept relatively small. The system breaks down as you try to scale up.

Sri Lanka discovered this at the national level. They don’t have enough organic fertilizer to go around. They make about 2-3 tonnes of compost per year, but rice cultivation alone requires 4 million tonnes. They could try to import manure or compost from other countries, but the supply of organic fertilizer is largely already spoken for. A significant increase in demand will not necessarily be met by an increase in supply, and prices will therefore go up. Now imagine trying to do this on a larger scale. The world has no place to important organic fertilizer from. The system does not work without external inputs.

Organic farming is bad for the environment because is requires greater land use. It is also more expensive because it requires greater labor as well (you have to pull all those weeds if you can’t use herbicide). Further still, organic farming does allow for the use of pesticides, but they have to be natural”. All of the pesticides they use find use also on conventional farms, but organic farming relies on a subset deemed natural”. This does not mean less toxic. Further, they don’t always use the optimal pesticide for each situation, because they are artificially limiting their choices – following loose ideology rather than evidence.

The bottom line is that there is no real advantage to organic farming, and there are serious drawbacks. The negatives get exponentially worse if we try to scale up organic farming. Right now organic produce is a boutique” option for the well-off.  Trying to feed the world organically would be a disaster – Sri Lanka on a worldwide scale, but even worse.

3 Responses to “The Sri Lanka Organic Experiment”

  1. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Can someone get President Gotabaya to read this article while he is resting in his hotel room in Scotland? At least let him open his mind and understand the real difficulty in introducing organic farming. He is driving millions of farmers in Sri Lanka into poverty, a crime that he will not escape from.

  2. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Rajapaksa’s experiment with organic farming in Sri Lanka a warning to developing countries
    The Sri Lankan government would do well to listen to the country’s agricultural scientists and not to quacks masquerading as experts.
    An influential section of Sri Lankan agricultural economists and scientists has deplored the recent course change in the country’s agricultural policy made by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. The decision by the government to ban the use and import of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in pursuit of a “100 per cent organic food producer” status for Sri Lanka has already had disastrous consequences for the economy of the island nation, the Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA) warned in a letter to President Rajapaksa on May 25, 2021. It pointed to the adverse effects of the policy on “food security, farm incomes, foreign exchange earnings and rural poverty.”

    President Rajapaksa’s ill-conceived and extremist policy, announced in April this year, of banning the import of all chemical fertilisers and pesticides as a way of promoting organic farming, is threatening to plunge the country’s agriculture into a deep production slump. As a consequence, the export of tea, Sri Lanka’s primary agricultural export, and of other commodities are projected to decline. The economy appears set for a fall in foreign exchange earnings in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
    The SAEA letter provided the following detailed estimates of the potential economic loss to farmers due to the policy:

    “When converting from conventional agriculture into organic farming, the Government should weigh the technological, environmental, and economic costs and benefits. The preliminary findings of the studies conducted by the SAEA on potential economic losses of the import ban and respective estimations are given below for your consideration.

    (a) Agronomic studies reveal that the average yields from paddy can drop by 25 per cent if chemical fertilisers are fully replaced by organic fertilisers. This loss in productivity could reduce the profitability of paddy farming by 33 per cent and rice consumption by 27 per cent if paddy is cultivated just with organic fertilisers with a complete ban on rice imports. In contrast, applying organic fertiliser with the recommended dosages of chemical fertilisers would improve the profitability of farming by 16 per cent.

    (b) Absence of chemical fertiliser would drastically reduce the productivity of the Vegetatively Propagated Tea (VPT). With a 35 per cent productivity drop, the export volume of tea would go down from 279 to 181 million kg, causing an income loss of Rs. 84 billion. The estate sector will likely incur significant losses compared to those of tea smallholders. These losses could further be aggravated due to increased cost of labour to apply bulky organic fertilisers.

    (c) The coconut yields would go down by 30 per cent if chemical fertilisers and pesticides are not applied. This situation will adversely impact fresh coconut availability for the production of coconut oil, desiccated coconut and other coconut products. The loss in foreign exchange earnings can be as high as Rs. 18 billion, based on the assumption that only 26 per cent of the total coconut extent is fertilised. When the additional cost for the importation of edible oils is considered, the loss of foreign exchange earnings will be even higher.

    (d) The above results were derived considering the immediate effects on three agricultural sub-sectors. An analysis performed accommodating adjustments in the economy over the medium to long run reveals that a reduction in average agricultural productivity by 20 per cent could cause a decrease in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 3.05 per cent suggesting an overall contraction of the economy with the implementation of the import ban. (emphases added)”

    The letter requested the President to “substitute the import ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides with the set of alternative measures” that included making scientifically validated Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) as a mandatory national standard and disincentivising overuse of chemicals in agriculture through an appropriate mix of legal standards, taxes, subsidies and output price support. The letter also asked for the strengthening of agricultural extension to “improve awareness of the safe use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides”.

    On coming to office in 2019, President Rajapaksa promised subsidised imported fertilisers to farmers. Yet in a matter of just two years, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved Rajapaksa’s proposal to completely ban the import of inorganic fertilisers and all synthetic agro-chemicals — effectively, the imports of all chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and weedicides. A gazette notification on May 6, 2021 brought this into immediate effect. For any shipment after 6th May 2021, permissions for unloading were cancelled, and banks told not to issue Letters of Credit on the import of banned substances.

  3. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    We Must Learn From Sri Lanka’s Man-Made Organic Agriculture Disaster By GLOBAL FARMER NETWORK
    Sri Lanka has partially reversed a hasty decision to experiment with farming, but the country and its citizens are already paying for this bad mistake in the form of a food crisis.

    President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a plan this spring to make Sri Lanka the first country in the world to ban inorganic fertilizers and crop-protection products that fight pests. This week, he changed his mind.

    Yet as we commemorate World Food Day this month, we know that Sri Lanka is suffering from its original, anti-scientific choice: The government recently declared a food emergency, imposing price controls and strict rationing. It forced farmers to sell their rice to a state agency and it has seized supplies from private warehouses. Meanwhile, Sri Lankans wait in line for hours to receive their portions of rice, sugar, milk powder, and other basic commodities.

    This is what happens when a government pushes anti-scientific ideas onto farmers and consumers.

    I’ve never visited Sri Lanka, which hangs like a teardrop off the southern coast of my native India, but it holds a special place in my daily routine: I drink its delicious tea every morning, as I begin to work on my farm.

    Sri Lanka’s tea is perhaps the best in the world, due to the island nation’s favorable climate and long history of production. The country’s economy depends on these exports.

    They are now in jeopardy, though the president’s change of heart may soften the blow. Organic tea is much more expensive to produce. Under a mandate, yields will plummet, and these producers will suffer significant consequences because of this disastrous policy.

    Yet this crisis is about much more than tea: It has affected every sector of Sri Lanka’s agricultural economy, effectively paralyzing the smallholder farmers who produce much of Sri Lanka’s rice, vegetables, and fruit. Even its natural rubber production may decrease.

    Sri Lanka’s government decided to go backward into primitivism at a time when farmers around the world are surging forward with new technologies that help us grow more food on less land than ever before. Through remarkable advances in everything from plant genetics to precision irrigation to satellite imagery, we’ve become better and more sustainable producers.

    If we were to apply Sri Lanka’s strange thinking on agriculture to communications, for example, we’d relinquish our mobile phones and turn to carrier pigeons. Instead of emails, we’d send handwritten letters. Rather than learning about the news from televisions and radios, we’d wait a long time for the news to reach us and perhaps not hear it at all.

    When President Rajapaksa introduced his organic-farming rules, he boasted that no other country had ever tried such a thing. What he failed to understand is that most other countries already knew that this was a misguided and unscientific idea voiced by anti-development activists.

    At least he is now beginning to understand his mistake.

    Sri Lanka’s organic-farming blunder hardly could have come at a worse moment. COVID-19 has hurt economies everywhere, and it has taken a special toll on those that rely on tourism. After booming in the first part of this century, tourism in Sri Lanka has dropped sharply. This is partly the result of terrorist attacks on Christians in 2019, but mostly because of the pandemic. Foreigners have stopped flocking to its beaches, scuba-diving destinations, and natural beauty.

    The value of its currency also has fallen, making it harder for Sri Lankans to purchase the goods and services they need from their international trading partners.

    Compounding the problem is the logjam in the global supply chain, as container ships sit outside ports. Everything from semiconductors to medical devices is in short supply.

    The most tragic aspect of Sri Lanka’s food crisis, however, is that much of it was avoidable. In choosing to push its agricultural mandates, the government refused to listen to the warnings of farmers.

    I know that my farm couldn’t operate under Sri Lanka’s ridiculous rules. My yields of rice, cotton, and other crops would decrease significantly. The result would be simply disastrous.

    If India’s population of more than 1 billion people were ordered to adopt the organic regulations thrust upon Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, we’d witness a catastrophe of malnutrition and starvation like the world has never seen. Our economy would crumble, and we would exhaust our foreign-exchange resources to feed our huge population, diverting our national wealth and stalling all other developmental activities. Finally, we’d have to expand our arable land by converting forest land for farming purpose, chopping down countless trees and global warming.

    I don’t wish even to imagine such dreadful conditions.

    It took only six months for Sri Lanka to begin to recognize that its organic-farming mandates are a massive failure. The lesson is to let farmers make judicious use of organic and chemical inputs, used in combination with other important technology options such as integrated pest, water and disease management practices. Trust science and technology so that its farmers and citizens stop paying a price they can’t afford.

    Let the policy makers of all other nations understand the realities of Sri Lanka’s man-made disaster.

    Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60-acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Global Farmer Network, 2013 recipient of the Kleckner Award and serves on the World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture Transformational Leaders Network.

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