Learning the wrong lessons from the experience of organic farming in Sri Lanka (commentary)

  • Long-time organic farmers have performed well over the past two years, although conventional farmers in Sri Lanka have suffered due to a sudden import ban on chemical fertilizers.
  • The real lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan economic crisis is that good governance is important for a nation’s health and nutrition.
  • Researchers say a more diverse set of agricultural approaches can make Sri Lanka less vulnerable to the next crisis.
  • This article is a comment. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Since the fall of the former president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksain mid-July, some commentators blamed the economic crisis and social unrest that precipitated his departure on his nominal experience of organic farming in 2021. This is a misreading of the situation. Long-time organic farmers have performed well throughout this period, while conventional farmers have suffered from the former president’s financial mismanagement and incompetence.

On July 13, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid popular protests from citizens unhappy with his handling of the national economy. Sri Lanka defaulted on its loans, energy and food prices were surgeand limited foreign exchange reserves meant widespread shortages.

convenient excuse

Some trace its downfall to an unfortunate decision in April 2021 to halt all imports of chemical fertilizers and abruptly put the country on the path to organic farming. A commentator wrote that “Mr. Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming on the whole country… caused widespread famine after the collapse of the agricultural economy. The reality is that this policy had everything to do with foreign exchange shortages and an inability to pay for imports rather than a planned shift to organic farming. As such, the former president’s hasty call for an organic transition was a convenient excuse to stop paying for fertilizer imports.

Our to research on the diets of long-term organic tea growers compared to conventional tea growers in Sri Lanka suggests that it is in fact the established organic tea growers who have done much better in the past two years. They receive a price premium for their product, have a well-established in-house supply of high-quality organic compost to maintain their soils, and their tea yields are the same or better than conventional tea growers.

Their steady income combined with vegetable gardens for home consumption means they have nutritious diets. This compares to conventional tea producers who have had to deal with the sudden loss of supply of chemical fertilizers last summer, struggled to find good quality organic compost, then saw her yields drop, her income drop and her diet poor.

While former President Rajapaksa dropped his import ban on chemical fertilizers at the end of 2021, supplies are still erratic and only available to the wealthiest farmers, as the underlying problem of lack of reserves currency remains a problem.

Both rice cultivation and market gardening have been affected by the sudden disappearance of chemical fertilizers. Image by Dilrukshi Handunnetti.

Low yields, low incomes

The real lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan crisis is that good governance is important for a nation’s health and nutrition. In addition, farmers who depend on high levels of imported inputs are much more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations.

The perfect storm of economic mismanagement by the former Sri Lankan president, colliding with high energy and fertilizer prices linked to the war in Ukraine, added to the supply chain disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a drop in agricultural production, high food prices, and increasing rates of hunger and malnutrition. Additionally, rampant fuel shortages mean that farmers cannot operate their tractors or get their products to marketswhich means vegetables are often left to rot on the farm.

The current crisis has not only severely affected the agricultural sector and rural areas of Sri Lanka, but also the urban poor. A recent World Food Program report suggests that 30% of the Sri Lankan population is food insecure, particularly agricultural workers in the tea plantation sector and urban workers who purchase most of their food and are sensitive to increases in food prices.

Gradual transition

While proponents of big farming are using the current debacle in Sri Lanka to argue for a return to food production and energy-intensive cash crops, that would be a big mistake because it would do nothing to address the current system vulnerabilities. Although Sri Lanka needs agricultural inputs—mainly chemical fertilizers—to cope with its short-term crisis, a gradual and planned transition to a more diversified food production system using agroecological or organic methods would actually make a lot of sense.

To be clear, we are not claiming that Sri Lanka is going completely organic. Rather, we see an opportunity to slowly and deliberately develop an already established organic sector where farmers are thriving.

Organic farming, which uses agroecological practices such as intercropping and composting to maintain soil fertility and manage pest problems, is not only more sustainable but less prone to supply chain disruptions and pests. fluctuations in energy prices. A more diverse set of agricultural approaches in Sri Lanka will make it less vulnerable to the next crisis, whether self-inflicted or globally imposed.

Nethmi S. Perera Bathige is from Sri Lanka and a graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky, USA. Find her on Twitter @nethmisachy.

William G. Mosley is the DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography at Macalester College, USA. Find him on Twitter @WilliamGMoseley.

Banner image of a rice paddy in Sri Lanka, courtesy of Nilanka Sampath.

Quotes:

Bathige, N.S. (2022). Food security and dietary diversity among conventional and organic tea smallholders in central and southern Sri Lanka (Specialized project). Extract of https://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/geography_honors/72

Clapp, J., & Moseley, WG (2020). This food crisis is different: COVID-19 and the fragility of the neoliberal food security order. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47(7), 1393-1417. do I:10.1080/03066150.2020.1823838

About Keneth T. Graves

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