Is organic farming responsible for Sri Lanka’s food crisis?

“Going organic has triggered the devastation of Sri Lanka’s economy.”

Or: “Bad policy decisions taken haphazardly would be closer to the truth.”

Or: “Sri Lanka’s decision to move to organic farming is not behind its food shortage, given that a majority of the farmers have not even started the transition process.”

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The headlines in the Mail yesterday shows the intensity of the debate over ‘organic farming’:

How the world’s first all-organic farming nation has led to hunger, riots and economic ruin in Sri Lanka…

The consequences have been nothing short of catastrophic 

From the ethically sourced produce shops of Islington to the chemical-free acres of the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove farm, you could almost hear the cheering three years ago when Sri Lanka’s future president pledged a revolution. It wouldn’t be on the streets but in the fields — as Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed in his successful 2019 election campaign to transform the country into the world’s first fully organic farming nation. Parroting the claims made for years by Prince Charles and fellow advocates of ‘sustainable farming’, the politician cited health and environmental reasons for this drastic move — in particular brandishing unproven claims of a link between chemical fertilisers and Sri Lanka’s high rate of chronic kidney disease. 

Rajapaksa’s commitment to producing 100 per cent of Sri Lanka’s food organically within a decade was accompanied by a ban on the use of all chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The consequences have been nothing short of catastrophic. Going organic — the bold, modern vision of the UK’s green lobby — has triggered the devastation of Sri Lanka’s economy, plunging much of its 22 million-strong population into desperate straits. The chaos that has engulfed the country — including growing poverty, long queues for essentials, lethal street battles and attacks on the homes of government leaders — is a direct result of this one decision. Rajapaksa’s announcement last April that the country’s two million farmers had to go organic overnight — and the disaster that has followed — is a timely lesson for all those who have been swept up by the hype surrounding organic food and its promise not only to improve our health but also to help save the planet...

How the world’s first organic farm nation has led to hunger and economic ruin, writes TOM LEONARD | Daily Mail Online

And this is indeed the general understanding of the crisis in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka’s Organic Farming Experiment Went Catastrophically Wrong | foreignpolicy.com

How the organic agriculture ideology destroyed the Sri Lankan economy | The Manila Times

How Chinese debt and organic farming tipped Sri Lanka into bloody chaos | telegraph.co.uk

Even if the opinions get a little… excessive:

How Environmental Wokeness Cost Sri Lanka Its Food Security

Organic Farming In Sri Lanka – Ideology Of Hitler & Sri Lankan Agri “Cults” – Colombo Telegraph

However, if one digs a little deeper…

Firstly, it seems that the experiment with organic methods hadn’t really started. This report is from India from October last year:

Sri Lanka’s inorganic transition to organic farming

Sri Lanka’s decision to move to organic farming is not behind its food shortage given that a majority of the farmers have not even started the transition process

On August 30, 2021, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajpaksa declared economic emergency. The decision was taken to curb hoarding of essential items and to control inflation, since the country is faced with a shortage of food items and a steep rise in prices of essential commodities… 

However, the sudden move to ban chemical fertilisers and pesticides triggered hoarding by traders and companies, leading to black-marketing. There were widespread protests in July by farmers, who complained of fertiliser shortage, and led to government raids against hoarders. Military was deployed to stop hoarding of essential commodities and to seize food stocks held by traders and retailers.

Sri Lanka’s inorganic transition to organic farming

Secondly, there might well be alterior motives in damning organic methods. In another report from India, from April this year, questions are asked:

Is organic farming really to blame for Sri Lanka’s ongoing food crisis?

Several commentators have blamed Sri Lanka’s decision to go organic as the root cause of the current crisis. Furthermore, this event has been used to vilify the regenerative agriculture movement

The Sri Lankan crisis has brought deep sufferings in the neighbouring country. Food and agriculture seem to be at the centre stage of this crisis. Several commentators have blamed Sri Lanka’s decision to go organic as the root cause of this crisis. Furthermore, this event has been used to vilify the regenerative agriculture movement.

Organic farming has also been a project of the Modi government. It was during his tenure that the Paramparagat Kheti mission was launched. Did we take the wrong step, too? But at a deeper level, has our traditional agricultural wisdom been wrong? Could even organic methods work? I had a lot of questions, and slander against natural farming didn’t go down well either. So I began meeting some experts to figure this one out.

After hearing different viewpoints, I wasn’t worried about the Indian organic mission. The Indian government seems to have a graded plan for ecological restoration through regenerative agriculture. Apart from environmental and health benefits, it is also offloading the rising fertiliser and fuel subsidies. DAP and other nitrogen-based fertilisers may soon be as precious as gold. I was reassured that India won’t go the Sri Lanka way. But of course, I was certain that organic farming was not the culprit. Bad policy decisions taken haphazardly would be closer to the truth.

Is organic farming really to blame for Sri Lanka’s ongoing food crisis?

Finally, it’s much more nuanced than ‘organic is bad’:

Harjeet Singh, Strategic Advisor to the Fossil Fuel Treaty Initiative, sums it up well: “As countries seek to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, they will need help in making the necessary changes. That’s why we have been insisting on a ‘just transition’ that is based on support from the international community rather than this haphazard transition that could spell havoc for poor countries.” He adds, “What happened in Sri Lanka may have been done with good intentions. But any unplanned transition will boomerang. And fossil fuel companies will use these opportunities to justify their existence.”

Sri Lanka Faces Food Crisis – No, It’s Not Due to Organic Farming | OPINION

  • The collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy had little to do with organic farming per se, and much more to do with the disastrous handling of its economy.
  • Even so, the banning of inorganic fertilisers, the reasons it was done and the way it was done is a cautionary tale of how not to embark on a green transition.
  • The crisis has important lessons for proponents of a green transition – including that authoritarian leaders like to see “greenwashing” as a popular way to shift blame from their failures.

Sri Lanka’s Problems Are Anything but Organic – The Wire Science

   
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