A view of the heritage site Sigirya Rock from rice fields in central Sri Lanka
At the center of the political and economic turmoil in Sri Lanka lies an unlikely culprit: organic agriculture.
Until last year, Sri Lanka, a largely upper-middle income island nation south of India, was largely self-sufficient in food production. Much of the nation’s success in agricultural production was, like most farms around the world, aided by the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Last year, in an attempt to boost soil health and halt the progression of a kidney disease killing local farmers that was linked by some sources to agricultural chemicals, the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, imposed a synthetic fertilizer and pesticide ban overnight.
Sri Lankan farmers were not allowed time or resources to transition their fields to organic practices, nor did the government provide access to natural fertilizers. Local production of natural fertilizers had not increased, and no extra nutrients were imported.
Yields for the harvest immediately following the ban fell precipitously, between 20 percent and 70 percent depending on the crop. Rice yields fell by almost half, and key exports like tea, rubber and coconut plummeted. By December 2021, when it was clear that the human health impacts were disastrous, the country’s president decided to end the fertilizer ban.
Although Sri Lanka's government reversed the ban in December, the government did not reinstate the subsidies that traditionally aided farmers in purchasing agricultural chemicals. Therefore, most farmers could not afford the fertilizers they had previously relied upon, and the cost of agricultural inputs skyrocketed due to scarcity. As a result, only a small fraction of the country’s farmers fully planted their fields in the spring.
The situation has become so dire that the government is allowing public workers to take Fridays off from work in order to tend to their home gardens.
The depletion of inventory at food stores across Sri Lanka comes at an especially terrible time, as grain prices around the world are soaring due to the war in Ukraine. The price of fertilizers globally has skyrocketed, further escalating when Russia placed a temporary ban on fertilizer exports earlier this year. Fuel shortages in Sri Lanka have doubled the cost of running a tractor. Double-digit inflation is plaguing Sri Lanka, and many farmers report that they cannot afford the materials needed to restart cultivation.
The agricultural and economic turmoil across the country has turned into a perfect storm of food insecurity. Child hunger is now at 15 percent, and over 500,000 Sri Lankans have fallen into poverty in the last two years. The economic crisis led to a political one, and in response to mass protests, President Rajapaksa announced his resignation, effective tomorrow.
So, in the midst of this disaster, is organic agriculture to blame?
Sustainable agriculture is an interconnected system of practices, developed over time. For organic farms to be successful, they must have healthy soil and ecosystems built up over years, as well as markets capable of paying the premium price for organics, associated with economic risk and what can at times be lower yields. If an entire industry is forced to suddenly abandon the use of non-organic chemical fertilizers without necessary support, then the sector risks collapse.
Still, the sudden food crisis in Sri Lanka should not be blamed on organic agriculture. Instead, it highlights the delicacy of interconnected systems, as emphasized in bedrock sustainable agriculture principles. For example, traditional, smaller-scale and diversified Sri Lankan agriculture was gutted by the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries to make way for monoculture plantations. Then, just 20 years after Sri Lankans won their independence in 1948, local ecosystems were further disrupted with the planting of the first oil palm plantations.
Transitioning from conventional agriculture to a more sustainable method of production takes time to implement properly and to ensure yield stability, especially when transitioning land damaged by monoculture and degraded ecosystems. Large-scale transitions are achieved incrementally to prevent yields from plummeting and putting farmers out of business.
For agriculture to be truly sustainable, the sector must center its practices across farmer livelihoods as well as their quality of life. In this case, the Sri Lankan government’s creation of haphazard, overnight declarations without providing adequate access to planning resources, organic agricultural inputs or educational materials quickly became a recipe for disaster.
Image credit: Tom Nicholson via Unsplash
Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship.