It’s time to figure out what went wrong with Sri Lanka’s organic push

Updated: Jan 25

Two women pick tea on a plantation in Sri Lanka. Tea producers were one of the most affected sectors by the ban, alongside rubber and paddy rice producers.

Ten months and sixteen days before the COVID-19 pandemic started, on January 1st, 2019, the national government of Sri Lanka published an eighty-page-long text detailing a new framework for its future policies. The document, grandiosely entitled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, contained references to an upcoming effort dedicated to “promote and popularize organic agriculture during the next ten years” (p. 29), which aimed towards the “introduction of environmentally friendly farming” and initiating “a program to produce all essential fertilizers domestically”. Only two years and a few months after this, however, the government was forced to import 30,000 tonnes of potassium chloride in the face of a massive collapse in agricultural yields, as a consequence of a complete ban on the import of inorganic fertilizers that it had imposed a handful of months prior. The international community watched (and watches still) in consternation as the Sri Lankan government struggles to avoid food shortages and compensate for the generally rising costs of food, while at the same time balancing a shrinking budget and pressing foreign debts.

What went wrong with Sri Lanka’s organic push? For some of the starkest critics, it is a sign of the incapability of organic agriculture to meet the world’s food demands. With lower yields, how could the agricultural industry not be affected by the ban?

But the issue is far more complex than this, and cannot be quickly dismissed as a failed attempt to implement a nationwide organic policy; much less as a disproval of organic agriculture’s competitiveness with conventional methods of food production. The problem with Sri Lanka’s organic push is that it was, fundamentally, a political decision presented under the guise of policy: policies must be consistently planned, tested, and gradually implemented at different rates of speed. A single act does not make a policy, and the sudden ban on inorganic fertilizers that took place in April of the last year hardly can be taken as an attempt to implement an organic policy.

The difference between acts and policies is most striking when we consider other national agricultural proposals for massive adoption of organic agriculture, such as Sikkim’s fifteen-year process of transition to an entirely organic industry, or the European Union’s goal of converting 25% of its agricultural land to organic by 2030. These efforts have something in common: they are steady, extended attempts to incentivize, teach and stimulate the organic transition of agricultural producers at their own rhythms. They are based on plans of government action, set on clear principles, but ultimately built around the needs of agricultural producers without which there can be no agriculture at all. A stark contrast is shown in the way in which Sri Lanka implemented its ‘policy’, and the reasons behind its implementation.

First, there is the issue of Sri Lanka’s increasingly evident economic problems. The collapse of the tourism industry, upon which a large part of the country’s annual income rests, has left the government scrambling for dollars at the same time that the national currency is devaluated, having lost 10% of its value against the dollar in 2021. Since the government, until April, not only bought but subsidized the inorganic fertilizers that it imported, finding a way to stop these purchases could have been a way in which the island’s government attempted to balance its finances. At the same time, the subsequent decision of purchasing organic fertilizers mostly from Chinese companies could have been a way of, at the very least, repurposing these expenses into paying the increasingly pressing debts that the island holds with China. The government, however, then claimed that the Chinese organic fertilizers were contaminated with harmful pathogens, and attempted to refuse to pay for them, which prompted an unwanted Chinese response.

Adding to this, at the same time, is the complete lack of education initiatives that truly informed farmers around the country how to begin and sustain their transition to organic agriculture. A survey conducted by the analysis firm Verité, based in Colombo, indicated that only 35% of all farmers in the country had adequate knowledge about organic agriculture in general, and only 20% had knowledge of how to actually implement its fertilization techniques. Six out of ten farmers did not receive any sort of guidance from the government on how to make the transition, and it is clear by the above-mentioned 20% figure that only a fraction of those who did was actually taught successfully the means to do so.

Not in vain did the main organization supporting the transition to organic agriculture in Sri Lanka, the IFOAM-affiliated Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM), alert the government that its ban was placed too hastily upon the country’s farmers. In an interview carried out in May of last year, its president Thilak Kariyawasam alerted the government that the minimum period established for a transition to organic fertilization takes between two and three years, in the case of soils that have been cultivated consistently with inorganic fertilizers:

Any soil that has used chemical fertiliser cannot be developed by immediately switching to organic fertiliser (…) a transition period is needed to come to organic fertiliser after using chemical fertiliser. The soil is dead or dilapidated after the use of chemical fertiliser, so a farmer has to add organic matter and develop microbiological variety and microbial life in the soil.

The organization even offered a different path to the government’s initiative:

In the government extension system, there is no package called organic agriculture. They only have chemical agriculture knowledge. They have no organic agriculture research centres or officers with the necessary organic farming knowledge. We are suggesting that they build up research and resources for five years. Our other proposal is to reduce chemical fertilisers by 20% in the first year and by 40% in the second year. In the third year, reduce the subsidy given to chemical fertilisers. Then, within the (first) five years, officers will be knowledgeable, the seeds necessary for organic farming will be prepared, and the soil will have cleared.

But the government didn’t listen. It didn’t pay attention to any of this, except to the recommendation of ending the subsidy for inorganic fertilizers, which they did right away after approving their once again their import. In the end, the farmers of Sri Lanka are left with one harvest significantly reduced, after an attempt to make the transition to organic agriculture without preparation, and with the subsidies on inorganic fertilizers ultimately revoked. Everyone has lost, including the reputability of organic agriculture.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that organic agriculture, as shown by the prompt reversal of the ban as much as for its reckless implementation, was not in the government’s mind for long, unlike its finances. If the organic push failed in Sri Lanka is not because organic agriculture is unsustainable or unviable. It’s because it requires more than a push to work: it requires time, planning, and commitment, all of which the government of the island didn’t provide. If there is one thing that agriculture teaches is that food cannot be beaten out of the soil without increasing its soil fertility, it must be cultivated. So must be organic agriculture itself. A push is not enough.

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