- Long-standing organic farmers have performed well in the past two years even though conventional farmers in Sri Lanka suffered due to a sudden ban on the import of chemical fertilizers.
- The real lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan economic crisis is that good governance matters for the health and nutrition of a nation.
- Researchers say that a more diverse set of farming approaches can make Sri Lanka less vulnerable to the next crisis.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Since the downfall of Sri Lanka’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in mid-July, some commentators have blamed the economic crisis and social unrest that precipitated his departure on his nominal experiment with organic agriculture in 2021. This is a misreading of the situation. Long-standing organic farmers have performed well throughout this period, while conventional farmers have suffered from the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the former president.
On July 13, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid popular protests by citizens unhappy with his management of the nation’s economy. Sri Lanka was defaulting on its loans, energy, and food prices were surging, and limited foreign exchange reserves meant widespread shortages.
Some trace his downfall back to an ill-fated decision in April 2021 to stop all imports of chemical fertilizers and abruptly put the country on a path to organic agriculture. One commentator wrote that “Mr. Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming on the entire country … led to widespread hunger after the agricultural economy collapsed.” The reality is that this policy had everything to do with foreign currency shortages and an inability to pay for imports rather than a planned shift to organic agriculture. As such, the former president’s hasty call for an organic transition was a convenient excuse to stop paying for fertilizer imports.
Our research on the diets of long-term organic versus conventional tea farmers in Sri Lanka suggests that it is actually the established organic tea farmers who have done much better over the past two years. They receive a price premium for their product, have well-established internal supplies of high-quality organic compost to maintain their soils, and their tea yields are the same or better than those of conventional tea farmers.
Their steady earnings combined with vegetable gardens for home consumption mean that they have nutritious diets. This compares with conventional tea farmers who had to deal with the sudden loss of chemical fertilizer supplies last summer, struggled to find good-quality organic compost, and then saw declining yields, lower incomes, and poorer diets.
While former president Rajapaksa abandoned his ban on chemical fertilizer imports at the end of 2021, supplies are still erratic and only available to wealthier farmers as the underlying problem of a lack of foreign exchange reserves remains a problem.
Low yields, low incomes
The real lesson to be learned from the Sri Lankan crisis is that good governance matters for the health and nutrition of a nation. Furthermore, farmers dependent on high levels of imported inputs are much more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations.
The perfect storm of the former Sri Lankan president’s economic mismanagement, colliding with high energy and fertilizer prices linked to the war in Ukraine, piled on top of supply chain disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in agricultural production declines, high food prices, and growing rates of hunger and malnutrition. Furthermore, rampant fuel shortages mean that farmers can’t run their tractors or get their products to markets, meaning the vegetables are often left rotting on the farm.
The current crisis has not only severely impacted the agricultural sector and rural areas of Sri Lanka, but also the urban poor. A recent World Food Programme report suggests that 30% of Sri Lanka’s population is suffering from food insecurity, especially farm workers in the tea estate sector and urban workers who buy most of their food and are sensitive to food price increases.
While supporters of big agriculture are using the current debacle in Sri Lanka to argue for a return to energy-intensive food and cash crop production, this would be a serious mistake as it would do nothing to address the vulnerabilities of the current system. Although Sri Lanka needs agricultural inputs — mainly chemical fertilizer — to address its short-term crisis, a gradual and planned transition to a more diverse food production system using agroecological or organic methods would actually make a lot of sense.
To be clear, we are not arguing that Sri Lanka go completely organic. Rather, we see an opportunity to slowly and deliberately grow an already established organic sector where farmers are thriving.
Organic farming, which uses agroecological practices such as crop associations and composting to maintain soil fertility and manage pest problems, is not only more sustainable but less prone to supply chain disruptions and energy price fluctuations. A more diverse set of farming approaches in Sri Lanka will make it less vulnerable to the next crisis, whether it be self-inflicted or globally imposed.
Nethmi S. Perera Bathige is a native of Sri Lanka and graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky, U.S. Find her on Twitter @nethmisachy.
William G. Moseley is the DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography at Macalester College, U.S. Find him on Twitter @WilliamGMoseley.
Banner image of a paddy field in Sri Lanka, courtesy of Nilanka Sampath.
Bathige, N. S. (2022). Food security and dietary diversity among conventional and organic tea-smallholders in Central and Southern Sri Lanka (Honors project). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/geography_honors/72
Clapp, J., & Moseley, W. G. (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. doi:10.1080/03066150.2020.1823838