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Interpreting Sri Lanka’s Organic Farming Failure

Image via Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On July 9, 2022, more than 100,000 Sri Lankan protesters stormed the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, forcing the president to flee the country. This was the climax of a major economic crisis that left ordinary Sri Lankans struggling with soaring inflation and severe shortages in fuel and food. The crisis has its roots in many causes, including excessive foreign borrowing, mistimed tax cuts, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there was another unusual contributing factor: President Rajapaksa’s decision in April 2021 to ban all imported chemical fertilizers and forcibly transition Sri Lanka to organic farming. The organic farming experiment led to a 40 percent fall in rice yields and an equally large decline in the yields of many other crops, which has exacerbated food shortages and contributed to the nation’s economic downfall.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has become a talking point in the broader political debate about the merits of a large-scale environmental transition. Some critics cite Sri Lanka as an example of the danger of “green utopianism” and claim that attempts to replace industrial farming with organic farming are untenable. Others point to Sri Lanka as evidence that policies favoring greater sustainability often come at a severe economic cost. However, a comparative analysis of Sri Lanka and other developing economies reveals that the problem is not with organic farming policies per se, but with the top-down, indiscriminate way the Sri Lankan government implemented its policies. The Sri Lankan crisis is therefore not a lesson on the danger of organic agriculture, but on the danger of a government that values drastic action over a nuanced analysis of economic realities.

Like many other policy issues, expanding organic farming comes with complex environmental and economic tradeoffs. Although agricultural experts contest what constitutes “organic,” a baseline definition of organic farming is an agricultural system that avoids the use of outside chemical inputs, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, during the cultivation process. The use of these agrochemicals has long been associated with environmental and human costs like soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, and adverse health impacts on farmers. Therefore, by promoting organic farming methods, countries can potentially limit the effects of agrochemicals on the environment. Advocates further argue that organic farming improves the food security of smallholders by reducing their need for expensive fertilizers.

On the flipside, some experts point out that organic farming can lead to lower crop yields, requiring additional land use and therefore increasing greenhouse emissions. However, organic farming’s effect on yields largely depends on geographic location and crop type. In a meta-analysis of 293 case studies, a team of researchers from the University of Michigan found that organic farming produced lower average yields relative to conventional farming in developed countries, but much higher average yields in developing countries. One explanation is that small-scale, low-input farms, which make up a larger proportion of the agricultural sector in developing economies, can more easily adapt to organic farming practices. Thus, organic farming does not always lead to a decline in agricultural production, and its tradeoffs depend heavily on context.

The problem with Sri Lanka was the sudden, totalistic nature of its chemical fertilizer ban. First of all, Sri Lanka’s farmers were not prepared for organic farming. According to a national survey by Verité Research, 64 percent of Sri Lankan farmers supported an eventual transition to organic farming, but only 22 percent of farmers said they could achieve that transition within a year. More importantly, only 20 percent of the farmers said they knew how to apply natural fertilizers to their crops. On top of the farmers’ lack of readiness, it would also take up to a decade to achieve the soil nutrient level needed for organic crop growth. Despite these complex realities, the Sri Lankan government pursued an immediate nationwide ban on agrochemicals without consulting either agricultural experts or farmer organizations. The ban left farmers without any time to purchase organic farming supplies or accumulate the knowledge needed for organic cultivation. The result was the devastation of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector.

In contrast, countries that took a more incremental and localized approach to organic farming, such as India and China, experienced far more favorable economic outcomes. In India, regional governments took the lead in identifying suitable lands for organic cultivation and negotiating with farmers about implementing organic farming practices. In an analysis of 50 organic farms in India, researchers found organic farming led to marginal decreases in yields but 20 percent greater profits for farmers, thanks to the lower cost of organic inputs. Similarly, in China, the government supported the gradual development of the organic farming sector by selecting lands and subsidizing organic fertilizers. As a result, from 2011 to 2021, China’s domestic organic produce sales increased from 313 billion to 521 billion yuan. Rather than implementing an indiscriminate agrochemical ban, policymakers in India and China made case-by-case judgements about the viability of organic farming and received consent from farmers on the ground. As a result, neither country experienced economic destabilization because of organic farming. Despite claims to the contrary, the crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates not the price of environmentalism, but the price of poor governance.

What, then, motivated Sri Lanka’s misguided organic farming policies? At least part of the explanation comes from the politicization of agriculture by Sri Lanka’s populist government. Before Rajapaksa began his presidential run in 2019, the Sri Lankan public knew him as the military general who ruthlessly ended the civil war between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority in 2009. Leveraging his wartime reputation, Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of ethno-religious nationalism and promised to restore prosperity to the nation. One of the radical campaign promises he made was to fully transition the nation into organic farming within a decade. Even though Rajapaksa lacked experience in civilian politics, his populist rhetoric resonated with the country’s Sinhalese majority, and he won the presidency in a vote largely split along ethnic lines.

However, once Rajapaksa assumed power, he exacerbated Sri Lanka’s already fragile finances with massive tax cuts. Faced with a shortfall in revenue, Rajapaksa’s response was to implement a total ban on agrochemical imports, both to reduce cash outflows from fertilizer purchases and fulfill his campaign promise. As a populist strongman with limited policymaking experience, Rajapaksa was more concerned with finding quick, politically attractive fixes than consulting stakeholders about the long-term implications of his decisions. In more ways than one, this political shortsightedness has contributed to the unraveling of the Sri Lankan economy.

While it is convenient to blame Sri Lanka’s crisis on organic farming and the environmentalist movement’s influence, what happened in Sri Lanka is the product of a political failure. If there are any lessons to be drawn from the Sri Lankan experience, it is that a government puts its people at risk when it favors grand, ideological plans imposed from the top over a careful analysis of economic realities.