Leaving behind pesticides and other agrochemical agricultural inputs, often associated with soil degradation and other environmental problems, sounded like a great idea. Sri Lanka would have become the first country in the world to do so, shifting to a fully organic-based agricultural production. But as it turns out, the time was not ripe yet.
On Sunday, the government abandoned its quest and lifted import bans on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ahead of planned farmer protests in the country’s capital. Ministry secretary Udith Jayasinghe told local media that the decision was taken in order to “ensure food security and because pesticides were ‘urgently needed’.”
When enacted, the ban was justified as a way to promote healthier agricultural practices, making farming more sustainable. “The challenge is to use modern scientific techniques and practices to enhance agricultural production without causing environmental degradation,” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said at COP26.
Nevertheless, the effort didn’t last long. In October, the government loosened its import ban last month, allowing imports of potassium chloride and liquid nano nitrogen bottles from India. These are used during the rice-growing season and were in high demand. With tea and rubber, rice is one of the main agricultural exports of Sri Lanka.
Rice farmers complained that they couldn’t cultivate Sri Lanka’s staple because of a lack of fertilizers, with some complaining that their harvest size declined due to pests and weed attacks. The same concerns were shared by rubber and tea farms. The country’s Tea Factory Owners Association even predicted massive unemployment in the sector.
The actual reasons of the move
While the government framed the transition to organic agriculture as an environmentally-friendly policy, this came at the time Sri Lanka was facing big economic problems amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s economy relies on tourism and foreign worker remittances, largely in decline because of the pandemic.
Amid declining foreign currency reserves, the country has been facing a borrowing crisis. In July, it repaid a billion-dollar bond in foreign currency debt, but two more payments are due in 2022 and 2023. This has made authorities try to save foreign currencies last year, even shutting down an oil refinery due to a lack of crude imports.
Nevertheless, the experience from Sri Lanka doesn’t mean that a transition to organic farming is necessarily a bad idea. It’s something worth exploring, but knowing in advance that it will take some time to make it happen. In fact, a survey in Sri Lanka showed farmers backed going organic, but asked for support to make the transition.
Organic farming is usually associated with environmental benefits, such as greater biodiversity and better soil quality, and also health ones – with studies finding that organic crops have more antioxidants and fewer pesticide residues. But a shift from conventional crops isn’t really straightforward, as we have now seen in Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen if other countries can implement the shift with more success.