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The economy of Sri Lanka has been in freefall. The rate of inflation exploded to 54.6 percent in March, which means Sri Lanka’s South Asian country is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Nine out of Ten Sri Lankan families are skipping meals, and many families wait in lines for days hoping to get fuel.
The situation was abusive and culminated in a weekend-long uprising that saw an estimated 300,000 protesters storm the home of President Gotabayarajapaksa as well as his office and set ablaze the home of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s residence. Rajapaksa quit after fleeing the country and was replaced by Wickremesinghe as the interim president.
There’s no single cause for the current crisis. Still, it has been brewing for a long time because of corruption in the political system and authoritarian right-wing politics that have weakened the democratic process. In April of 2019, the situation accelerated following suicide bombings in churches damaging the island nation’s tourism industry. Businesses, which in turn weakened their currency, making it harder to obtain essential items.
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In the final quarter of 2019, tax cuts cut revenues for the government, while the Covid-19 pandemic also ravaged the tourism industry, with soaring inflation adding fuel to the fire.
In the absence of a pandemic, this isn’t an unusual set of circumstances that could lead to the demise of a country in the development process, such as Sri Lanka. At the beginning of 2021, President Rajapaksa decided to ban synthetic fertilizers and pesticide imports in a matter of hours in Sri Lanka, requiring a million farmers to switch to organic. The result was devastating, as a group of Sri Lankan scientists and agriculture experts had been warned.
Presidency Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2021, located in New York City.
Based on one estimation, the president’s ban on agrochemicals was set to save Sri Lanka the $400 million that it spent annually on synthetic fertilizers, money that could be used to increase the imports of other items. But Rajapaksa also said that pesticides and chemical fertilizers are causing “adverse health and environmental impacts” and that these industrial farming practices were against the nation’s tradition based on “sustainable food systems.”
“There is a segment that is part of Sri Lankan NGO society and civil society that has been advocating for spreading of organic agriculture within Sri Lanka for quite a time. … It has also been assisted by numerous international groups,” R. Ramakumar, an economist in the field of agriculture in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India told me.
Instead of solving the problem, The move only exacerbated the problem.
“The organic policy was implemented to sort of ameliorating an ongoing crisis … ironically, what it did was that it ended up exacerbating the crisis,” Ramakumar stated.
The ban on agrochemicals caused the production of rice to decrease by 20 percent over six months following the time it was put into effect, which caused an area that was self-sufficient in its rice production to pay $450 million for rice imports — far higher than $400 million which bans could have saved on fertilizer imports.
Tea production is the country’s cash crop, which is the country’s largest export of the country dropped in 18. The government was forced to spend millions of dollars on subsidies and compensation to farmers for the reduction in productivity.
Farmer MM Jinasena has a job in a paddy field in Tissamaharama, Hambantota district, in April 2022.
Although agrochemicals can cause a myriad of health and environmental issues and, in some cases, drive this ban. They can also help farmers grow more food in less space essential for developing, small-sized nations like Sri Lanka that rely on agriculture to provide sustenance and export revenue. Moving away from an agrochemical-based food system is sensible in many ways. However, Sri Lanka is a prime example. Sri Lanka’s example underscores the necessity of keeping in mind the political, economic, and social context for any change.
About five months after this ban on farming, the farmers were permitted to start using artificial fertilizers for tea and other crops while retaining the ban for other crops; however, by that time, most of the damage had already been caused.
The blinkered organic rollout not only accelerated an economic crisis that had been long in the making but also heightened the stakes of the argument between organic and conventional farming, showing how crucial high-yield crops are to economies dependent on agriculture.
Sri Lanka, which just recently emerged from a devastating civil war, was an important player in international development. In 2000 17.5% of the population was undernourished, but by 2019, the figure had dropped by 7 percent, bringing about 2 million people out of the abyss. The economic downturn that has reached the boiling point was triggered partly by the organic farm crisis, which is causing a lot of suffering and, in a way, reversing some of the progress made.
It’s all about trade-offs.
Synthetic fertilizers help crops grow more quickly and larger than organic fertilizers, like animal manure and pesticides, which are used to control insects and diseases that could destroy crops. Experts believe that the widespread use of agricultural inputs in the 20th century, also called the Green Revolution, helped lift countries such as Sri Lanka out of grinding poverty.
The Sri Lankan tomato farmer shows an insect-infested crop that is blamed on the lack of chemicals to kill pests Keppetipola, Sri Lanka, on July 1, 2021.
“Sri Lanka started subsidizing fertilizers in the 1960s, and we saw that rice yields tripled,” says Saloni Shah, a food and agriculture analyst with the Breakthrough Institute. This US-based environmental organization promotes technological solutions. “[Sri Lanka] became self-sufficient in rice … that’s huge for all Asian countries, from the food security standpoint.”
This led to a large portion of the population leaving farming and into better-paying job opportunities, Shah says, a scenario seen worldwide in the last 60 years. However, the growth of traditional agriculture hasn’t come without its costs. Agrochemical usage is also associated with grave health and environmental problems.
Pesticides can cause various health problems, including the central nervous system and respiratory signs. Around one out of 8 suicides globally are caused by the ingestion of pesticides. This is especially true for the highest rates occurring in South Asia.
When pesticides and synthetic fertilizers get into the waterways, they could cause the death of wildlife, pollute drinking water sources, and their production and use, produce large quantities of greenhouse gases. They also alter the soil.
A lot of organic agricultural advocates assert that low-income nations depend on importing chemicals from countries with higher incomes, which robs them of their own food security and exposes them to the same kind of agrochemical price rises that Sri Lanka experienced. The large majority of Sri Lankan farmers supported an organic change. Still, they needed more than one year to make the transition — and required more assistance than they received to transition to organic farming.
The year 2008 saw Indian farmers belonging to the Farmers Heritage Movement show a canister used to make naturally-produced fertilizer to a village in China.
While synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can be adverse, they need to be considered against the negative consequences triggered by the loss of crop yields, such as hunger, a decrease in export revenue, and more deforestation. As Sri Lanka has shown, the political situation could be in crisis if prohibited. There are methods to reduce the impact of agrochemicals without removing them completely.
Limiting the harmful effects of industrial agriculture
The environmental non-profit organization based in the United States, World Resources Institute (WRI), states that it’s not enough to simply keep yields at current levels — governments all over the world have to increase the yield per acre, allowing for the feeding of more than 10 billion of people in 2050. This is to avoid having farmers clear more of their land to compensate for the lower yields, resulting in enormous environmental consequences.
Making it possible to meet this demand while also minimizing environmental and health risks that are caused by agrochemicals while increasing yields of crops is a challenge, but it is doable. Shah, an agricultural and food analyst, suggests that a sustainable strategy involves enhancing yields by breeding and making nitrogen fertilizers more effective and introducing “precision farming” technologies, such as drones and sensors, to better understand the areas where fertilizer is applied too much or not enough.
A 10-year study conducted in China that saw nearly 21 million people taught how to better manage water, soil, and fertilizer illustrates the improvements that could be made. The program led to an increase of 11 percent in yield for wheat, maize, and rice, as well as an increase of 15-18 percent in the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used.
The practices popular among organic agriculture advocates could aid, such as using cover crops, double cropping, adding organic fertilizer with chemical fertilizers on fields, and planting trees and plants on farms, also known as agroforestry.
A farmer working at The World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, strives to improve the lives of smallholder farmers and increase the efficiency and sustainability of landscapes for agriculture. Agroforestry, also known as planting trees and shrubs alongside crops, can boost farms’ yields and improve the health of soils.
Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images
“I think that in the Western world, we can get lost in the organic/conventional debate,” Shah declared. “Agriculture is the foundation of economic development, for food security, livelihoods and security, and for livelihoods. … The issue should not be so much about ideology or which is more effective and more about which combination of technology practices, practices, and market conditions are beneficial to boost development and help farmers become more empowered.”
But the implementation of these methods in the near term won’t be feasible for Sri Lanka, given that they’d all require money that the government doesn’t have.
“It seems like it’ll be a long road to recovery,” Shah said. “It’ll depend on what kind of financial assistance package they can discuss with the [International Monetary Fund[IMF]. Also, if they’re able to reduce the burden of debt.”
“I’m speculating now at this point,” Ramakumar, the agricultural economist, told, “but if they follow the advice of reason and science, then it’s not an unresolvable issue … However, it is contingent on the person who will rule Sri Lanka and what policies they decide to adopt.”
Over time, Sri Lanka may get some relief from the tensions of its trade-offs with agriculture. Based on the economic theories of the Kuznets Environmental Curve that states, when countries reach a certain amount in per-capita incomes, the economic expansion, and environmental pollution will dissociate as the nation can afford to put in place more stringent environmental regulations and practices without degrading economic growth, for example, yields of the crop.
The separation of the two isn’t 100% guaranteed, but some nations have succeeded in doing it. If Sri Lanka gets richer, it will be capable of prioritizing public health and the environment without the needy However, the current situation that is made more difficult due to the abrupt, hurriedly executed organic change has put the day even further from being a reality.