In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong
Faced with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, Sri Lanka called off an ill-conceived national experiment in organic agriculture this winter. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised in his 2019 election campaign to transition the country’s farmers to organic agriculture over a period of 10 years. Last April, Rajapaksa’s government made good on that promise, imposing a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and ordering the country’s 2 million farmers to go organic.
The result was brutal and swift. Against claims that organic methods can produce comparable yields to conventional farming, domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Sri Lanka, long self-sufficient in rice production, has been forced to import $450 million worth of rice even as domestic prices for this staple of the national diet surged by around 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.
By November 2021, with tea production falling, the government partially lifted its fertilizer ban on key export crops, including tea, rubber, and coconut. Faced with angry protests, soaring inflation, and the collapse of Sri Lanka’s currency, the government finally suspended the policy for several key crops—including tea, rubber, and coconut—last month, although it continues for some others. The government is also offering $200 million to farmers as direct compensation and an additional $149 million in price subsidies to rice farmers who incurred losses. That hardly made up for the damage and suffering the ban produced. Farmers have widely criticized the payments for being massively insufficient and excluding many farmers, most notably tea producers, who offer one of the main sources of employment in rural Sri Lanka. The drop in tea production alone is estimated to result in economic losses of $425 million.
Human costs have been even greater. Prior to the pandemic’s outbreak, the country had proudly achieved upper-middle-income status. Today, half a million people have sunk back into poverty. Soaring inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency have forced Sri Lankans to cut down on food and fuel purchases as prices surge. The country’s economists have called on the government to default on its debt repayments to buy essential supplies for its people.
The farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing, and sheer shortsightedness that produced the crisis in Sri Lanka implicates both the country’s political leadership and advocates of so-called sustainable agriculture: the former for seizing on the organic agriculture pledge as a shortsighted measure to slash fertilizer subsidies and imports and the latter for suggesting that such a transformation of the nation’s agricultural sector could ever possibly succeed.
Sri Lanka’s journey through the organic looking glass and toward calamity began in 2016, with the formation, at Rajapaksa’s behest, of a new civil society movement called Viyathmaga. On its website, Viyathmaga describes its mission as harnessing the “nascent potential of the professionals, academics and entrepreneurs to effectively influence the moral and material development of Sri Lanka.” Viyathmaga allowed Rajapaksa to rise to prominence as an election candidate and facilitated the creation of his election platform. As he prepared his presidential run, the movement produced the “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,” a sprawling agenda for the nation that covered everything from national security to anticorruption to education policy, alongside the promise to transition the nation to fully organic agriculture within a decade.
Despite Viyathmaga’s claims to technocratic expertise, most of Sri Lanka’s leading agricultural experts were kept out of crafting the agricultural section of the platform, which included promises to phase out synthetic fertilizer, develop 2 million organic home gardens to help feed the country’s population, and turn the country’s forests and wetlands over to the production of biofertilizer.
Following his election as president, Rajapaksa appointed a number of Viyathmaga members to his cabinet, including as minister of agriculture. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Agriculture, in turn, created a series of committees to advise it on the implementation of the policy, again excluding most of the nation’s agronomists and agricultural scientists and instead relying on representatives of the nation’s small organic sector; academic advocates for alternative agriculture; and, notably, the head of a prominent medical association who had long promoted dubious claims about the relationship between agricultural chemicals and chronic kidney disease in the country’s northern agricultural provinces.
Then, just a few months after Rajapaksa’s election, COVID-19 arrived. The pandemic devastated the Sri Lankan tourist sector, which accounted for almost half of the nation’s foreign exchange in 2019. By the early months of 2021, the government’s budget and currency were in crisis, the lack of tourist dollars so depleting foreign reserves that Sri Lanka was unable to pay its debts to Chinese creditors following a binge of infrastructure development over the previous decade.
Enter Rajapaksa’s organic pledge. From the early days of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, Sri Lanka has subsidized farmers to use synthetic fertilizer. The results in Sri Lanka, as across much of South Asia, were startling: Yields for rice and other crops more than doubled. Struck by severe food shortages as recently as the 1970s, the country became food secure while exports of tea and rubber became critical sources of exports and foreign reserves. Rising agricultural productivity allowed widespread urbanization, and much of the nation’s labor force moved into the formal wage economy, culminating in Sri Lanka’s achievement of official upper-middle-income status in 2020.
By 2020, the total cost of fertilizer imports and subsidies was close to $500 million each year. With fertilizer prices rising, the tab was likely to increase further in 2021. Banning synthetic fertilizers seemingly allowed Rajapaksa to kill two birds with one stone: improving the nation’s foreign exchange situation while also cutting a massive expenditure on subsidies from the pandemic-hit public budget.
But when it comes to agricultural practices and yields, there is no free lunch. Agricultural inputs—chemicals, nutrients, land, labor, and irrigation—bear a critical relationship to agricultural output. From the moment the plan was announced, agronomists in Sri Lanka and around the world warned that agricultural yields would fall substantially. The government claimed it would increase the production of manure and other organic fertilizers in place of imported synthetic fertilizers. But there was no conceivable way the nation could produce enough fertilizer domestically to make up for the shortfall.
Having handed its agricultural policy over to organic true believers, many of them involved in businesses that would stand to benefit from the fertilizer ban, the false economy of banning imported fertilizer hurt the Sri Lankan people dearly. The loss of revenue from tea and other export crops dwarfed the reduction in currency outflows from banning imported fertilizer. The bottom line turned even more negative through the increased import of rice and other food stocks. And the budgetary savings from cutting subsidies were ultimately outweighed by the cost of compensating farmers and providing public subsidies for imported food.
Farming is, at bottom, a fairly straightforward thermodynamic enterprise. Nutrient and energy output in the form of calories is determined by nutrient and energy input. For most of recorded human history, the primary way humans increased agricultural production was by adding land to the system, which expanded the amount of solar radiation and soil nutrients available for food production. Human populations were relatively small, under 1 billion people in total, and there was no shortage of arable land to expand onto. For this reason, the vast majority of anthropogenic changes in global land use and deforestation has been the result of agricultural extensification—the process of converting forests and prairie to cropland and pasture. Against popular notions that preindustrial agriculture existed in greater harmony with nature, three-quarters of total global deforestation occurred before the industrial revolution.
Even so, feeding ourselves required directing virtually all human labor to food production. As recently as 200 years ago, more than 90 percent of the global population labored in agriculture. The only way to bring additional energy and nutrients into the system to increase production was to let land lie fallow, rotate crops, use cover crops, or add manure from livestock that either shared the land with the crops or grazed nearby. In almost every case, these practices required additional land and put caps on yields.
Starting in the 19th century, the expansion of global trade allowed for the import of guano—mined from ancient deposits on bird-rich islands—and other nutrient-rich fertilizers from far-flung regions onto farms in Europe and the United States. This and a series of technological innovations—better machinery, irrigation, and seeds—allowed for higher yields and labor productivity on some farms, which in turn freed up labor and thereby launched the beginning of large-scale urbanization, one of global modernity’s defining features.
But the truly transformative break came with the invention of the Haber-Bosch process by German scientists in the early 1900s, which uses high temperature, high pressure, and a chemical catalyst to pull nitrogen from the air and produce ammonia, the basis for synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizer remade global agriculture and, with it, human society. The widespread adoption of synthetic fertilizers in most countries has allowed a rapid increase in yields and allowed human labor to shift from agriculture to sectors that offer higher incomes and a better quality of life.
The widespread application of synthetic fertilizers now allows global agriculture to feed nearly 8 billion people, of whom about 4 billion depend on the increased output that synthetic fertilizers allow for their sustenance. As a result, the modern food systems that have allowed global agriculture to feed Earth’s population are far more energy intensive than past food systems, with synthetic fertilizers accounting for a significant source of the energy for crops.
As synthetic fertilizers became increasingly available globally after World War II and combined with other innovations, such as modern plant breeding and large-scale irrigation projects, a remarkable thing happened: Human populations more than doubled—but thanks to synthetic fertilizers and other modern technologies, agricultural output tripled on only 30 percent more land over the same period.
The benefits of synthetic fertilizers though go far beyond simply feeding people. It’s no exaggeration to say that without synthetic fertilizers and other agricultural innovations, there is no urbanization, no industrialization, no global working or middle class, and no secondary education for most people. This is because fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals have substituted human labor, liberating enormous populations from needing to dedicate most of their lifetime labor to growing food.
Virtually the entirety of organic agriculture production serves two populations at opposite ends of the global income distribution. At one end are the 700 million or so people globally who still live in extreme poverty. Sustainable agriculture proponents fancifully call the agriculture this population practices “agroecology.” But it is mostly just old–fashioned subsistence farming, where the world’s poorest eke out their survival from the soil.
They are the poorest farmers in the world, who dedicate most of their labor to growing enough food to feed themselves. They forego synthetic fertilizers and most other modern agricultural technologies not by choice but because they can’t afford them, caught in a poverty trap where they are unable to produce enough agricultural surplus to make a living selling food to other people; hence, they can’t afford fertilizer and other technologies that would allow them to raise yields and produce surplus.
At the other end of the spectrum are the world’s richest people, mostly in the West, for whom consuming organic food is a lifestyle choice tied up with notions about personal health and environmental benefits as well as romanticized ideas about agriculture and the natural world. Almost none of these consumers of organic foods grow the food themselves. Organic agriculture for these groups is a niche market—albeit, a lucrative one for many producers—accounting for less than 1 percent of global agricultural production.
As a niche within a larger, industrialized, agricultural system, organic farming works reasonably well. Producers typically see lower yields. But they can save money on fertilizer and other chemical inputs while selling to a niche market for privileged consumers willing to pay a premium for products labeled organic. Yields are lower—but not disastrously lower—because there are ample nutrients available to smuggle into the system via manure. As long as organic food remains niche, the relationship between lower yields and increased land use remains manageable.
The ongoing catastrophe in Sri Lanka, though, shows why extending organic agriculture to the vast middle of the global bell curve, attempting to feed large urban populations with entirely organic production, cannot possibly succeed. A sustained shift to organic production nationally in Sri Lanka would, by most estimates, slash yields of every major crop in the country, including drops of 35 percent for rice, 50 percent for tea, 50 percent for corn, and 30 percent for coconut. The economics of such a transition are not just daunting; they are impossible.
Importing fertilizer is expensive, but importing rice is far more costly. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is the world’s fourth largest tea exporter, with tea accounting for a lion’s share of the country’s agricultural exports, which in turn account for 70 percent of total export earnings.
There is no conceivable way that export sales to the higher value organic market could possibly make up for sharp falls in production. The entire global market for organic tea, for example, accounts for only about 0.5 percent of the global tea market. Sri Lanka’s tea production alone is larger than the entire global organic tea market. Flooding the organic market with most or all of Sri Lanka’s tea production, even after output fell by half due to lack of fertilizer, would almost certainly send global organic tea prices into a spiral.
The notion that Sri Lanka might ever replace synthetic fertilizers with domestically produced organic sources without catastrophic effects on its agricultural sector and environment is more ludicrous still. Five to seven times more animal manure would be necessary to deliver the same amount of nitrogen to Sri Lankan farms as was delivered by synthetic fertilizers in 2019. Even accounting for the overapplication of synthetic fertilizers, which is clearly a problem, and other uncertainties, there is almost certainly not enough land in the small island nation to produce that much organic fertilizer. Any effort to produce that much manure would require a vast expansion of livestock holdings, with all the additional environmental damage that would entail.
Sustaining agriculture in Sri Lanka, for both domestic consumption and high-value export products, was always going to require importing energy and nutrients into the system, whether organic or synthetic. And synthetic fertilizers were always going to be the most economically and environmentally efficient way to do so.
While the proximate cause of Sri Lanka’s humanitarian crisis was a bungled attempt to manage its economic fallout from the global pandemic, at the bottom of the political problem was a math problem and at the bottom of the math problem was an ideological problem—or, more accurately, a global ideological movement that is innumerate and unscientific by design, promoting fuzzy and poorly specified claims about the possibilities of alternative food production methods and systems to obfuscate the relatively simple biophysical relationships that govern what goes in; what comes out; and the economic, social, and political outcomes that any agricultural system can produce, whether on a regional, national, or global scale.
Rajapaksa continues to insist that his policies have not failed. Even as Sri Lanka’s agricultural production was collapsing, he traveled to the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, late last year, where—when not dodging protests over his human rights record as Sri Lankan defense minister—he touted his nation’s commitment to an agricultural revolution allegedly “in sync with nature.” Not long afterward, he fired two government officials within weeks of each other for publicly criticizing the increasingly dire food situation and fertilizer ban.
As farmers begin their spring harvest, the fertilizer ban has been lifted, but fertilizer subsidies have not been restored. Rajapaksa, meanwhile, has established yet another committee—this one to advise the government on how to increase organic fertilizer production in a further demonstration that he and his agricultural advisors continue to deny the basic biophysical realities that constrain agriculture production.
Much of the global sustainable agriculture movement, unfortunately, has proven no more accountable. As Sri Lankan crop yields have plummeted, exactly as most mainstream agricultural experts predicted they would, the fertilizer ban’s leading advocates have gone silent. Vandana Shiva, an Indian activist and ostensible face of anti-modern agrarianism in the global south, was a booster of the ban but turned mute as the ban’s cruel consequences became clear. Food Tank, an advocacy group funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that promotes a phase-out of chemical fertilizers and subsidies in Sri Lanka, has had nothing to say now that its favored policies have taken a disastrous turn.
Soon enough, advocates will surely argue that the problem was not with the organic practices they touted but with the precipitous move to implement them in the midst of a crisis. But although the immediate ban on fertilizer use was surely ill conceived, there is literally no example of a major agriculture-producing nation successfully transitioning to fully organic or agroecological production. The European Union has, for instance, promised a full-scale transition to sustainable agriculture for decades. But while it has banned genetically modified crops and a variety of pesticides as well as has implemented policies to discourage the overuse of synthetic fertilizers, it still depends heavily on synthetic fertilizers to keep yields high, produce affordable, and food secure. It has also struggled with the disastrous effects of overfertilizing surface and ground water with manure from livestock production.
Boosters of organic agriculture also point to Cuba, which was forced to abandon synthetic fertilizer when its economy imploded following the Soviet Union’s collapse. They fail to mention that the average Cuban lost an estimated 10 to 15 pounds of body weight in the years that followed. In 2011, Bhutan, another darling of the sustainability crowd, promised to go 100 percent organic by 2020. Today, many farmers in the Himalayan kingdom continue to depend on agrochemicals.
In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, there is no shortage of problems associated with chemical-intensive and large-scale agriculture. But the solutions to these problems—be they innovations that allow farmers to deliver fertilizer more precisely to plants when they need it, bioengineered microbial soil treatments that fix nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for both fertilizer and soil disruption, or genetically modified crops that require fewer pesticides and herbicides—will be technological, giving farmers new tools instead of removing old ones that have been proven critical to their livelihoods. They will allow countries like Sri Lanka to mitigate the environmental impacts of agriculture without impoverishing farmers or destroying the economy. Proponents of organic agriculture, by contrast, committed to naturalistic fallacies and suspicious of modern agricultural science, can offer no plausible solutions. What they offer, as Sri Lanka’s disaster has laid bare for all to see, is misery.
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