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Is organic farming really to blame for Sri Lanka’s ongoing food crisis?

by Atlanta Business Journal

File image showing a Sri Lankan tomato farmer shows pest-infected crop which he blamed on unavailability of chemical pesticides in Keppetipola, Sri Lanka, 1 July, 2021. AP

The Sri Lankan crisis has brought deep sufferings in the neighbouring country. Food and agriculture seem to be at the centre stage of this crisis. Several commentators have blamed Sri Lanka’s decision to go organic as the root cause of this crisis. Furthermore, this event has been used to vilify the regenerative agriculture movement.

Organic farming has also been a project of the Modi government. It was during his tenure that the Paramparagat Kheti mission was launched. Did we take the wrong step, too? But at a deeper level, has our traditional agricultural wisdom been wrong? Could even organic methods work? I had a lot of questions, and slander against natural farming didn’t go down well either. So I began meeting some experts to figure this one out.

First on the list was Ashok Gulati, agri-economist and professor at ICRIER. It was an unusually hot April afternoon. I walked into the India Habitat Centre office. It was a very neat-looking place, with dark wooden furniture.

After half an hour of intense discussion, I asked him about Sri Lanka: Is organic farming the real problem? Gulati took me down the memory lane and said, “Norman Bourlog said that you can’t feed more than 4 billion people without chemicals. Now we are 7.9 billion, how are we to feed the world? Organic farming can’t feed the world. After fall, before the Green Revolution, everything was organic anyways, and India too was caught in the ship to mouth scenario.”

“Organic is good for the niche markets, but scaling it up for the whole country requires proper assessment of demand and supply. In organic agriculture, yields for most crops are likely to be lower than those that are given fertilisers. If the natural resource endowment of the country cannot feed the entire population through organic produce, it should be ready to import. That’s the problem with Sri Lanka. They don’t have enough foreign exchange to import. Hence the problem,” he added.

At this point I remember meeting a Sri Lankan novelist in March at JLF. He too had criticised the government’s decision to ban agri-chemicals. Various reports pointed in the same direction.

Sri Lanka’s tryst with industrial agriculture hasn’t always been pleasant. The British-era plantations had destroyed much of the native biodiversity and newer crops like oil palm had further threatened the fragile ecosystem. Plus, certain agri chemicals have also caused kidney failures for over 40,000 people.

Next I caught up with environmentalist Vandana Shiva, given her position in the matter. She was wearing a dark blue sari with white embroidered border. So, was organic the problem in Sri Lanka? She answered, “The Sri Lanka crisis is a debt crisis, a financial crisis which was aggravated by the high costs of COVID.”

We spoke for another hour about the various issues and alleged propaganda against organic farming. But then our conversation took a serious turn. She explained, “The food crisis in Sri Lanka has deeper roots than a six-month ban on import of agri-chemicals. A short-term policy of import ban is not an organic policy. We need to look to Cuba for a full-fledged organic policy in the face of fuel and fertilizer supply stoppage due to sanctions.”

But what is the way out of this mess? She answered, “The solution to the Sri Lanka crisis is restoration of democracy, including economic democracy, so the people of Sri Lanka can choose the development options that provide for their basic needs instead of trapping them in debt. A participatory policy for food sovereignty has become an imperative for every country in times of climate change, wars, and economic and ecological collapse.”

Of course, she believed that organic was the way out of malnutrition, disease and climate change. “Organic farming is a system. You have to rejuvenate the soils, biodiversity, local communities, etc. Sri Lanka should have carefully planned this step, keeping all the factors in mind to achieve the organic label,” she added.

I had heard two sides, and still wasn’t done. Next I got talking with former agriculture secretary Siraj Husain, to see where he saw the gaps. “I do not think the May 2021 decision to halt the import of chemical fertilizers is the only reason for economic woes,” he said.

But was this an administrative failure? Has the government machinery including the bureaucracy failed? “A country cannot become 100 per cent organic in the short term. If entire production is organic, the premium on organic produce will crash and farmers will be left with lower production. The present economic woes are also due to ‘nationalistic’ politics of their President,” Siraj said.

What can India do? Siraj had a clear solution. “India can give wheat and rice as we had given to Afghanistan a few years back during the UPA government. Recently also, we have given wheat to Afghanistan and it has been sent via Wagah through Pakistan. We can come to aid Sri Lanka too, and help ameliorate the issue.”

For the final word, I caught up with Sukhpal Singh, professor, IIM Ahmedabad. “Chemical fertiliser ban was imposed only about eight months back and was partly relaxed within a few months. Maybe only one crop season has been partly affected by this sudden change in policy which no doubt should have been implemented more gradually, though there could be other compulsions for that. Therefore, putting the entire blame of the Sri Lankan economic crisis on policy shift to organic farming can only be a half-truth,” he said.

After hearing different viewpoints, I wasn’t worried about the Indian organic mission. The Indian government seems to have a graded plan for ecological restoration through regenerative agriculture. Apart from environmental and health benefits, it is also offloading the rising fertiliser and fuel subsidies. DAP and other nitrogen-based fertilisers may soon be as precious as gold. I was reassured that India won’t go the Sri Lanka way. But of course, I was certain that organic farming was not the culprit. Bad policy decisions taken haphazardly would be closer to the truth.

The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst and the former director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India.

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