Why was organic policy blamed for Sri Lanka’s financial crisis?

Academic research offers a different story from news media on Sri Lanka's short-lived ban on agrochemicals. Bertie Harrison-Broninski explores what really happened, and whether there's a future for national-scale organic policy.
72-year old Kusuma* at her farm in Anuradhapura District Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige
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Gunadasa* doesn’t follow politics, so the 72 year old farmer learned the news in May 2021 at a local meeting run by the Department for Agrarian Development.

He would no longer receive the subsidised fertiliser he and his wife Kusuma* had long used to grow paddy, sesame, corn, and beans at their small farm in Anuradhapura District. Neither, in fact, would any other farmer in Sri Lanka. The government had imposed a nationwide ban on all imports of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Gunadasa and Kusuma had to quickly learn to make organic fertiliser – out of cow manure, sunflower, ginisiriya, and banana tree. Their method is labour intensive, involving repeatedly grinding, melting and boiling ingredients. Each batch takes over three weeks. “It was hard to make enough. We felt tired.”

Organic fertiliser was made available from the government, but of dubious quality and in limited supply. Kusumalatha and Upul Palitha, another farming couple in a neighbouring village, said they found “pieces of glass mixed in with mud and fruit. Those were not good.”

Similar reports of farmers finding sand and glass in their new fertiliser were common, as the government rushed to bulk out volumes. It quickly became clear the organic policy had been introduced without proper preparation. 

Across Sri Lanka that year, yields for key crops like rice and potatoes plummeted by between 40 and 60%. Gunadasa said that living standards dropped so dramatically it reminded him of life during the two-decade long civil war that officially ended in 2009. By November, after only seven months, the ban was reversed.

Missed opportunity

Gunadasa and Kusuma were natural candidates for a transition to organic agriculture. Their farming is non-intensive, with mixed produce in their garden at home, and a small fenced off area to protect crops from elephants.

They also hope the fence limits chemical runoff into a nearby lake, and worry that pesticides and herbicides lead people to “get kidney stones” and “go blind.”

Public health was the officially stated justification for the ban. Chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) is untreatable and has long been a problem in the country. Since the early 2010s, research papers have suggested that agrochemical pollution may be a source of the issue – although others have called this “misinformation”.

Kusuma is proud of the organic alternatives she and Gunadasa make at home: “the pesticide we make is good. We grow kohomba seeds, grind them, and spray it on the crops to stop insects”. 

But despite their health concerns, Gunadasa and Kusuma do not want to risk a repeat of 2021. Gunadasa is now convinced that rice yields would be low without chemicals, and has lost confidence in governmental help.  “They are all thieves,” he said.

Upul Palitha on his farm in Anuradhapura District. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige

Kusumalatha now thinks that the right approach is a mix of organic and chemical products: “Even after a few years being organic, it is hard to say crops will grow well. They might grow, but not well enough, the leaves will be yellow not green. You must use both compost and chemicals.”

A 2018 survey found that 74% of farmers felt they had good or very good knowledge of organic agriculture; 65% had already learned about it from government training programs. Researchers spoke to hundreds of farmers in Southern districts in the country and found strong agreement that organic methods were good for human health, soils, and the environment. Farmers were unsure about the impacts on profits but agreed that organic farming was good for local resources and – interestingly – for local job creation.

Four years after this study and a few months after the ban on agrochemicals ended, new research in 2022 found that most Sri Lankan farmers now advocated using only chemical fertiliser. 43% of the respondents preferred a mixture of organic and chemical, and only 1% wanted to farm completely organically.

This collapse in support for organic methods amongst Sri Lankan farmers after 2021 seems to mirror international opinion, with foreign media treating the short-lived ban as a damning case study for any national-scale organic policy. This intensified after the country descended into economic crisis in 2022, when food and fuel shortages lead to citizens storming the President’s House, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.

Headlines like “ENTIRE COUNTRY COLLAPSES BECAUSE OF GREEN NEW DEAL” repeated on Fox News bulletins, and respected broadsheets like the Wall Street Journal published commentary stating that because of the organic policy, Sri Lanka’s “economy collapsed”.

But was the organic movement really to blame?

Crisis narratives

Sri Lanka’s agrochemicals ban and the country’s broader economic crisis were related, but academic research contradicts news headlines in terms of the cause and effect.

According to Jeevika Weerahewa, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Peradeniya, “even without the ban, we would have faced this economic crisis, that’s for sure.”

The cause of both issues appears to be the same: by 2021, Sri Lanka had almost run out of foreign currency reserves. There were various reasons for this. A starved tourism sector was one, after the 2019 Easter bombings lead countries to issue travel warnings, and then the pandemic caused years of further disruption. Spiralling international debt repayments were another. 

The academic consensus is now that the chemicals ban was not motivated by environmental or health policy. It was, instead, a misguided and rushed attempt to slash spending on imports. In Weerahewa’s words;

“We were not in a position to repay our loans. There was a huge gap between the earnings and the expenditures of the government. We had been importing a lot more than we earned from exports. So there was an imbalance and that imbalance was growing.

“At the time, we were giving out fertilisers free of charge to our paddy farmers. So somebody in the government thought ‘okay, we are spending quite a lot on fertilizer imports, so why not cut this out?’”

Revisit our 2022 coverage of Sri Lanka's crisis:

The country defaulting on its debts in 2022 should have been no surprise to foreign journalists, especially in the US. Many of the outlets that later blamed green sector technocracy for the country’s economic disaster in 2022 had repeatedly covered allegations of Chinese ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy and corrupt loan deals between China and the Rajapaksa family in preceding years.

Foreign Policy magazine, for example, has been a recurring critic of Sri Lanka’s “unsustainable debt” deals after the country “borrowed more money from China than it can pay back”. Yet the same outlet described the fertiliser ban as an “an ill-conceived national experiment…a farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing, and sheer shortsightedness” by “advocates of so-called sustainable agriculture”.

But Foreign Policy did not describe the fuel import restrictions, which led to long queues, and disruptions to public transport and medical services, as an ill-conceived experiment by cycling advocates. Why the double standard?

Lakmal Nishantha in Welimada uses cow manure (amongst other ingredients) to make fertiliser for his organic tea farm. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige

In reality, expert advocates of organic farming in Sri Lanka were immediately critical of the ban. A notable example is a public letter from the Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SAEA) in May 2021, well reported in the Sri Lankan press.

The letter stated that “current farming systems in Sri Lanka are unsustainable. Hence, the conversion of them into organic farming systems, in the long run, would help promote health of the people and nurture integrity of the nation’s environment.”

But it criticised the specifics of the new policy, saying “SAEA predicts massive economic losses due to potential yield losses in the absence of proper substitutes for chemical fertilisers and pesticides”. The letter warned the policy would lead to “immediate adverse impacts on food security, farm incomes, foreign exchange earnings and rural poverty”.

Another example is Professor Buddhi Marambe at the University of Peradeniya, who was fired as the government’s most senior agricultural advisor in October 2021 for repeatedly raising concerns over the ban. Marambe had previously worked as the Assistant Secretary of Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement. “Their push is on the correct path. But the modality they have planned could lead to a situation where you can’t think of a recovery,” he said publicly at the time.

Could national organic policy succeed with proper planning?

Media distortion aside, switching to 100% organic farmland may not feasible for Sri Lanka in the near-term. Recent research suggests that organic alternatives to chemical pesticides and herbicides are viable, but fertiliser remains a challenge. One reason for this, according to Professor Weerahewa, goes back to imports:

“[Most] organic fertilisers are not allowed to be imported into Sri Lanka because they contain certain types of microbes which are not acceptable by our authorities. So we have to produce organic fertilisers within the country to meet our own [regulatory] requirements. 

“We then have to think about raw materials that are available to every farmer, like plant debris and animal debris and all that. That volume is not sufficient to feed the entire nation.”

Saman Dharmakeerthi, Professor of Soils & Plant Nutrition at the University of Peradeniya, suggests there may be new solutions, such as farming “algae in the sea”. But he still thinks synthetics will be required to reach optimum yields:

“When you use organic fertiliser, it has its own nutrient ratio. We can’t change that ratio. We have to apply it and get what we get. And therefore, in general across the world, organic agriculture produces less than 20% of the maximum yield.”

The debate about average yields is contentious: some organic campaigners argue that yields will eventually recover as the soil regenerates, while others argue that policies such as reducing food waste could allow us to reduce yields without food insecurity. Estimates for global food waste range from 30-40% of production.

Lakmal Nishantha said he wants his organic farm to "to change the prevailing opinion in our country". Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige

Other parts of South Asia offer hope. The Indian state of Sikkim, for example, declared that it had reached 100% organic certification in 2016, 13 years after announcing the ambition. The state has had some challenges, but a raft of policies, including annual 10% decreases to agrochemical subsidies, has largely paid off.

Bhutan also has a national target to certify 100% of its farmland as organic by 2035. Dr Sonam Tashi, an organic agriculture expert at the Royal University of Bhutan, says this “may be difficult” but speaks positively about the government’s “dreams and plans and strategies.”

Bhutan’s approach offers a very different case study to Sri Lanka. The policy began forming in the 2000s, and was formalised in 2012 with a target date of 2020, which has now been pushed back to 2035.

“One thing the government has been emphasising is that it will not force farmers to go organic,” said Tashi. “But if they are interested, the government provides all sorts of support in terms of training, free distribution of inputs and so on.”

Most farming in Bhutan is organic already, as many farmers have continued to use traditional methods and have never had easy access to chemical imports. Official estimates in 2019 considered 63% of the country’s farmland as organic. The challenge for the country lies more in stopping the transition to agrochemicals than encouraging a transition away from them – which could prove difficult if travel becomes easier and the sector commercialises. Implementing widespread certification is key for this. Tashi says that fewer than 10% of farmers are currently certified as organic, although the number has risen in recent years.

Importantly, the motivation behind Bhutan’s policy is not financial. Instead, the government committed to the policy because “organic agriculture aligned very well with our development philosophy of gross national happiness, which emphasises not just economic development, but also sustainability.”

Could we still see “Sri Lanka without poison”?

The national policy discussion has quietened since 2022, but Sri Lanka’s small organic movement (which pre-dated the ban) is still going strong. Lakma Nishantha, a government-employed tea farmer in Welimada, a town in the centre of the country, has been proudly organic for 15 years:

“We started this farm with a hope to change the prevailing opinion in our country. We have the goal of making our country one without poison.”

Nishantha uses manure, weeds and rotten fruit from his farm as fertiliser. He chooses specific multi-cropping techniques to enrich the soils and avoid pests, including flowers with scents that deter insects. He says the ban in 2021 did not affect them; “it was profitable for us.”

Another nearby organic tea farmer, Kapila, had the same experience: “No, there was no impact from the ban for us because we had done organic farming already. We didn’t have that problem. Only the farms which had done chemical farming were harmed.”

Kapila made the decision to convert the farm to organic practices when he inherited it from his father in 2018. Since then, acquiring organic fertiliser has become easier thanks to a deal with the tea factory: he brings in hen manure as well as tea leaves, and they provide processed fertiliser in return.

"Our land is used to organic farming - so we have no problems," said Kapila in Welimada. Photo: ©️ Nethmi Bathige

Nishantha is trying to boost domestic demand for organic produce, but still worries about whether it is scalable:

“In the countryside people cannot afford expensive vegetables. But there are other groups in the country who have no problem with the cost; they want the best ones. We have formed a market through those people, such as nurses and doctors. We want to sell to others, but on a small farm like this, the costs are a problem.”

Overall, he remains positive about the future:

“Chemicals don’t last for long, and then the soil becomes normal. When stopped spraying chemicals, we saw plants growing again that we used to see when we were young. Different kinds of salad leaves that we hadn’t seen in the paddy fields for years. After one year, they started to grow again.

“In Sri Lanka, we can do it, but there is a question around whether we can feed the whole country organically. Only a few people still have the knowledge of our ancient people. Those people must take initiative and develop systems. That is the solution now. Farmers today can rarely learn or study. This has to change.”

*Some names have been changed.

Interviews with farmers conducted in Sinhala for Land and Climate Review by Nethmi Bathige – read her Mongabay article on this topic here, and her op-ed on agricultural adaptation for Land and Climate Review here.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is an investigative journalist based in the UK, and a Senior Editor at Land and Climate Review. 

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