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Drawing False Lessons from Sri Lanka's Organic Farming Experience (Commentary)

  • Long-time organic farmers have been doing well over the past two years, even as traditional farmers were hit hard by Sri Lanka’s sudden ban on the import of chemical fertilizers.
  • The real lesson to be learned from Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is the importance of good governance for the nation’s health and nutrition.
  • Researchers say a more diversified agricultural approach could make Sri Lanka less vulnerable to the next crisis.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Mongabay.

Since Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted in mid-July, some commentators have blamed the economic crisis and social unrest on his resignation of his nominal organic farming experiment in 2021. ing. This is a misunderstanding of the situation. While traditional organic farmers have performed well throughout this period, conventional farmers have suffered from the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the former president.

On July 13, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country amid popular protests by citizens dissatisfied with his control of the national economy. Sri Lanka defaulted on its debts, skyrocketing energy and food prices, and limited foreign exchange reserves meant widespread shortages.

convenient excuse

Some trace his downfall to the ill-fated decision to halt all imports of chemical fertilizers in April 2021 and abruptly shift the country to organic farming. One commentator wrote: His Rajapaksa’s arrogant decision to impose organic farming across the country led to widespread starvation after the agricultural economy collapsed. In reality, the policy was all about the lack of foreign exchange and the inability to pay for imports, rather than a planned shift to organic farming. was a convenient excuse to stop paying for fertilizer imports.

Our research on the diets of long-term organic tea farmers and conventional tea farmers in Sri Lanka suggests that it was actually the established organic tea farmers who performed much better in the last two years. I’m here. They receive a price premium for their products, have a well-established internal supply of high-quality organic compost to maintain their soil, and their tea yields are the same or higher than conventional tea farms.

Their steady income and home-grown vegetable gardens mean they are eating nutritious meals. It had to deal with a sudden loss of fertilizer supplies last summer, struggled to find good quality organic compost, and then saw lower yields, lower incomes, and poor diets. tea farmers in Japan.

Former President Rajapaksa lifted a ban on imports of chemical fertilizers at the end of 2021, but the underlying problem of a shortage of foreign exchange reserves remains, making supplies still erratic and available only to wealthier farmers.

Both rice and vegetable production were affected by the sudden disappearance of chemical fertilizers. Image by Dilrukshi Handunnetti.

low yield, low income

The real lesson to be learned from the crisis in Sri Lanka is that good governance is critical to a nation’s health and nutrition. Moreover, farmers who rely on large volumes of imported inputs are much more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions and price volatility.

A perfect storm of Sri Lanka’s ex-president’s mismanagement of the economy has collided with war-related energy and fertilizer price hikes in Ukraine, adding to supply chain disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and slowing agricultural production. led to a decline and higher food prices. , and increasing rates of hunger and malnutrition. In addition, fuel shortages are so prevalent that farmers are unable to run their tractors or bring their products to market, and vegetables are often left rotting on their farms.

The current crisis is having a severe impact not only on Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector and rural areas, but also on the urban poor. A recent World Food Program report found that 30% of Sri Lanka’s population suffers from food insecurity, especially among farm workers in the tea plantation sector and urban workers who buy most of their food and are sensitive to rising food prices. is suffering

Gradual migration

Proponents of large-scale farming use the current debacle in Sri Lanka to argue for a return to energy-intensive food and cash crop production, which addresses the vulnerabilities of the current system. This is a serious mistake because it does nothing for you. Sri Lanka needs agricultural inputs (mainly chemical fertilizers) to cope with the short-term crisis, but is stepping towards a more diversified food production system using agroecological or organic methods. A deliberate and planned migration actually makes a lot of sense.

To be clear, we are not advocating that Sri Lanka will become completely organic. I am looking for an opportunity to

Organic farming, which uses agroecological practices such as crop associations and composting to maintain soil fertility and manage pest problems, is not only more sustainable, but also reduces supply chain disruptions and energy prices. A more diversified approach to agriculture in Sri Lanka will make it less vulnerable to the next crisis, whether self-harm or globally imposed.

Nesmi S. Perera Basij is from Sri Lanka and is a graduate student in geography at the University of Kentucky, USA Find her on Twitter @nethmisachy.

William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography at Macalester College, USA. Find him on Twitter. @WilliamGMoseley.

Banner image of rice fields in Sri Lanka, courtesy: Nilanka Sampath.


Basij, NSW (2022). Food security and dietary diversity among conventional and organic tea smallholder farmers in central and southern Sri Lanka (Honorary Project). Taken from

Clapp, J. & Moseley, WG (2020). This food crisis is different. COVID-19 and the vulnerability of the neoliberal food security regime. Farmer Research Journal, 47(7), 1393-1417. doi:10.1080/03066150.2020.1823838