Organic farming should be established in a bottom-up process based on farmers’ traditional knowledge, their experience and awareness and adaptability to the ecological environment. A long planning period is of the essence here. Ad hoc policy making by bureaucrats and politicians to define organic farming and force feed it to the farming community using the coercive power of the state, could lead to catastrophe – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
|In the next 40 years, the growing population will result in an increased demand for agricultural products. Agricultural production need to increase by at least 100% until 2050 (Hertel 2015).This is a serious challenge for Sri Lanka because land, water, and other natural resources are becoming scarce and changes in agricultural systems and technologies are necessary. It is needless to say that Sri Lanka embraced, post haste, organic agriculture without understanding the complexities to become the 100% organic nation in the world. The kind of gradualism seen in other countries was not followed by Sri Lanka which decided to jump immediately into deeper waters only to sink, a critical policy error
Sri Lanka unexpectedly banned the use of chemical fertiliser in 2021 to encourage organic agriculture. This decision came as a bolt from the blue for farmers and is certainly destined for total disaster.
Since the 1970s, organic agriculture was promoted mostly by governments in developing countries in response to food safety and adverse environmental consequences of conventional farming. But state intervention can create conflicts of interest between the state and producers and consumers as is seen clearly in Sri Lanka’s big bang approach to organic farming.
Organic farming should be established in a bottom-up process based on farmers’ traditional knowledge, their experience and awareness and adaptability to the ecological environment. A long planning period is of the essence here. Ad hoc policy making by bureaucrats and politicians to define organic farming and force feed it to the farming community using the coercive power of the state, could lead to catastrophe.
In organic farming, a major philosophical shift in thinking, attitudes and perspectives by the farming community is imperative. But the big bang approach adopted in Sri Lanka to encourage organic farming will be down the slippery slope very soon, as I argue below.
What is organic agriculture?
Organic agriculture is a holistic approach which uses natural ecological balance and well managed soil as the basis for healthy food production. The complex web of biological activities of soil micro-organisms drive nutrient cycling, regulate the dynamics of soil organic matter and enhance nutrient acquisition by the vegetation. Capturing these benefits of soil biological activity for agricultural production is the basis of organic agriculture.
The term “organic” is a process and function within a farming system – not the chemical nature of the fertiliser materials used. This complex biological system in organic farming excludes monoculture, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides detrimental to our land, water and health. But we must understand that organic agriculture alone cannot feed Sri Lanka.
However, many policymakers in Sri Lanka believe that organic farming is the substitution of compost for chemical fertiliser. But to unlock the real potential of organic agriculture, a clear understanding of ecosystem functions is essential.
Conventional agriculture and shift towards organic farming
In the 1960s, all Sri Lankan governments adopted food self-sufficiency as a policy goal. The Green Revolution (GR) in the 1960s contributed substantially to increase in rice production. Sri Lanka shifted to new varieties (GR technology) which are highly responsive to fertiliser to increase food production. The dire predictions of a Malthusian famine were belied, and Sri Lanka was able to overcome chronic food deficits. Sri Lanka spent millions of rupees on fertiliser subsidies pesticides and low interest agricultural credit. However, agricultural subsidies distorted the picture on agricultural profitability (Herath and Jayasuriya 1996).
Conventional agriculture uses chemical fertilisers to fertilise plants directly to obtain high yields but depleted soil nutrients. Farmers applied higher levels of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Over time, fertilisers and pesticides have exhausted the regenerative capacity of agricultural land. Since the 1960s, people were concerned about pesticide residues specially bioaccumulation over time. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, highlighted the dangers of pesticides, making organic agriculture especially attractive.
Spread of organic agriculture in Asia and the West
Asia has about 6.1 million hectares of agricultural land under organic farming. China introduced the first export of certified organic tea from Zhejiang Province in 1990. In 2005, China was ranked the 3rd largest country for organic production in the world with about 4.4 million ha of organic area. China initially focused on exporting organic goods such as beans, rice, tea, etc. The Philippines has nearly 150,000 hectares of organic coconuts. The Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Communities (ISAC) in Thailand hopes to have 208,000 hectares of organically farmed land by 2021.In Nepal, small-scale organic farming occurs in tourism areas.
Bhutan started organic agriculture in 2004 to make Bhutan 100% organic by 2020 but it failed. Extensive analyses shows that organic crop yields on average are 24% lower than conventional yields. The organic policy affected Bhutan’s GDP, increased welfare losses, lowered food security and weakened Bhutan’s cereal self-sufficiency. There was significant decline in the nitrogen (N) availability to crops (Feuerbacher, et al 2018, PLoS ONE 13(6): e0199025. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199025).
Today India has 4.43 million organic farms and 30% of the total organic producers in the world. India is the world’s largest cotton producer with more than 50% of the world’s organic cotton (Hans and Rao 2018 Acta Scientific Agriculture). The state of Sikkim in India, began the organic transition in 2003 to convert all land to organic farming. Sikkim used only around 10 kg of chemical fertilisers per hectare per year (Avasthe et al. 2016). In 2016, 13 years after the initiation of the organic policy, Sikkim declared her 75,000 ha of agricultural land was completely organic. But please take note; 13 years to get 75,000 ha of organic agriculture for only 66,000 farm families, not a credible record. Sri Lanka has 800,000 ha of paddy alone and making them organic in one season is not a walk across the park.
In 2019, Australia had the largest organic agricultural area (35.7 million hectares), followed by Argentina (3.6 million hectares), and China (3.1 million hectares). The USA has only 5% of land under organic agriculture. Since the 1990s, the EU provided financial assistance and subsidies, and organic farming quickly grew within the EU-27 countries from 0.70 million hectares in 1993 to 7.20 million hectares in 2007 (Eurostat 2007). The organic area share over the total utilised agricultural area is around 4% in the EU-27, which is among the highest in the world.
At present the organic sector constitutes about 3.5% of total US food sales. Growth in demand for organic products in the USA is predicted to be 10% to 20% per year. Since 2000, global organic retail sales reached $ 82 billion in 2015 which is concentrated in North America and Europe. In developing countries, demand for organic products is negligible. In 2004, China earned $0.35 billion from organic exports. The Chinese domestic organic market started in 2000 but organic food consumption accounted only for 0.08% of the conventional foods. The price of the organic products is often up to three times the price of conventional products. In all the above cases, organic agriculture was introduced cautiously in a gradualistic fashion for selected sectors and small land areas.
|The President appointed several ministers for agricultural development with crisscrossing, overlapping mandates. These ministers for very good reasons failed to understand the interconnectedness between organic farming, rice and paddy prices, within a holistic integrated management system. The unnecessary interference by politicians in setting prices of paddy and rice without having any idea on how the market works is ludicrous
Future food needs and Sri Lanka’s response to the challenge
In the next 40 years, the growing population will result in an increased demand for agricultural products. Agricultural production need to increase by at least 100% until 2050 (Hertel 2015).This is a serious challenge for Sri Lanka because land, water, and other natural resources are becoming scarce and changes in agricultural systems and technologies are necessary.
It is needless to say that Sri Lanka embraced, post haste, organic agriculture without understanding the complexities to become the 100% organic nation in the world. The kind of gradualism seen in other countries was not followed by Sri Lanka which decided to jump immediately into deeper waters only to sink, a critical policy error.
Why Sri Lanka will be down the slippery slope in organic farming
(a) Lack of proper planning
The introduction of organic farming to make it 100% organic without adequate planning by experts is a perfect recipe for chaos and will be a pipe dream. It can exacerbate current crisis in the agricultural sector, because organic agriculture was introduced for important staple crops such as rice and export crops such as tea and rubber. Organic agriculture should only be part of the broader agricultural development strategy of Sri Lanka instead of being in a ‘policy ghetto’. It must be integrated with other policies on the environment, rural development, and health and markets, etc.
Sri Lanka needs to focus on short-term and long-term food security, alleviation of poverty and good health for the population. A gradualist approach is the only way to have some limited extent of organic farming but this will never be the dominant form of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka must examine international experience, type of markets, and lessons learnt on adoption and adaptation of organic agricultural technologies instead of force feeding organic farming to the farming community.
The forthcoming Maha season is under threat and the import of 96,000 MT of organic inputs in granular form, containing 10% of nitrogen from China will not help. A ton of imports costs around $ 300. Poor planning led to many misadventures such as detecting pathogenic bacteria, such as Erwinia in imported organic fertiliser. The tests carried out by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS) and the Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Board.
(b) Ignoring the scientific nature and complexity of agriculture
Agricultural systems are complex and we need to view agriculture within biophysical, social-ecological, environmental political environment. Agriculture operates in a complex multifunctional environment. Agriculture is not homogeneous and individual farmers work in different micro-climates, need different kinds of inputs, and are likely to respond to policy interventions in different ways with multiple outcomes. One size fits all will not work.
Tea, sugar, and paddy are fundamentally different crops and must be treated separately. Organic farming will be adopted at different rates by farmers with significantly different outcomes (yield per hectare, equity etc.). Complex heterogeneous systems continually adapt and evolve and this transition may take several years (at least 10 years). Sri Lanka needs to understand this complexity to drive future agriculture along the correct trajectory. But Sri Lanka cannot achieve 100% organic agriculture and at most it may be 10% over a 10-year period for some selected crops.
(c) Primacy of politics and incompetence of relevant ministers
The President appointed several ministers for agricultural development with crisscrossing, overlapping mandates. These ministers for very good reasons failed to understand the interconnectedness between organic farming, rice and paddy prices, within a holistic integrated management system. The unnecessary interference by politicians in setting prices of paddy and rice without having any idea on how the market works is ludicrous.
The Sri Lankan Government precipitated food shortages by artificially setting prices of rice and paddy. The effort of two ministers trying to set prices of paddy and rice separately is laughable. The Minister of Agriculture says that he is responsible for the price of paddy and not rice. According to him, the Minister of Trade of garlic fame, an equally incompetent minister, is responsible for the price of rice. But now neither is responsible for the price of paddy and rice. The sad irony is that this is in the hands of a minister who does not know what nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium are. The proof of the stupidity of this minister was seen on Sri Lanka television for everyone to see, when he claimed that potassium chloride is organic fertiliser. Do you want any more evidence to remove this minister from his current portfolio? Now you know why we will be down the slippery slope? These two ministers remind me the popular fork lore characters, Raigamaya and Gampolaya.
State involvement in organic production can also lead to State entrepreneurs capturing market premiums (e.g. only two Sri Lankan firms import organic fertilisers to Sri Lanka). These myopic, narrow-minded policy decisions made by the Government are at the heart of this problem which need to be corrected quickly and effectively.
(d) Organic agriculture gives lower yields compared to conventional agriculture
Organically grown food is not necessarily healthy. Some British studies found that there is no difference in nutrient quality between organic and conventional foods. Organic farming is labour-intensive and unfamiliar to farmers, requiring extensive effort to learn best practices. Significant loss of yields can occur unless education and support is given to build systems that produce sufficient yields for farmers.
The research experience in many countries show that organic yields are 25% lower than conventional yields. Kniss et al. (2016) found yields on organic farms are 20% lower than on conventional farms. Hence organic products will have a higher costs per unit of output and thus higher prices. Experimental yields are often higher than those in real-world agriculture but farmers cannot replicate these management practices. Organically fertilised systems require higher nitrogen inputs to achieve high yields because organic nitrogen is less readily available to crops. Organic farming is more knowledge intensive, and yields depend on timely management interventions. The higher knowledge requirements and the relatively low levels of education of farmers in Sri Lanka need to be recognised.
Organic methods can reduce yield of tea in Sri Lanka which brings in more than $ 1.25 billion a year and 10% of Sri Lanka’s export income. Land used for conventional agriculture for long periods cannot be immediately transferred to organic farming. Conventional agriculture which uses inorganic fertilisers need at least three years to convert conventional agricultural land to organic agriculture and rehabilitation of such soils for several years is required to produce yields comparable to conventional tea.
Tea fields which used chemical fertiliser may need about three years to be converted to ‘organic’ farms (see Roshan Rajadurai, Chairman, Plantation Service Group said at the Planters Association Annual General Association) with dire consequences for the tea industry. Nearly 89% of Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber plantations rely on chemical fertilisers. For rice the same argument applies. Using organic fertiliser in depleted land require more organic fertiliser and this may lead to higher cost of production. Chemical fertiliser may be needed during the transition period to organic agriculture which Sri Lanka completely ignored.
Just this week, the Minister of Plantation Industries admitted that tea production has fallen and that they have already ordered 100,000 tons of ammonium sulphate for the tea industry. So we are going against the ban and lack of planning is clearly evident. A study conducted by United Planters Association of South India, has found in 2013 that organic tea production will generate at least 30% of lower yields. The cost of production will increase by 30 to 40% as a result of lower yields (see Rajadurai).
Gamini Peiris found that (Sunday Island of 19 September 2021) after many years of experimentation, organic fertiliser did not give comparable yield of sugar cane and organic fertiliser is not appropriate for sugar cane in Sri Lanka. A new study published in Nature concludes that crop yields from organic farming are generally lower than from conventional agriculture, especially for cereals. Organic farming thus can never replace conventional agriculture.
(To be continued)