The Sri Lankan Crisis and Organic Farming – Learning the Right Lessons

29 JUNE | BY sai priya chodavarapu

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The Sri lankan crisis and the subsequent economic turmoil has generated much discussion and concern, especially from a public policy perspective in light of the failure of multiple policies simultaneously. The crisis is attributable to a number of factors — from the global financial crunch of 2008 to the heavy borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, to a multitude of impractical and faulty domestic policies all culminating in an economic nadir that was heightened by politics and domestic strife. Of these, one of the many policy failures of the Sri Lankan government was the abrupt ban of chemical fertilizers and the declaration to go organic.

The first part of this article, therefore, lays out the consequence of this ataxic and ill-intentioned attempt of the first family to alleviate some of the nation’s debt, which was exacerbated by the global pandemic. At first glance, especially seeing the nation’s current state of anarchy, the impulse might be to criticize the seeming impracticality of organic farming as a policy in itself — however, this article attempts to analyze where and why the policy went wrong, rather than default to superficial explanations. After all, agricultural, economic, and environmental policies must all function in tandem and in harmony if the ambitious shift to organic is envisioned or intended. To this end, this article is an overview of sorts of the state of organic farming, an iteration of the questions and uncertainties surrounding it and a musing of the possible directions that policy on this subject could take. The analysis shall proceed by covering the following aspects:

  1. The Role/Contribution of Organic Farming to the Sri Lankan Crisis
  2. An Overview of Successes/Policy Case Studies
  3. Making the Case for the Need for Organic Systemic Factors and Asymmetries
  4. Limitations of Organic Farming
  5. The Way Forward

Organic Farming and Sri Lanka’s Crisis

The Rajapaksa government’s 2019 “National Policy Framework Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” promised a “revolution” in the use of fertilizer and aimed at producing and promoting the use of organic over synthetic fertilizer. But the country’s farmers were taken aback when Rajapaksa announced a total and immediate ban on the import of chemical fertilizer in 2020 to combat rising global fertilizer prices and outflow of foreign currency, in lieu of the previously planned rollback over a ten-year period. It was a misguided attempt to improve the foreign currency deficit rather than a more altruistic move aimed at environmental or planetary well-being. What resulted was nothing short of a catastrophe. The yield on major crops like paddy fell drastically, leading to food shortages and an increase in the price of the staple food by about 30%. Tea exports, which made up about 1.5% of the nation’s GDP, bringing in about $1.3 billion annually, went down by 18%. With the COVID-19 pandemic badly hitting the country’s tourism sector, Sri Lanka’s currency and national budget were in dire straits, to add to the massive debt to the IMF that had already been snowballing. The corresponding dip in overall export earnings have led to a situation where the government lacks foreign currency reserves to even purchase essentials such as food grains, petrol and medicines, and widespread protests across the country reflect this. The famine-like grave circumstance, coupled with the rising inflation have hung Sri Lanka’s farmers high and dry despite the promised compensation to the tune of 40 billion rupees. The Sri Lankan rupee began to fall incrementally starting in March 2022, and stands at about LKR359/USD against the dollar today and inflation is at an all-time high of 39.1% as in May 2022.

The fears surrounding a transition to organic farming are exemplified by the events that transpired in such a short time frame in Sri Lanka. From the reliance on the organic farming lobby to craft and push this policy to the plan to depend on wetlands for the production of biofertilizer, a lot went wrong concurrently in Sri Lanka. However, just because Sri Lanka failed in its implementation of this policy and led to precipitating an already-brewing economic crisis, does not necessarily mean that countries similarly dependent on agrochemical products need to fear a shift to organic farming. We must be careful not to let Sri Lanka’s failure cloud the overall positive perception and the true benefits of organic farming. A tried and tested model for a successful transition to fully organic farming exists and has been achieved, demonstrated by the state of Sikkim in north-eastern India.

The Sikkim Case Study

Sikkim began on its path to a fully organic state in 2010 through the “Sikkim Organic Mission”, a journey which began in 2003 through the discouraging of the use of chemical fertilizer and ended in 2016 when it was formally declared a 100% organic state after its entire agricultural area was converted to ‘certified organic’. The state’s consumption of chemical fertilizer per hectare was already low (at 5.8 kg) and growers of its main cash crops such as cardamom had not been using fertilizer by default. The government first reduced the subsidy on fertilizer to disincentivize its use and aided the rejuvenation of natural springs and improved groundwater aquifers and rainwater harvesting systems. The water conservation efforts and the subsequent focus on farmer education and training in practices such as vermi-composting and non-pesticide pest management practices paid off.

While the exact Sikkim model is perhaps difficult to emulate in the same method in every one of India’s diverse agro-climatic zones, what can be taken away is the manner in which it was implemented with great thought and long-term planning, through farmer education on indigenous methods of pest control, multi/inter cropping, and return to traditional farming and water conservation practices. States like Punjab and Haryana, for instance, have such varying sizes of farmlands that it would be difficult to implement a uniform policy without gathering data and conducting extensive research and surveys, however, it cannot be written off as an impossible task.

Bhutan

Bhutan’s government announced an Organic Agriculture policy in 2008. Since then, chemical fertilizers and pesticides compliant with IFOAM regulations (rock-phosphate and mineral potassium not enriched by chemical processes) are being slowly phased out over 10-12 years, a task that is seemingly not as difficult seeing as the majority of Bhutanese agricultural land is, by default, already organic. Importantly, unlike Sikkim, Bhutan did not stress on organic certification except on export goods. Certification is expensive, to the tune of thousands of dollars, and is required to be renewed yearly. Bhutan choosing not to certify goods being produced for the domestic market which do not carry a price markup benefits the farmers by cutting the costs associated with organic farming.

Seeing as Bhutan is largely dependent on India for its rice, food self-sufficiency was not a very practical goal, and so far only certain regions of Bhutan were able to achieve fully organic status, since Bhutan’s commercial farmers are reluctant to give up chemical fertilizer for crops like mandarins, apples and potato. The reliance now is placed on research centres to discover (or re-discover) chemical-free methods to boost the yield for these crops. Bhutan’s organic goal was pushed from 2020 to 2035.
Much like Bhutan, Mexico and Cuba view sustainable agriculture as a solution to problems introduced to the country along with modernization. However, the organic sector faces many challenges, including a lack of supply-and-demand tussle and competitive markets, insufficient technical advancements, and an overall lack of awareness and farmer training.

The Need for Organic

Despite Bhutan’s struggles, it is important to incentivize and rally for a transition to organic farming in India in any sector and/or region possible, even if it must begin with crop-specific strategies. Fertilizers, pesticides and weedicides from the soil and water enter the food chain and infamously bio-magnify when they reach animal tissue, and a multitude of synthetic chemicals invented since the dawn of the industrial revolution have been clearly linked to various cancers and genetic disorders — as if the microplastics and heavy metals in our food, air, and water weren’t enough of a hazard, we are spraying toxins onto the food we consume and into our biome.

The benefits of organic farming need not be spelt out, and are common knowledge at this point. A biological approach to pest control and farming is holistic, and based on knowledge of the ecological niche of both the plant and the pest. Rachel Carson, the author of the revolutionary book Silent Spring that mounted an environmental movement against the use of synthetic pesticides, phrases it as making a choice between a “smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed toward self-destruction” and the road less travelled, one that “assures our preservation of the earth.” She called out the modern notion of man exercising control over nature as one “conceived in arrogance”, wherein it is assumed that nature only exists for the convenience of and economic enrichment of man.

Organic farming is first and foremost kind to the farmer himself. Limiting exposure to toxic poisons that cause skin conditions, respiratory issues, and cancers depending upon the length of exposure and the reduction of occupational hazard would be the first victory of this farming movement. Continuing down the path of dependence on more and more inorganic chemicals as more and more pests and weeds develop resistance is simply not a sustainable practice long-term.

A distinction needs to be drawn between farming centered around the production of organic products for the urban market and the true practice of traditional farming. “Organic” products for urban supermarkets are not necessarily produced using organic manure or traditional methods, and simply switching packaging and product from one form of consumerism to another in the form of a “trend” or a “fad” does not contribute to creating truly organic ecosystems.

Breaking the Monopolistic hold on Seeds and Varieties

The Big 4 corporations, dominated by Bayer and Corteva (the new company formed by the Dow–DuPont merger) along with ChemChina and BASF control over 60% of the world’s seeds and consequently constitute a monopoly on the world’s food supply. These companies that produce genetically modified seeds force buyers into contractual agreements that limit their freedom to propagate the plants and preserve seeds for the next season, and most countries allow patents on GM seeds. In India, Monsanto is a major player, with monopoly on 90% of the market’s Bt cotton seeds. However, there is hope of breaking the monopoly through organic farming. A 2016 article from Global Justice Now reported that “organic farmers are using a range of corporate-free seeds to diversify their crops so that every year they are free to save and swap these at little or no cost.” In 2017, there was a push to replace Monsanto’s Bt Cotton with indigenous varieties, a movement that was smeared as “Hindu nationalist”, following which an antitrust investigation was launched by the centre into Monsanto’s practices.

Patents and the marking of plant varieties as intellectual property is a massive threat to farmers and traditional farming practices worldwide. In India, where traditional farming often includes indigenous grain storage structures for the free exchange of seeds, for conservation and innovation amongst the farmer community, patents pose an even greater threat. The global lobby is unequivocal on this matter. The World Trade Organization mandates that its member countries introduce legislation protecting plant varieties and though no legal obligation is imposed, it recommends signing up for the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), whose terms limit the production, sale and exchange of seeds. 75 of the world’s countries are signatories, but India thankfully refrained from signing the UPOV as its farmers’ rights would suffer. As a result, international pressure led instead to the introduction of a legislation called the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 which aims to find a middle ground.

The monopolistic hold on the agricultural industry, whether through seeds or fertilizer keeps the prices for the farmer high while also offering little diversity in terms of the type and nature of the crop. Seeds are an exemplification of the potential to transform food production and the system itself, either through the breeding of pest- and disease-resistant crops or high yield varieties. Varieties that farmers have developed over generations remain vibrant and dynamic and continuously mutating and evolving. The introduction of Big Agro lobbies views on intellectual property into this already toxic system might be harmful to the smaller farmer that cannot claim the rights to a certain variety even if it is his own creation.

Critics of seed patenting make the argument that enforcing a uniform standard forces the adoption of the same industrial farming system that dominates the western world onto the global south where farm holdings are generally smaller in size and more sustainable to begin with. Seed patents decrease biodiversity and increase the farmers’ dependency on seed production companies and synthetic fertilizer to ensure yield — a form of agricultural neocolonialism — exemplified by incidents such as the one of PepsiCo suing a couple of Gujarati potato farmers in 2019. Either way, all of these methods deplete the nutrient composition of soil and eliminate diversity.

Encouraging Traditional farming and A Deeper Connection with the Land

India’s people have been rooted in agriculture since the Vedic period, and has been largely an agrarian economy since the time of the Indus valley civilisation. The region is abound with traditional farming practices that cater to the local climate and the regional biodiversity and produce. Ancient Indian cultivators had a wealth of knowledge of climatology, classification and selection of soil, plants and plant physiology, seasonable cultivation and crop rotation, protection of crops, treatments, and the use of seeds and various kinds of manures. Texts such as Bṛhatsaṃhitā, Agnipurāṇa, Vṛkṣāyurveda, Arthaśāstra, Kṛṣiparāsara, and Kṛṣisangraha contain advanced knowledge of crops, weather, rainfall, fertilizers, agricultural tools etc. Vṛikṣāyurveda lists a large number of plants used as remedies for crop protection. Indigenous botanical knowledge in agriculture with special emphasis on seed treatment, seed storage, pest control, horticulture, etc. can be traced to texts such as, Bṛihatsaṃhitā (5th century AD), Vṛikṣāyurveda of Lokopakāra (5th century AD) and Śārṅgadhara Saṃhitā (13th century AD).
Vedic texts and rituals are replete with references to farming as not only a traditional but a noble occupation and making offerings to Indra and Varuṇa for rain or a bountiful harvest. India celebrates a whole host of harvest festivals that sacralize the act of farming and embody gratitude for the life-giving force that is the mother earth. The cow, that occupies a central position in any agricultural unit, whose waste is an integral biofertilizer, is the most sacred of animals to our civilization, equated to a mother and epitomizing the role of a provider and a generous giver in our purāṇas. Since survival was reliant upon the condition of the land and the ecosystem, traditional farming relies on the harmonious management of land, air and water. Only when a deeper, more spiritual connection with land, livestock and ecology itself is revived and promoted can there be a natural shift towards sustainable agriculture.

Ancient Indian agriculture stressed the use of irrigational systems, rain water harvesting and water conservation, efficient waste management and green composting, cover cropping, the use of nitrogen fixing plants, polyculture, etc., apart from carrying an epistemic knowledge of specific farming techniques, pests, weather patterns, plant diseases and their fixes, breeding and selection of specific varieties, and more, handed down through the generations through family-owned farm lands. Inter-generational knowledge is accumulated over centuries of interactions with and the observation of nature and natural resources and is therefore practice-based. This knowledge is severely threatened by modern Indian agricultural policy that forces farmers to implement government-imposed guidelines (generally set by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, ICAR). Agricultural knowledge and international standards are in turn produced and set by monopolistic Western Big Agro companies.

Most of the time, traditional knowledge exhibited by ethnic communities is found to be rooted in science and experience; however, there are also religious practices and beliefs associated with traditional farming that must not be shunned by modern science as being” unscientific”. Indigenous peoples across Bhārat have a rich repository of beliefs, lore, rituals, and rites which may or may not be rationalized by the modern scientific mind, but hold precious culture and messaging that is carried on through the generations. The place and value of such beliefs must be emphasized and celebrated. Knowledge must be integrated with belief systems and not viewed in isolation — the beauty of the package can be viewed as equally important as the knowledge itself, and not solely for its commercial or capitalistic value. In effect, promotion of indigenous agricultural knowledge is also a form of cultural preservation.

Issues with Organic

Conventional farming is certainly more unpredictable and labor-intensive. Weeding needs to be done manually rather than spraying an instantly toxic chemical, those that Rachel Carson called “biocides” and “elixirs of death”, since they kill more than just the intended target. This involves hours and hours of extra work in the field, tilling and caring for the plants, and controlling their surroundings. With the youth preferring to move to cities in search of greener pastures, traditional techniques and practices of farm life are not passed on to them, and a concern for the loss of traditional knowledge mounts amidst the older generation.

The industrialisation and separation of animal husbandry/livestock rearing from agriculture means that animal manure is not available as the nitrogen-repleting organic material for the crops. Mechanization and the switch to fossil-fuel powered farm equipment has also antiquated the role of animals on farmlands.

Additionally, domestic produce such as vegetables does not fetch a particularly higher price on the market if organically produced, though more expensive to grow – and the economic incentive exists only for export goods that find their way onto international markets with competitive rates. This, along with the high cost of biofertilizer for farmers without the presence of cattle, can be impediments to a 100% conversion to organic. These issues are exacerbated by conventional economic paradigms measuring “growth” with parameters such as increased modernization, size, and productivity of farmlands with the least human input. Prioritizing organic farming need not mean the death of industry and the halting of all human progress or reversion to a state devoid of technology, scientific progress, medicine, modern agriculture, and sanitation. This idea of development, however profitable in the short-term, only creates increasingly devastating consequences in the long run — depletion of natural resources, soil erosion and degradation, destruction of microbiome, displacement of tribal and/or rural populations, and the marginalization of traditional farming communities and practices. It might even be too late to mitigate the massive negative impact of the green revolution on genetic diversity of crops in India.

Zero Budget Natural Farming

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a system of chemical-free agriculture that draws its methods from traditional Indian practices, developed by Padma Shri Subhash Palekar. The model recommends, apart from traditional farming practices such as minimal irrigation and ploughing, intercropping, etc., the application of jeevāmṛta, a bio-fertilizer that is constituted mainly of a microbial culture formed by the fermentation of a mixture of fresh and dried cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, flour and water; about 200 liters is applied per acre of land biweekly— a cycle that becomes self-sustaining in about three years . A similarly prepared neem-based substance called bijāmṛta is utilized for pest control.

The farmer may subsist on just one cow (of an indigenous breed) for upto thirty acres of land. Thus, this reduces their dependence on commercial agrochemical inputs, which are small farmers’ major expense, and their chances of sinking into debt.

A 2017 study from Andhra Pradesh has shown that this system greatly reduces input costs but decreases yield and returns, due to which many farmers end up reverting to conventional farming after a few years. In 2018, Andhra Pradesh announced its intent to practice 100% natural farming by 2024 and phase out chemical farming through farmer training in ZBNF methods, and has estimated costs of upto Rs. 17,000 crore over the next decade — a model that other states such as Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Uttarakhand also hope to implement.

ZBNF has generated much buzz, but the jury is still out on whether the model can be scaled up and implemented across the country. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has an eye on ZBNF methods currently being practiced by Basmati and wheat farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, etc. for evaluating changes in productivity and soil parameters.

The Way Forward

Howard Odum in his book Environment, Power, and Society noted that modern societies did not understand “the energetics involved and the various means by which the energies entering a complex system are fed back as subsidies indirectly into all parts of the network … industrial man no longer eats potatoes made from solar energy; now he eats potatoes partly made of oil.”

Multiple environmental impact assessment studies have been published finding higher-than-permissible levels of chemical fertilizer and pesticide in water bodies due to leaching and surface runoff from agricultural lands, but despite this, there seems to be no end in sight. With farming being so interlinked with food security, the shift to organic might seem a daunting task for policy-makers, and a gamble if the country is ill-equipped to handle fluctuations in agricultural output. Farmers in India depend on the season’s crop for sustenance, and would be unwilling to take risks — the shift therefore must be coaxed and attempted only after adequate education and training, along with compensation practices should the farmer face dire financial losses. The revival of local, time-tested agroecological practices is the way forward, perhaps even encouraging traditional knowledge and practices to be integrated with newer technology — for instance, drone sensors that identify crop disease and ensure a quick isolation to prevent spread. Though some view organic farming as insufficient to handle the food requirements of the growing population, the benefits of shifting away from conventional agriculture far outweigh the risks, if planned and executed effectively.

Global food production is currently higher than actual needs. According to the FAO, the world loses almost half of all root crops, fruits, and vegetables, about a third of all fish, 30 percent of cereals, and a fifth of all oilseeds, meat, and dairy products—or at least one-third of the overall food supply to food wastage. The longer the food supply chain, the more amenable to food losses it is. The goal going forward must not only be to shorten the time it takes to reach the consumer but also the number of hands it changes.

Another measure to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizer is to improve the efficiency of nitrogen uptake by plants – of the quantity applied to a field, only about a third is actually taken up by the plants and the rest is lost either to the atmosphere or to water bodies.

Vaclav Smil rightly observes that “the road to the modern world began with inexpensive steel plows and inorganic fertilizers” and much of our modern life would be impossible if we each had to stay and work on farms to produce our own food. While industrialized societies like Japan and the United States have seen the migration of farmers away from rural areas, India still has about 60% of its population employed in the agricultural sector — which may just be a boon in disguise if the intention is to transition these smaller land holdings to organic farming.

Given the increased monetizability of organic products worldwide, the time is ripe for the promotion of sustainable and holistic organic farming through national policy. Marketing organic farming as a get-rich-quick scheme to farmers is not ideal but creation of profits may incentivize a gradual transition, which in turn improves the chances of adoption by others. Farmer education is one of the cornerstones of the shift towards organic — only then can farmers make informed decisions about their work, that in turn affects the entire population, the environment, and the country as a whole. Policy change to this effect is the only natural next step, with researchers agreeing that Bhutan’s transition to organic was not the result of an ethics-based grassroots movement but a top-down imposition. India being a larger country, while policy certainly dictates the direction of movement, honest change must be at a state or even district level, tailored to the climate, water resources and other circumstances specific to the region. According to the World of Organic Agriculture Report 2018, India already has more than 30% of the world’s 2.7 million organic producers, however, India must analyze for itself what the best next step is, after investing in and commissioning more pan-India studies and collecting more data. Agricultural policy is currently focused on increasing agricultural productivity and income through the copious use of chemicals, preventing farmer suicides by providing subsidies on fertiliser and pesticides, and abating debt but largely ignores any steps that can be taken, however big or small, to gradually shift towards sustainability. However, as with any policy calling for change, the risks of decreasing food security and rising prices looms large for countries such as India that are dependent on their agricultural output for sustenance.

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Sai Priya Chodavarapu

Sai Priya is a doctor by training and currently a student of law. She often takes up freelance editing projects and is an independent researcher of Indian history, religion and contemporary issues. Her strengths lie at the intersection of law, policy and culture.

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