Sri Lanka is not in crisis due to organic farming, it’s avoiding one

K. P. Illiyas, OFAI President, India

A lot of the discourse surrounding Sri Lanka’s move to legislated organic farming, attempts to frame organic farming as inefficient and dangerous to the security of working people. The narrative, criticizing the government’s ceasing of fertilizer and pesticide imports, as a draconian and foolish move to limit access and tools, despite there being no available capital to purchase poisonous farming inputs that limit crop varieties, create health issues within communities, and greatly reduce biodiversity. However, like most abstract neoliberal positions that use platitudes like “opportunities”, “access”, and “innovation” to further validate the unequal distribution of services, privatization of natural commons and the coercive adoption of inefficient monocultures that actually threaten working farmers, the material conditions on the ground in Sri Lanka contradict every assumption and paint an optimistic picture of how food in the region can become free from foreign and corporate influence.

Covid was first reported in Sri Lanka in March 2020. As part of the lockdown restrictions by the Government, the tourism industry was completely stopped. It decided to cancel all flights coming from outside by March 17th. Due to the restrictions, exports of all goods from Sri Lanka stopped. This affected the industrial sector, as a whole. The Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) has been depreciating since March. Subsequently, the borrowing of foreign currency to buy essential commodities has increase.

Even before Covid’s arrival, Sri Lanka was in the grips of an economic crisis. China’s massive financial investment with the Sri Lankan government has posed major challenges. In addition, the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka has declined due to the Easter terror attack on April 21, 2019. About 250 people were killed in the attack. This has led to a decline in foreign currency inflows. This also contributed to the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee from Rs 162 in 2018 to Rs 178 by 2019. Covid’s arrival accelerated the current crisis! By May 2020, it has reached Rs 190! Tourism industry employs 30 lakh people and accounts for 5 per cent of the country’s GDP. Covid restrictions have completely paralyzed the tourism sector.

A telephone survey conducted by UNICEF and UNDP in May 2020 found that 31.6 percent of the population had lost their income altogether. 65% of the workers lost their daily wages. Similarly, a study by World Vision Srilanka found that 93 per cent of the population was affected by lockdown restrictions. About 44% of the population lost their jobs completely. For those who had a monthly income of Rs 24,400 (LKR), it was now reduced to Rs 6,800 (LKR) due to the restrictions. People were forced to buy and eat cheap nutrition-less food which started affecting their food security. 

Government intervention

The government has decided to provide direct financial assistance to those who have lost income and to resolve the crisis caused by Covid. In April 2020, Sri Lanka provided Rs 5,000 (LKR) to 5.4 million households. Financial assistance in the month of May was provided to 5.7 million families. The government spent 55 billion Sri Lankan rupees in this way. It reached 66 per cent of households. It also declared a moratorium on all loans. Tax payments were also kept on hold. As government spending increased and the revenue declined, the government debts kept on increasing.

Reasons to Switch to Organic Farming!

Switching to organic farming in Sri Lanka was not, as the media propagated, an overnight decision.

There are reasons behind this decision. Discussions and interventions in this regard have been going on in Sri Lanka for a long time. The financial crisis created by Covid accelerated this transition.

Farmers in the North Central Province, known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Sri Lanka since 1990 have noted widespread Chronic Kidney Diseases (CKD).  More people have died in Sri Lanka from this chronic kidney disease than have died in the twenty years of Civil War. About 20,000 people have died from the disease while 4,50,000 people were made chronically ill. There are 30,566 patients in the North Central Province alone – mostly in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts. The disease mainly affects people in the age group of 40-60 years.

Investigations then started to determine the source of the disease.

In 2009, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization launched a detailed study to determine the cause of the disease. For this the blood and urine samples of the patients were examined along with the soil and water in these areas. Areas with more patients were mapped. 

It took three years for the study report to be released. Finally, in June 2012, due to public pressure, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization announced that the toxins cadmium and arsenic were the cause of the disease. They said that it enters the body through food, but did not specify its source.

At the same time, some independent studies have found that cadmium and arsenic are derived from chemical fertilizers and pesticides (BBC News, Colombo, 13 December 2013). As the news began to spread, there were widespread consequences.

The chemical industry lobbies in Sri Lanka came out against this. The 26 agrochemical companies held a joint press conference and said it was a dubious study. They stated that they were prescribing chemicals in the dosage recommended by the WHO and FAO and that it would never cause any problems. They accused the research and report of being a hidden attempt to destroy the agricultural sector.

But the truth cannot be hidden for long. 

In 2015, Channa Jayasumana, a scientist at Rajarata University of Sri Lanka conducted a study to identify the cause and diagnose the Chronic Kidney Diseases. They found that along with the chemical pesticides, chemical fertilisers also play a major role in causing the chronic kidney diseases. (Phosphate fertilizer is a main source of arsenic in areas affected with chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in Sri Lanka, Channa Jayasumana et al)

As part of the study, 226 samples of fertilizers and 273 samples of pesticides were collected and sent to two university labs. The study found traces of arsenic in most agrochemicals obtained from farmers in the selected area. The highest (31 mg / kg) is found in phosphorus fertilizer – Triple Superphosphate (TSP).

Sri Lanka used to import one lakh tonnes of triple superphosphate containing ‘2100 kg’ of arsenic every year. This was reaching to the people mainly through the water and food.

Fearing the chemical industry lobby, the World Health Organization and the Sri Lankan Health Department did not say a word about it. At the same time, the chemical companies acknowledged that there may be heavy metals in the fertilizer but there was no evidence that it was the cause of the disease.

Voluntary organizations came out against the silence of the WHO and FAO. With that, in 2014 the government decided to restrict the use of some chemical pesticides. The government regulated 11 pesticides, including glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. The use of glyphosate was banned in the affected districts. 

‘International Expert Consultation on Chronic Kidney Disease of the Unknown etiology’ report was published by WHO in April 2016, which called for a reduction in the use of chemicals in agriculture.

Still, the WHO was not ready to mention the kind of chemical used in the fertilisers that caused the chronic kidney disease. They used the term ‘Unknown Etiology’. 

Fertilizer industry in Sri Lanka imports about 12,60,053 MT of fertilizers per year (Source – National Fertilizer Secretariat, Srilanka). Paddy cultivation alone uses 3,83,000 MT of fertilizers and 8,77,053 MT for other crops. The government spends 56 billion Sri Lankan rupees every year on fertilisers. Fertilizers are distributed to farmers at subsidized rates. The fertilizer subsidy, which started in 1962 as part of the Green Revolution, was stopped in the meantime but the government had to continue, due to the political pressure. Subsidies account for 2.24% of total government expenditure. This has always been a huge liability for the Treasury. In addition, crores of rupees have been spent on health due to kidney diseases. Active Kidney transplantation happens at the Dialysis centers. The government began to provide a small pension for patients who could not work. A kidney patient has to spend Rs 10,000 for a dialysis. One lakh Sri Lankan rupees for a kidney transplant. Government hospitals had to provide the necessary facilities as the common man could not afford it.

Sri Lanka is now trying to produce organic manure on its own. For this 35 large projects, involving 1300 entrepreneurs, have been launched in the North Central region. It aims to produce 3 lakh metric tonnes of Organic manure.

The current crisis

The current financial crisis in Sri Lanka is a continuation of the past and beyond. It is also part of the restrictions imposed by Covid. But not by organic farming!

For example, Sugar is one of the most important commodities in Sri Lanka today.

Sri Lanka needs 6, 65,733 metric tonnes of sugar every year. It produces only 4.5 per cent of the total sugar requirement in Sri Lanka. The remaining 95.5 per cent is imported sugar. Sugar is mainly imported from South American countries. It requires $ 38 billion in foreign currency.

If sugar is mainly imported, then why will the volume of sugar within the country will increase due to organic farming.  Even if sugarcane is cultivated in Sri Lanka, it will take at least 8-10 months to harvest. Fertilizers were banned only 5 months before. 

Now let’s talk about rice. Rice is cultivated in Sri Lanka on an area of 7,08,000 hectares. Rice is mostly used for domestic consumption. Very little rice needs to be imported as there are two seasons, dependent on two monsoons, ‘Maha’ – September to March and ‘Yala’ – May to August.

Those who advocate that organic farming reduces yields and makes rice more expensive should keep in mind that Rice needs to be processed and marketed after the August harvest. There is still time for that to happen. Then the old stock may be running now. Black market and hoarding are the main reasons for rising prices and unavailability. Due to the timely intervention of the government, the price of rice is now reducing.

When it comes to organic farming in Sri Lanka, it is widely believed that tea plantations are the most affected. Organic tea cultivation is not new to Sri Lanka. It has been producing organic tea since 1987. Currently, most Sri Lankan companies grow tea organically and export it to Europe, the United States and Australia at reasonable prices. Tea is cultivated in 4905.58 ha under biodynamic cultivation alone. This is 2.21 per cent of the total tea cultivation. Stassen Export Pvt Ltd 2019, one of the largest tea companies in Sri Lanka, announced in a press release that it has decided to expand organic Ceylon tea to more areas. This was due to the increase in export demand for organic tea.

Like Cuba in the 90s, Sri Lanka is trying to recover from the financial crisis.

The cause of this crisis is not organic farming as irresponsibly propagated by the media. 

Sri Lanka has been using chemical fertilisers and pesticides for so long thereby damaging their soil, water and health, but Sri Lanka did not become a rich country. However, they had to pay a high price for it. 

Meanwhile, Covid came and amplified the problems. It turned the economy upside down. Sri Lanka is switching to organic farming because it does not have the money to spend on chemicals fertilizers and additional national health costs exacerbated by chemical farming. 

The import of fertilizers was banned in April 2021. It’s too early to jump to any conclusions. As the proverb in Malayalam says, “If u heard that a Bull delivered a kid, don’t go running to take a rope to tie it!” The media in India should not try to blame organic farming for the crisis in Sri Lanka.