In April 2021, the Sri Lankan government announced its intention to ban the import of agrochemicals and a nation-wide transition to organic agriculture in order to guarantee citizens the right to ‘non-toxic food’. Mixed reactions greeted this announcement both within and outside of Sri Lanka. We have since seen several headlines labelling this step a failure. The government had intended to revise steps to go organic but not give up on their vision but now amidst increasing public frustration with the overall situation in Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister has resigned.

To better understand the recent developments, Gabor Figeczky, Senior Global Policy Manager at IFOAM – Organics International spoke to Thilak Kariyawasam of the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM), member of IFOAM – Organics International, to find out more about the original plan to go organic and dispel the widely peddled myth that the food crisis in Sri Lanka is linked to the vision for organic farming. Fact is the ban on chemical inputs was not in place long enough to have had any major impact on food security and attempts to link the two detract from the real problems Sri Lanka is facing.

Gábor Figeczky

Senior Global Policy Manager
IFOAM – Organics International

Thilak Kariyawasam

President, Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM)

Why do many, farmers and consumers alike, in Sri Lanka want to go organic?

The intention to go organic actually dates back to 2015, when then Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced his plans for a ‘toxin-free nation’ putting sustainable and people-centered practices over corporate profit. This decision was triggered by his own first-hand experiences of how chemical fertilisers had contaminated water wells and streams in rural communities and where cases of kidney disease were disproportionally high. Fast forward to 2021, the country found itself in a financial crisis, and needed to cut spending drastically. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a ban on the import of agrochemicals aiming to make savings of around $300 – $400 million. Beyond financial savings, he argued this move is needed because agrochemicals have not significantly increased agricultural production but have decreased soil fertility, yields and harmed biodiversity.

While the organic movement has been seeking more support for organic for a long-time it was also taken aback by this sudden announcement. It is clear that a more strategic plan is needed to ensure Sri Lankan farmers can wean their lands of chemical inputs and start growing food in a more sustainable way.

What is happening now and is it related to organic farming?

Sri Lanka is facing numerous issues at the moment including massive protests. It is important to note that the reasons for the crisis are far-reaching and complex. Our tourism sector suffered greatly during COVID, there is a severe shortage of cooking gas and record-high inflation, to name but a few. As a result of all these factors and the fact that Sri Lanka has always been importing food at large scale, there is now also a shortage of food. We cannot link this to the plan to go organic at all, particularly as it only lasted 7 months in its original form.  Sri Lanka was already in a crisis long before the announcement. However, it is worth looking at what exactly was originally intended.

The import and subsequent subsidization of chemical fertilisers has come at huge financial and also ecological cost to our country. At the same time, the country is experiencing a food crisis which did not come from the decision to go organic as, unfortunately, many lobbyists coming from chemical agriculture are trying to imply. Many farmers were led to believe that if they did not plant crops out of protest the government would eventually give in and start subsidizing chemical inputs again. At the same time, industry representatives were proclaiming that chemical fertilizers were needed particularly if large-scale corporate-owned plantations were to remain productive.

Following months of upheaval and lobbying, the Agricultural Secretary declared that it was easing agrochemical import restrictions and that chemical fertilisers, agrochemicals, and essential plant nutrients required for a large category of crops would, once again, be allowed. This was consequently followed by a complete withdrawal of the agrochemical import ban. The government then also decided that subsidies would be granted to purchase organic inputs, something we have been in favour of for many years, but not reintroduce subsidies for chemical fertilisers. Fertilisers are heavily subsidized in a lot of countries around the world, accounting for a significant proportion of the USD 700bn of total global agricultural subsidies spent by governments on a yearly basis. And, not to forget, contributing for a huge part to the CO2 emissions caused by agriculture. Now, without these state subsidies, chemical fertilizers are often too expensive for many farmers.

This is not unique to Sri Lanka. We see that prices are getting higher and higher for farmers everywhere!  The trend of increasing fertiliser prices is likely to continue particularly given that Russia used to be the world’s largest exporter of fertilisers; not only oil and gas prices for the production have gone up, also the import of chemical fertilizers is now restricted or banned in many countries.

What next steps are needed to support organic agriculture and a toxin-free Sri Lanka?

As a movement, we have been campaigning for years for farmer subsidies to purchase organic inputs and not just chemical fertilisers. We have seen the damage harmful inputs have done to our communities and farmland. Now with government support for organic in place, a lot of work is needed for our country to successfully go organic!

We are working on programs to ensure that farmers have access to the knowledge and skills they need to move forward, productively. We need technical advisors to guide this program over a realistic time frame. Overall, more resources need to be allocated to training, research and awareness raising on the benefits of organic. I hope that despite the current political turmoil, Sri Lanka can stay on the path of going organic. We already know that there is significant farmer support for this.

So, the food crisis in Sri Lanka was not caused by the government policy to go organic as a lot of headlines state. Do you think organic can help get out of it?

After the announcement on 100% organic Sri Lanka last year, we saw a lot of efforts to mobilize the farming community and stakeholders against it. This did not come as a surprise to us, it is not the first time we see misleading headlines on organic. A lot of pressure was placed on the government to reverse the decision and changes were made e.g. the ban was lifted but subsidies for chemical inputs were not reintroduced.  At the same time, we know that almost two-thirds of farmers support the transition to organic and feel the time frame for such transition needs to be realistic, hence extended. It was disheartening to see how many people jumped to the wrong conclusions without examining what has really happened over the past years. False parallels were drawn between the food crisis and the decision to go organic. The food crisis was fuelled by a financial crisis and dependence on importing food and chemical inputs which got more and more expensive. Going organic will help us to grow food in a more sustainable, affordable and healthy way and eventually reduce our dependence on imports.

What words of advice do you have for your own government and any other countries contemplating a large-scale transition to organic given increasing fertilizer prices worldwide?

Similar to many other countries, I assume, chemicals have been used in farming for many decades now. The results include dilapidated soils that need time to be nurtured back to health. We understand the government needed to act quickly for financial reasons. The organic movement is now working with the authorities on a plan that will allow not only for farmers to build up critical microbial life of their soils, but also to put all other necessary measures in place for a successful transition.

We recommend a step-by-step approach allowing sufficient time for the gradual reduction in the use of synthetic fertilizers including the continued subsidization of organic inputs as well as investing in the acquisition of the knowledge and skills needed to farm organically. In addition, it is important to form partnerships with the private sector particularly as increasing oil and natural gas prices will lead to increasing fertilizer prices and ultimately make food more expensive for everyone.

I urge other countries to learn from our experiences over the past years and not be deterred by them. It may look like Sri Lanka has given up on becoming a toxin-free nation but we have not.  Done right, Sri Lanka can go organic in the next decade which should bring the destruction caused by several decades of industrial farming.

How IFOAM – Organics International is supporting Sri Lanka.

  • We sent a letter of support to the President of Sri Lanka which was followed by workshops with the Minister of Agriculture and a group of international agriculture experts to look at what policies measures can help facilitate Sri Lanka going organic.
  • We are also advising the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement on how to give advice to the policy-makers tasked with the responsibility of navigating the next steps.
  • We will soon organize workshops on organic guarantee systems to facilitate the growth of the sector.
  • We also have a peer-to-peer platform where policy-makers from all over the world can share insight, concerns and solutions on a demand basis.