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Megan Batchelor: Lessons from Sri Lanka

Megan Batchelor (Climate Programme Intern at CEN)

The media attention on Sri Lanka’s recent socio-economic collapse has seen the island’s breakdown blamed on its pursuit of ‘green policies’. Of these, most prominent is its now-deposed President’s imposition of an impractical organic transition on the island’s farming sector at the speed of light. Current portrayals that blame Sri Lanka’s gradual disintegration into chaos on ‘green dogma’ alone pointedly miss the most important lessons we can learn from it.

Blaming Sri Lanka’s breakdown on ‘green policy’ writ large treats all green policy as a homogenous blob. It also ignores the reality that there are practical green solutions as well as impractical ones. This is the case with every other type of policy, from tax to education. The President’s 2019 manifesto commitment to mandate organic farming within 10 years is a prime example of impracticality.

The policy goal itself was doomed from inception. Switching to organic farming wholesale, as Sri Lanka attempted, runs roughshod over food security concerns. Agrochemicals currently enable reliable, high-yield food production. Abandoning them entirely poses a serious threat to a nation’s ability to eat without the skills and time to transition to organic and green manures, a truth grimly reflected in the 30% hit to Sri Lanka’s rice yields that normally comprise the backbone of the population’s diet.

The impracticality of Sri Lanka’s sudden switch to organic farming was iterated in its rollout. Nothing about teaching the country’s 2 million farmers to adjust was included in the President’s manifesto. No attempt was made to rectify this before the sudden ban on the usage of agrochemicals in 2021. At the time only 23% of farmers knew about organic alternatives, and only 20% knew how to use them properly.

There is little evidence that adequate plans were made to increase Sri Lanka’s organic fertiliser production to anywhere near the levels required to compensate for the outright cessation of agrochemicals. Neither was there a sufficient plan to import any, suggesting that the policy was less geared towards organic farming than bolstering the country’s debt position and foreign currency reserves; these had been severely impacted after the pandemic kneecapped Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.

A more sensible approach is to reduce agrochemicals like synthetic fertilisers and pesticides gradually while improving soil fertility and boosting the population of wildlife that predates on crop pests. There is good progress being made on this in the UK, where a transition to lower-input regenerative farming is underway to reduce - not eliminate - chemicals in agriculture over time. Encouraging biodiversity and soil improvement reduces pesticide use and reliance on expensive imported fertilisers by boosting fertility, mitigating longer-term environmental threats and promoting natural pest management in a way that legacy EU land subsidies do not.

There is a compelling case for better global agricultural practices like organic farming. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides can leach into rivers, threaten soil quality, and are becoming increasingly expensive due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, this cautionary tale reinforces how imperative it is that any implementation of organic farming strikes a delicate balance with food security. Proper consideration must be given to formulation, planning and rollout of any policy, whether it is ‘green’ or not. Given the fundamentality and scale of Sri Lanka’s failure to do either, its breakdown serves as a warning to the West not of ‘green dogma’, but the dangers of inadequate policy design and implementation.


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