The changeover to organic farming must be phased and implemented over a longer period of time to ease the pressure on food security
Across the world organic farming isconsidered as the gold standard in preventing up to 500 million pounds of chemicals and pesticides from entering the environment thereby enriching biodiversity and preserving delicate ecologies.The absence of chemical fertilisers in crop production is not only good for nature and soil but for human health also as many types of auto-immune diseases and cancers have been attributed to indigestion of pesticides and chemicals used in food production.But in spite of its undeniable benefits for the environment, organic farming is also a severely debated concept due toits inherent drawbacks which if ignored have the capacity to bring a nation's economy and food security to its knees. Sri Lanka has been the unfortunate nation to experience thepainful ill-effects of adopting organic farming in a hurry.
The trouble in the tropical paradise has been brewing for a while now. The delicate balancing act by Sri Lankain its ties with India and China for economic benefits eventually did not pan out as a successful strategy. According to the Sri Lankan Central Bank, the economy has contracted by 1.5 per cent in July-September 2021, these adverse conditions are mainly due to heavy borrowings which require the island state to pay nearly pay $12.5 billion on international sovereign bonds. This cash crunch has meant that Sri Lanka has severe inflationary conditions and ongoing energy and food crisis leading to violent unrest in the population requiring authorities to announcecurfew in order to rein in the protests. This sudden clamp down by the government has raised human rights issues with the United Nations stepping in and advising the Sri Lankan government to observe the sanctity of human rights of its people.
Food would have not been in the list of shortage items for Sri Lanka had the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not announced a rapid transition to organic farming by abruptly stopping import of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals in April 2021. In just one year, the state of agriculture productivity totally devoid of any fertiliser and pesticide fell into ruins as farmers were unprepared for the sudden shift to organic farming. The government realising the folly revoked the fertiliser ban in November 2021, but by then the damage had already been done as food security of the nation had totally broken down due to a third of Sri Lanka's agricultural land remaining unused due to lack of timely availability of fertilisers. This led to a rice production falling by a whopping 20 per cent. The sudden shift to organic farming sent shock waves through the food sector of Sri Lanka, but this could have been avoided.
The key to a successful transition from conventional agriculture to organic farming is recognising the fact that organic farming is synonymous with low yield. On an average organic farming yields are 20 per cent lower than conventional farming, these conditions are made worse by the shortage of organic fertilisers. According to estimates, Sri Lanka's paddy, tea and rubber production are dependent on chemical inputs in a range of 90-94 per cent. In comparison, the country can only produce only 2-3 million tonnes of bio-fertilisers whereas the requirement is at least thrice more.So, the changeover from conventional to organic farming must be phased and implemented over a longer period of timeto ease the pressure on food security and ensure a healthy crop yield that is environmentally friendly as well.
In India too, the fad of organic farming has rapidly gained popularity, but thanks to a cross spectrum of environmental expertsaffording a balanced view on the subject has ensured a much-needed sceptical view of the concept. This is essential in maintaining rationality while pursuing the implementation of the same. This rationality helps differentiate between hype and reality. For instance, Sikkim which earned the tag of 100 per cent Organic State, also happens to be heavily dependent on neighbouring West Bengal for a majority of its food security. This reality check has helped Kerala state, which was itself planning to go "100 per cent organic", slow down and take a more measured and slow approach to adoption of organic farming.
Organic farming can do more harm than good if implemented in a hurry without preparing the infrastructure and the farmer mindset and most importantly ensuring that food security is not adversely compromised due to its adoption. The Sri Lankan crisis is a painful lesson in this regard, which no nation should undergo ever.
(The writer is an environmental journalist. The views expressed are personal.)