Overnight conversion to 'exclusively organic agriculture' in Sri Lanka: How not to promote green technology


In April 2021, the Sri Lankan government adopted overnight, a policy of exclusively organic agriculture (EOA). Import of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic pesticides was banned with immediate effect. This sent shockwaves across the Sri Lankan agriculture sector, which was heavily-dependent on imported agrochemicals to achieve economically-viable crop yields. After one year, following crop yield declines in the next two cropping seasons which led to substantial food imports, increased food prices, decreased food availability and widespread farmer protests, the EOA policy had to be abandoned. An analysis of the background that led to this controversial policy decision and its impacts will help draw lessons for the future, especially when implementing ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ technologies such as organic agriculture.

Sri Lanka article
Teaser Image Caption
Sri Lanka's "exclusively organic agriculture" (EOA) policy severely damaged the country's tea production, a major foreign exchange earner.

Background to the policy decision

The Sri Lankan President took this policy decision without prior consultation or preparation for its effective implementation. A few university academics, being hardcore promoters of organic agriculture and close associates of the President, had included in his election manifesto in 2019, a pledge to implement EOA in the next ten years. This tilt towards organic agriculture was a response to the growing perception among the Sri Lankan public that food from mainstream agriculture which uses inorganic fertilisers and synthetic pesticides was not safe. These food safety concerns were highlighted by a few influential personalities who had close links with the political hierarchy. A key personality was the President of the Government Medical Officers Association, a Paediatric Neurologist, who has been a long-standing promoter of EOA. His views which received wide media coverage and, crucially, acceptance by the President, included the notion that inorganic fertilisers were toxins and were the principal cause of the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology (CKDu), which had emerged in some parts of Sri Lanka, including some of its major rice-producing areas. He claimed an association between incidence of CKDu and use of inorganic fertilisers, which has not yet been confirmed in numerous research studies in Sri Lanka. Two other key personalities promoting this association was a politically-motivated Professor in Pharmacology, who recently became the Cabinet Minister of Health, and a controversial Buddhist monk, who carved a political path to become a Member of Parliament by promoting, among a few other issues, the notion of ‘toxin-free’ agriculture.

There was growing public concern about excessive use of synthetic pesticides, especially for vegetables and rice, leading to the perception that consumption of such contaminated food was a major cause of cancers and other health issues such as infertility. Consequently, irrespective of whether the above opinions and perceptions were supported by scientific evidence or not, organic agriculture was widely accepted by the general public as a system producing safer and healthier food without ‘polluting’ the environment. Therefore, an overwhelming majority of the general public did not raise any objection to the President’s announcement of immediate conversion to EOA.

The real reason for suddenly implementing EOA and banning the import of inorganic fertiliser could have been to save foreign exchange reserves, which had decreased substantially by impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourist industry and remittances from Sri Lankan workers overseas. The government was spending ca. 400 million US$ per annum for importing fertiliser, which was provided to the farmers at a 96% subsidized price. Therefore, EOA may have represented an option for a major economic saving via a greener technology, which is widely-regarded as a means of producing healthier food at lesser environmental cost.

It is notable that prior to the decision to adopt the EOA policy, there had been only limited agricultural research in Sri Lanka which had included scientifically-valid comparisons between the productivity of crops grown using practices of organic agriculture and the productivity of crops grown using non-organic, mainstream agricultural practices (i.e. use of synthetic agrochemicals at recommended rates and frequency). The only such long-term research study, which was on tea at the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka, had not shown a clear superiority for organic tea production. Except for a few isolated, piecemeal studies conducted over short periods, there had not been systematic research on other crops which compared the two production systems. However, there were a considerable number of practitioners of various organic crop management practices on different crops such as rice, tea, vegetables etc. at relatively-small scale (i.e. < 1 hectare), who claimed to be operating economically-viable, environmentally-friendly agro-enterprises. The voice of some of these practitioners among the advisors and supporters of the President may have influenced his decision to embark on the policy of EOA.   

Response of stakeholders to the policy of exclusively organic agriculture

A few university academics raised the biological and agronomic impossibility of achieving crop yield levels to fulfil the national food requirement via EOA. Notably, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which constitutes the largest community of agriculture experts in Sri Lanka, advised the government to proceed with organic agriculture in a phased manner in selected areas after careful analysis of a range of factors such as the inherent soil fertility, nutrient requirement of specific crops and the socio-economics of the farming community. This advice was echoed by a few retired senior agricultural scientists. However, the government, especially the President and his Ministers of Agriculture, did not heed this advice alleging that those who were against the EOA policy were paid agents of multinational fertiliser companies (conveniently termed the ‘fertiliser mafia’).

It should be noted that a majority of agriculture academics and almost all agricultural researchers, extension officers and officials of the government institutions in charge of agriculture remained silent without expressing an opinion on the EOA policy and its possible repercussions. The government officials and a section of the academics held that they were bound by administrative regulations which required them to abide by and implement official government policy. The ‘fear’ of losing their positions and perks also contributed to the reticence of the government officials despite not being convinced about the feasibility of the EOA policy.

The general public, who were optimistic about EOA, did not realize the difference between growing a few plants at home with minimum use of agrochemicals and large-scale crop production to feed a nation. This difference was echoed in the strongest possible terms by the farming community, including the politically-influential rice farmers, tea planters, both small- and large-scale, and growers of vegetables, cereal grains and pulses, through a series of protests, which have continued to this day, demanding adequate quantities of inorganic fertiliser even without the subsidy and key synthetic pesticides which did not have non-chemical alternatives for pest, disease and weed control of major crops.

From implementation to reversal within one year

Despite the initial optimism, it didn’t take long for the nationwide EOA campaign to unravel. The government promised to supply organic fertiliser free of charge, but soon realized that the available quantities were grossly-inadequate. State entities such as local authorities, the Department of Agriculture and the military were entrusted with producing organic fertiliser. These efforts did not go beyond producing a limited quantity of compost of variable quality and were constrained by the availability of organic raw material. A handful of companies hastily formed by those having close-links to government ministers were reportedly given large amounts of public funds to produce organic fertiliser. These companies who promised a range of new technologies, which had not been scientifically-proven and adequately-validated in the field, have not delivered so far.

The government tried to address the shortage of organic fertiliser by hastily ordering and/or importing different forms of organic fertiliser, spending considerable foreign exchange, which it was trying to save. These included seaweed organic fertiliser, liquid nano-nitrogen fertiliser and natural granular potassium chloride. None of these were able to provide adequately the nutrient requirement of crops and were rejected by the farmers. The government was not allowed to bring-in seaweed organic fertiliser to Sri Lanka because test samples were shown to contain the plant pathogenic bacterial genus Erwinia and the genus Bacillus which included potential animal and human pathogens. The liquid nano-nitrogen fertiliser, imported from India, did not have any impact on crops because of its very low nitrogen concentration. Various locally-produced liquid organic fertilisers failed to gain farmer acceptance due to their poor quality and efficacy. Potassium chloride remained unused as it was delivered at the beginning of the season where the need was for nitrogen, rather than potassium, fertiliser. There are credible allegations that politicians and businessman connected to the government violated established government procurement procedures and siphoned large sums of public money as commissions during these trade deals.

Since implementation of the EOA policy, the cost of inorganic fertiliser imported already has increased exponentially. Price of a 50-kg bag of Urea has risen from Sri Lankan Rupees (SLR) 6000.00 (ca. 30 US$) to SLR 50,000.00 (ca. 150 US$). At the current global market price and currency exchange rate, a 50-kg bag of Urea could be priced at ca. SLR 21,000.00 – 24,000.00 after taking into account the shipping, storing and transport costs as well. It is clear that reduced supply caused by the EOA policy has contributed significantly to the highly-inflated Urea prices in the local market.

Reduced availability and affordability of inorganic fertiliser led to widespread farmer protests across the entire country throughout the major cropping season (locally-called the maha season) from October, 2021 to March, 2022. These have continued during the current cropping season which started in April. Many farmer organizations refused to start the maha season, which brings two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s agricultural production, being reluctant to invest money, often borrowed, to embark on a cropping season that was bound to fail without an assured supply of inorganic fertiliser. In an effort to induce farmers to begin cultivation, the government promised that any yield losses would be compensated. As the season progressed, there were almost daily reports in the media of crops with stunted growth, yellowed leaves and subsequently poorly-formed cobs (in maize) and panicles with empty grains (in rice). Tea growers reported reduced weekly harvests of green leaf which were ‘leathery’ because of nutrient deficiencies.

Even though the government did not admit failure of its EOA policy, the likelihood of impending yield reductions in major crops, especially rice, compelled the government to make preparations to import rice. In November 2021, the President announced that the private sector would be allowed to import inorganic fertiliser, which could be sold to farmers without any subsidy. However, he re-iterated that government support would only be for what he called ‘green agriculture’ and that organic fertilisers would be provided to farmers free of charge. The change in terminology was notable here. What began as ‘organic agriculture’ had been changed subtly to ‘green agriculture’, which could be interpreted as a softening of the President’s stance. However, as recently as March, 2022, the President was telling his officials that the government intended to continue its policies of the so-called ‘green agriculture’ for the next season and beyond as well. He was of the view that any crop failures during the past two seasons were not due to any deficiency or weakness in the technology that he proposed, but due to the shortcomings of its implementation. However, following an almost sudden collapse of the economy in April, 2022 and social unrest across the entire societal fabric which led to mass public protests in the streets, the President in an address to the nation admitted that his EOA policy was a mistake. It is widely regarded in the Sri Lankan society that disruption of the country’s agriculture by the President’s sudden and apparently unilateral decision to embark on his policy of ‘100% organic agriculture overnight’ in April, 2021, at a time when the economy and the society was reeling from the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a major milestone in the series of events that led to the current economic and social turmoil in Sri Lanka.

Impacts of the policy of exclusively organic agriculture

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka’s food security has been put at risk by the EOA policy. The clearest proof comes from the statistic that during the last six months, Sri Lanka has imported 650,000 tons of rice, which amounts to about 27% of its annual rice requirement of 2.4 million tons (equivalent to 3.53 million tons of paddy). More imports are expected in the coming months as Sri Lanka has finished its buffer stock of 800,000 tons of paddy from previous seasons. While the official crop forecasts of the Department of Agriculture estimated the paddy yield reduction at 10-30% depending on different districts, unofficial figures based on surveys of crop cuts estimate the nationwide paddy (unprocessed rice grain) yield reduction to be in the range of 40-45%. In terms of paddy, a 30% yield reduction represents a reduction in national production from the expected 3.30 million tons to 2.31 million tons while a 45% reduction reduces it further to 1.815 million tons. This will produce only 1.23 million tons of milled rice at a milling ratio of 68%. This is well-short of the targeted production of 1.58 million tons from the maha season, which is expected to produce two-thirds of the annual rice requirement. This reduction in rice production in the major cropping season translates into a reduction in the number of months that an average Sri Lankan can be fed with locally-produced rice from 11.18 to 7.78.

Magnitude of this production decline in the staple food of Sri Lanka should be considered within the context that since 2008 until 2021, annual national rice production had exceeded its requirement in all years except two, which were affected by droughts. The production of maize, the second-ranked annual crop in terms of cultivated extent, is expected to decline from 0.44 million tons in the maha season of 2020/21 to 0.21 million tons in 2021/22. This reduction in total production is due to a 29% reduction in the cultivated extent and an expected 30% reduction in yield per unit land area, both of which have the reduced availability of fertiliser and pesticides as a major causative factor. Reduced maize production, 80% of which goes for production of animal feed, has had a significant adverse impact on the poultry industry and the production of eggs and meat, the two main sources of animal-based protein foods for a large majority of Sri Lankans. Yield reductions of similar or greater magnitude have been reported in almost all crops.

Reduced food production has caused escalations in their market prices. The Colombo Consumer Price Index (CCPI), the principal indicator of the cost of living and inflation in Sri Lanka, increased from 139.1 in February 2021 to 160.1 in February 2022, which represents a 15.1% increase. During the same period, the CCPI for essential food items increased from 157.7 to 198.2, thus showing a 25.7%, which is proportionately higher than the corresponding increase in the overall index. Retail prices of almost all essential food items have increased, with increases of 43% for rice, 19% for locally-produced pulses, 38% for vegetables, 10% for eggs and 45% for chicken.

The adverse impact of the EOA policy on tea and rubber crops, whose products are major foreign exchange earners, are of the same order of magnitude as those on seasonal annual crops. The tea crop, which annually earns 1.2-1.4 billion US$ via exports, is expected to suffer a 40% yield loss in 2022. The export earnings during the first three months of 2022 have dropped by 52 million US$ in comparison to the same period of 2021. The rubber crop is in danger of being wiped out extensively by a leaf disease caused by a complex of fungi, which requires synthetic fungicides for minimizing damage to leaves and inorganic fertilisers for growth of new leaves.

Ripple effects of the EOA policy on the whole value chain of agricultural production, processing, transport and marketing have been wide-ranging and substantial. Loss of employment and livelihoods, increased indebtedness among the farming community, decreased revenue of the large-scale agro-enterprises and closure of small-scale agro-enterprises are some of the key adverse knock-on effects. On the other hand, enterprises which produce a variety of organic fertiliser and organic pesticides received a boost by the suddenly increased demand for their products. None of these industries had the capacity to fulfil the increased demand on a nationwide scale. The increased demand for organic soil amendments such as compost and animal manure led to substantial increases of their market prices. The considerable shortfall in the production of organic fertiliser to fulfill the demand for them coupled with the absence of regulatory and quality control mechanisms led to a variety of substandard and ineffective products, which eroded any vestiges of confidence that the farmers had on organic agriculture. It is notable that the absence of inorganic fertilisers affected farmers differentially as some farmers had stocks of fertiliser saved or hoarded from the season prior to imposition of the ban. In particular, government farms and farms belonging or linked to government politicians and officials had large stocks of fertiliser. For example, during the recent civil unrest, people who entered and searched a farm belonging to a Provincial Governor, whose son also was the State Minister of Plantations, found 400 50-kg bags of Urea hoarded and kept in the stores. The ban on registered synthetic pesticides of superior grade and lower toxicity led to smuggled sub-standard alternatives of inferior grade and greater toxicity being available in the black market at exorbitantly higher prices. Thus, a policy that was designed to ensure food safety has in fact endangered it while significantly decreasing food availability and affordability.

Lessons learnt from the failed attempt to implement exclusively organic agriculture in Sri Lanka

The failed attempt to implement EOA overnight in Sri Lanka serves important lessons on how not to implement green technology such as organic agriculture on a national scale. It is important to understand that the EOA policy represented an overnight up-scaling, across the entire agriculture sector, of a technology that had hitherto been practiced successfully and profitably on a limited scale in selected locations on selected crops. Such immediate up-scaling without any prior planning and preparation of the stakeholders was bound to fail. Sri Lanka’s experience clearly brought out the lesson that replacement of an existing agro-technology with a greener technology needs to be done in a phased manner with careful planning to minimize its economic and social costs and after putting the required infrastructure in place.

A major attraction of the President’s EOA policy at its inception was the view that organic agriculture is a technology that is practiced in many parts of the world to produce safer food at a lower cost to the environment while fetching a higher price for the grower. This perception failed to factor-in the scale-dependence, location-specificity and crop-specificity of organic agriculture. A chastening lesson learnt a year later has been that successful implementation of new and greener agricultural technologies on smaller scale at selected locations does not guarantee widespread, large-scale success. This also means that widespread favourable public opinion on greener agro-technologies does not guarantee their successful implementation at national scale.

Perhaps, a deeper lesson, especially for the policy makers and politicians is the need to introduce policies which are based on sound principles of the relevant scientific disciplines. The harsh lesson learnt by not only the policy makers, who ignored the advice of scientists, and but also the general public, is that policies based on mere perceptions which are not supported by valid scientifically-proven evidence and taken on the advice of a few without a widespread consultative process, are bound to backfire and fail.

The story of this failed policy also illustrates the fundamental weakness of the governance model and political culture in Sri Lanka. An irrational decision by an all-powerful Head of State was not questioned prior to its implementation by the rest of the political hierarchy and the mandated government officials. Even when the implementation process showed clear evidence of the policy’s shortcomings and met with stiff resistance from the stakeholders, the Head of State was not prepared to make the required adjustments and course corrections. Neither the rest of the politicians nor the government officials made strong enough representations to steer the President towards course corrections until the President himself reversed his original decision. However, this happened only after incurring a substantial economic and social cost and setting the Sri Lankan agriculture sector back by several years. This brings into serious question the democratic space available in Sri Lanka during formulation and implementation of key national policies.

The President of Sri Lanka is currently facing a month-long continuous non-violent protest outside his secretariat at Galle Face Green, Colombo where Sri Lankans from all walks of life and social strata, including a large majority of the politically-influential religious leaders, intelligentsia, trade unionists and artistes and leading businesses, are demanding his immediate resignation. It is widely-acknowledged that the initial steps of this call were taken several months ago in the far-away paddy fields and tea plantations in rural Sri Lanka by its farming community, whose livelihoods have borne the brunt of this misguided misadventure.