By Fermin Adriano
Sri Lanka is experiencing a food and economic emergency. Just a decade ago, the country emerged victorious from the destructive and protracted war waged by the Tamil Tigers occupying the northeastern part of the country. After winning the battle against the internal insurgents, the Sri Lankan government started to rebuild its economy. Its march to recovery was successful until it was halted by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Already reeling from the adverse effects of Covid-19, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the costly mistake of banning the importation of all chemical fertilizers. He wanted to make his country the first in the world to be recognized as a hundred-percent producer of organic agriculture products. However, nature operates differently and the decision backfired.
Organic agriculture farms have lower productivity levels than those using chemical fertilizers. Thus, overall, Sri Lankan farm productivity declined at a time its people direly needed adequate food supply. Due to lower productivity, organic agricultural products are priced higher. Given the loss of jobs and incomes as a result of the pandemic, organic agriculture made it difficult for the Sri Lankan government to ensure adequate food supply.
During a light banter I had with a group of agricultural scientists at the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, Dr. Emil Javier, former UP president and current national scientist, reprimanded another colleague who advocates for a comprehensive adoption of organic agriculture in the country. Javier claimed that what they were doing was verging on foolishness and nowhere was it based on science. He cited that in palay (unmilled rice) production, one needs to bombard the plant with nitrogen when it is in the “panicle stage” to ensure that the grains developed robustly.
He then asked, “Where would you get that massive amount of organic fertilizer to provide the proper amount of fertilizer to the palay crop?” “So, you have to gather all the carabao, cow and horse’s dung or gather and process tons of rotting leaves to provide adequate nitrogen to millions of hectares of our palay farms?” he continued. Unsurprisingly, the agricultural scientist colleague of ours, who associates himself with the so-called “progressive groups” in the country, could not provide a satisfactory response.
The Sri Lankan government made matters worse by subsidizing the importation of organic fertilizer. This placed tremendous pressures on their foreign exchange reserves and led to the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee. The government tried to impose exchange controls to ensure access to badly needed foreign exchange to buy organic fertilizer, and eventually, in importing more food as the food supply situation tightened. Again, this led to the further depletion of their foreign exchange reserves, the depreciation of the Sri Lankan currency, and expectedly, higher inflation.
Eventually, the government had to call in the military to prevent hoarding, speculation by traders, and to ensure orderly rationing of food commodities. It had to resort to foreign borrowings to be able to access valuable foreign exchange as its reserves were already depleted. In such a bind, the Sri Lankan government will undoubtedly taste the bitter pill of the conditionalities that its creditors will impose. Definitely, one of these bitter pills will be the abandonment of the comprehensive organic agriculture program.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not an anti-organic agriculture advocate. The point that I am driving at, as in many issues in development, is that there is no absolute truth that one should peddle and prescribe as a panacea to the problems of a country, particularly a developing one. There is indeed a place for organic agriculture in the development of our agricultural sector. But its insertion must be made in a manner where its benefits considerably outweigh its costs.
Organically produced agricultural products serve a niche market. Those who can afford them and/or who are health conscious are the sure consumers of these products. The rest of the consuming public, particularly the poor, may not be able to afford them, except if they are tillers themselves who plant their farms or their backyards with organically grown crops. In fact, organic farming is best suited to small farms as it benefits from labor rendered free by the family members. Organic agriculture is a labor-intensive undertaking.
It is with a sense of realism that organic agriculture advocate and my friend Pablito Villegas, co-convenor of One Organic Movement, admitted that “immediate conversion from chemical to organic is not recommended due to the consequent loss in crop yields.” This is the kind of mindset that must imbue pro-organic agriculture groups so that they are anchored in reality while slowly building organic agriculture’s base and strength for greater acceptance and adoption by the farming community.
Lessons of Sri Lanka
The most valuable lesson that can be derived from the economic and food emergency situation in Sri Lanka is that agriculture is a science and successful agriculture follows sound economic principles. One cannot chart the direction of agriculture development based on gut feel, common sense, and worse, ideology. The result will be a disaster such as the one manifested by the Sri Lankan experience.
Agriculture development requires an understanding of the country’s agronomic strengths and which among the crops/products being cultivated in the country enjoy a comparative advantage. It demands a better understanding of the markets (both local and international) and the strength of institutions mandated to promote agricultural development. It needs a better appreciation of the behavior of agricultural producers to determine which among the array of incentives will move them to a certain desired change in direction. And more importantly, it seeks a leadership dedicated to promoting the rapid and sustained growth of the sector toward improving not only the overall welfare of farmers and fishers but the consumers who constitute the vast majority of the people in a country.
(Dr. Adriano served in several capacities of the government of the Philippines: Policy Adviser to the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process; Presidential Adviser on Regional Development; Presidential Adviser on Flagship Programs and Projects; Presidential Assistant for Mindanao; and two successive Department of Agriculture Secretaries; and Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary. He also served as a consultant for the World Bank for the past 10 years in Mindanao peace and development issues, the Community-Driven Development (CDD) employed in the government’s poverty reduction project, the Kalahi-CIDSS, and rural development issues. He also served as Team Leader of various studies assessing the situation in conflict areas in Mindanao and participated in the formulation of the Bank strategy on Mindanao peace and development approach, which led to the establishment of the multi-donor Mindanao Trust Fund.)