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For most folks, “Sri Lanka” is likely to evoke a number of thoughts: tropical paradise with swaying palms and cerulean waters; excellent “Ceylon” tea; incendiary cuisine. Political turmoil will also likely come to mind for news nerds, but the terms “economic collapse” and “organic farming” would not. But recent headlines introduce a new storyline. First: “How Sri Lanka’s overnight flip to total organic farming has led to an economic disaster.” Then: “Sri Lanka declares economic emergency to contain food prices as forex crisis worsens.”
While apocalyptic stories of calamity and crisis from the tropics are not at all unusual, they’re usually linked with typhoons, earthquakes, hurricanes, or military coups. But organic food? This is new.
Digging deeper quickly clarifies: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military man apparently unburdened by understanding of biology or agriculture, succumbed to the siren call of conspiracy theories from a well-known and persistent myth-monger from neighboring India, Vandana Shiva. Following her advice, Rajapaksa has banned imports of fertilizers and pesticides. His stated aim is to transform the agricultural economy of Sri Lanka into a purely organic enterprise in the expectation that consumers will be willing to pay a premium price for its exports. The realities of substantially reduced yields and limited markets seem not to have entered into his calculations, and actual stakeholders in the agricultural economy are warning of cataclysmic consequences, starting with halving the $1.5 billion export market for Sri Lankan tea.
The real motives for Rajapaksa’s decree seem to be a bit more complicated than simple conversion to the organic religion. It appears he bought into the propaganda peddled by Shiva, though a smidgeon of due diligence would have revealed how thoroughly unhinged from reality her worldview is. But the Sri Lankan economy is one of those battered by the pandemic gales of COVID-19, and it seems his measure was also aimed at mitigating a trade balance problem by conserving hard currency reserves laid waste by the impacts of the pandemic on the tourist industry, the biggest foreign exchange earner and central to the economy.
Regardless of Rajapaksa’s motives, the logic of his decree is flawed, and if not reversed will only deepen the misery of a population served by a battered economy and plagued by decades of bloody political unrest. Although the global organic food industry has seen explosive growth over the past few decades, this has been driven by a marketing campaign divorced from reality. Western urbanites have found seductive the organic claims of “no pesticides” and “safe food” and have been willing to pay price premia of 20-40 percent even though organic foods use pesticides, including some far more toxic than their synthetic counterparts, and the food is neither safer, tastier, more nutritious, nor better for the environment. But the most perniciously false claims of the organic marketers—that organic farming is somehow more “natural” and gentler on the land—deliver collateral damage that falls heaviest on farmers in developing countries like Sri Lanka, particularly those growing Sri Lanka’s major export crop, tea.
This highlights a fact often glossed over in mainstream media—the worst consequences of the green imperialism exported from well-fed industrial nations to less-developed countries fall hardest on those living closest to the edge. This pseudo-environmentalism actively campaigns to deny developing-world farmers access to the modern techniques farmers in the Americas have used to increase yields by 22 percent and profits by 68 percent over the past three decades while decreasing pesticide use by 37 percent. The cruelty of this cynical campaign increases when one realizes that unlike most of the green revolution advances—which relied heavily on economies of scale and capital intensive equipment, fertilizers and pesticides—crops improved through biotechnology are scale-neutral: Their adoption requires only the purchase of improved seed, which is as easily accomplished by small farmers as large, a fact confirmed by the data showing the vast majority of the world’s farmers growing biotech-improved crops are smallholders in the developing countries.
These comparative advantages to small farmers in adopting cutting-edge seed-improvement technologies promise to be accelerated by the advent of gene editing, a suite of powerful platform technologies rapidly being adapted to a range of innovative applications that was previously unimaginable.
The misfortune Mr. Rajapaksa is inflicting on his fellow Sri Lankans is exacerbated by the irony that he is driving them into a backward reliance on increasingly obsolete agricultural technologies while the rest of the world—even the historically Luddite European Union—is moving toward a more sustainable, productive, and adaptable future. But facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored (Aldous Huxley). It will be a sad but instructive exercise to see how long it takes for Sri Lanka to correct course.