Sri Lanka Goes Organic
On April 29 this year, Sri Lanka banned the import agrochemicals including fertilizers. This ban effectively mandated an immediate transition to organic farming.
It has not gone well. Farmers are predicting a 50% drop in crop yields, and food prices have soared. The army is "seizing food supplies from traders and supplying them to consumers at fair prices". Last week, the government declared an economic emergency.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island nation the size of West Virginia situated near the southern tip of India. It is well known for producing tea. British colonists started cultivating tea there in the 1860s after a leaf disease killed the coffee industry.
Sri Lanka is the fourth-largest tea producer in the world behind China, India, and Kenya. Unlike the top three nations, Sri Lanka's tea production has increased little since 1960.
Rice uses more land than any other crop in Sri Lanka. Together, rice and coconuts make up almost two thirds of harvested cropland. Tea comprises 9% of land in crops. The fertilizer ban likely will have its largest effect through rice.
Sri Lanka is a net importer of rice. In 1960, the country imported almost as much rice as it produced, but by 2000 it was close to self sufficient. In 2016 and 2017, drought reduced domestic rice production, which led to an increase in imports.
Three of Sri Lanka's major crops are exported heavily: tea, rubber, and peppers. The other major crops are mostly consumed domestically. Over 90% of tea production is exported, which explains why the country is known for its tea.
FAO data show low tea exports in the early 1990s, 2006-07, and 2018-19. The Tea Exporters Association of Sri Lanka reports similar export numbers to FAO in 2017 and it shows no drop in exports in the following two years. It is possible that there are errors in the FAO data.
A quarter of Sri Lanka's population is involved in agriculture or connected industries. Although tea is the country's most important export crop, rice production dominates domestic agricultural resources. About 70% of rice paddy holdings are less than 2 acres, so a lot of small farmers are trying to navigate life without chemical fertilizers. This survey estimates that only 20% of farmers had adequate knowledge on how to use organic fertilizers.
Even knowledgeable farmers produce much less using organic methods than those who use chemical fertilizers. In the United States, organic corn and soybean fields produce 70% as much per acre as conventional. For cotton and lettuce, the yield loss is even larger. The reported 50% potential drop in Sri Lankan crop yields this year is not far fetched.
Chemical fertilizers cause substantive environmental damage, especially when they pollute waterways (a topic for a future article). This is an important issue. However, banning these fertilizers is only a solution if we want much higher food prices or to convert millions of new acres to agriculture, which would bring its own environmental problems.
Lunch is not free, no matter how it is fertilized.
I made the figures in this article using this R code.