The Rajapaksa government declared a state of emergency in Sri Lanka earlier this month after its botched response to a brewing foreign exchange crisis resulting in food shortages cascaded. An army general was tasked with catching both grocery and currency owners. Like a Greek tragedy, we know how things will play out, but the well-wishers of the Sri Lankan people are powerless to stop the preventable suffering that lies ahead.
Currency ran out in the face of the economic downturn and looming debt servicing obligations. The Sri Lankan government introduced a series of import controls earlier this year. A ban on imports of cars, toiletries, blinds, toothbrush handles and turmeric is one thing; a total ban on fertilizers is quite another. Domestic production is vital for any food importing country facing a foreign exchange crisis. In the case of Sri Lanka, it’s even more important because it’s a major tea exporter. The fertilizer ban has left Sri Lanka short of both food and US dollars.
The folly of the Rajapaksa government is a warning to all of us. When the fertilization ban was announced, it was heralded as a progressive policy aimed at making Sri Lanka the first country in the world to rely entirely on organic farming. Appropriate references to a “green socio-economic model of sustainable solutions to climate change” were made. In a few months, however, reality caught up with rhetoric and a catastrophe ensued.
Here’s the point. All over the world – and India is no exception – organic farming has become a self-evident moral argument that cannot be questioned. As with all dietary preferences, individuals are free to attribute morals to what they consume, but public order must be justified by reason and empirical evidence. We can’t push people to go organic because we believe it’s a morally good thing. We have to enforce the political arguments for organic on a global, national and regional level.
There is no simple, universal case for organic farming: not even at the federal, state or district level. Whether or not organic farming is a “good thing” depends on the culture, soil, geography and economic context. Promoting organic farming in a unified policy will inevitably lead to the kind of disaster Sri Lanka is currently facing. It is much better to leave the cultivation and farming decisions to the farmers themselves. Government and civil society can spread awareness and market knowledge, but must avoid making arbitrary guidelines about how much of agriculture should be organic. Studies showing that “lack of awareness” is the single biggest factor stunting organic farming growth in India may well suggest that farmers are more aware of their profession than the people trying to promote it .
Ballpark estimates suggest that organic yields are 20-30% lower than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Subsidies seeping through an inefficient system of government cannot override this. For the good of the planet, would you accept a 30% pay cut if an encouraging government offered you some tax deductions? I am sure your hesitation is not due to a lack of awareness. For this reason, I think it would be unreasonable to ask a family with a monthly income of less than 10,000 yen (roughly the national average for farm households) to consider organic farming.
Nobody seems to have done the math with bio. I cannot imagine how the massively important task of doubling farmers’ incomes in the near future can be reconciled with the expansion of the organic cultivation area. To double incomes, we need massive increases in yields, massive reductions in the number of farmers, or both. In order to increase organic production and income, we need more arable land and fewer farmers. More arable land means less forests. Fewer farmers would need more off-farm jobs. How can anyone claim to know what that means for their carbon footprint?
The clear solution to India’s agricultural crisis for over 150 years is the creation of non-agricultural jobs. Far more than organic farming, it is industry that provides farmers with a ramp to achieve a better life and a better livelihood. Those who prefer to stay or venture into farming would then do it because it’s worth it. This is one of the reasons organic farming is making its way into the western economies and among the wealthier farmers of India. Organic farming is a luxury – for both the farmer and the consumer. Like any luxury, it should be left to those who wish.
None of this is to say that modern agriculture is flawless. Far from it: reckless abuse of pesticides, fertilizers and hormones has pretty dire effects on people and the environment. These need to be addressed through better public policies and technology. Let’s not forget that this modern agriculture has proven the opposite to everyone from Malthus to Ehrlich. The world needs better management of agriculture and food production, not a withdrawal from science.
The experiences in Sri Lanka will therefore be instructive. With complaints of acute fertilizer shortages mounting, the Rajapaksa government is currently giving farmers organic fertilizer in response.
(Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent center for research and education in public policy)
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