Does Organic Ag Tank Sri Lanka?

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If this agricultural breakdown had been Sri Lanka’s only problem, the economy might have survived. But he was already stumbling. His foundation, tourism, had faded following the 2019 bombings that killed 269 people, including 45 foreign tourists, and was wiped out by the pandemic. This year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought more misfortunes, making imported fuel and food scarce and expensive.

Today, critics cite Sri Lanka as proof that organic farming is a bad idea. A Wall Street Journal editorial puts organic farming at the center of the nation’s problems:

“In an uprising that has its roots in Mr Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming across the country – which led to widespread famine after the collapse of the agricultural economy – the people of Sri- Lankans provoked the first national anti-biological uprising in history. (https://www.wsj.com/…)

I’m not in love with organic farming but I don’t see how what happened in Sri Lanka is a fair test. Organic yields are often lower than conventional yields, but the blow would have been much less severe if the change had been made over time, with provisions for organic fertilizers and pesticides and farmer education.

Yet switching the whole country to organic seems like an unnecessarily absolutist policy, whether immediately or over 10 years. Yes, organic farming has its advantages, but it also has its disadvantages. Why should every farm be organic?

It’s this all-or-nothing mindset that makes the debate between organic and conventional so fruitless. In fact, the pro-biological position is inherently all or nothing. Believing that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides harm the environment, organic farming eliminates them altogether. It seems logical, but it ignores a reality and a real possibility.

The reality is that conventional agriculture produces food in abundance, providing yields on many crops that organic farming has yet to match. In a world with 8 billion mouths to feed now and 10 billion by mid-century, this is not a benefit to be sneered at.

The real possibility is that the environmental damage caused by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can be reduced to next to nothing by things like precision farming, no-till, cover crops and buffer strips. Conventional farmers have a financial incentive to minimize input use, and governments are often willing to pay them to protect the environment.

The ideal future farming system would produce more food on the same amount of land currently planted while using less water and fewer inputs. Organic agriculture ranks very well on some of these criteria, but at current productivity levels it cannot feed the world without cutting down more rainforests and draining more wetlands. Conventional agriculture is productive but still has a lot of work to do to reduce inputs.

There will surely be disputes on all these points. The best way to solve them is to put both organic and conventional farming to the test. Can organic farming become more productive? Can the environmental impact of conventional agriculture be reduced?

Instead of issuing all-or-nothing mandates, the President of Sri Lanka and other national leaders should encourage both forms of agriculture to improve.

Urban Lehner can be contacted at [email protected]

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