An obsession with organic farming ‘in sync with nature’ triggered an unsustainable but predictable economic crisis
Sri Lanka’s collapse, from one of the fastest growing Asian economies to a political, economic and humanitarian horror show, seems to have taken everybody by surprise.
Five years ago, the World Bank was extolling “how Sri Lanka intends to transition to a more competitive and inclusive upper-middle income country”. Right up to the middle of last year, despite the impact of the pandemic, the country’s misery index (inflation plus unemployment) was low and falling. Then the misery index took off like a rocket, quintupling in a year.
What happened? There is a simple explanation, one that the BBC seems determined to downplay. In April 2021, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that Sri Lanka was banning most pesticides and all synthetic fertiliser to go fully organic. Within months, the volume of tea exports had halved, cutting foreign exchange earnings. Rice yields plummeted leading to an unprecedented requirement to import rice. With the government unable to service its debt, the currency collapsed.
Speciality crop yields like cinnamon and cardamom tanked. Staple foods became infested with pests leading to widespread hunger. As Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute put it in March: “The farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing and sheer shortsightedness that produced the crisis in Sri Lanka implicates both the country’s political leadership and advocates of so-called sustainable agriculture.”
The government promised more manure, but it would take at least five times as much manure as the country produces to replace the “synthetic” nitrogen fixed from the air, and there’s not enough livestock or land to produce that much. In Glasgow for the climate summit last year, Sri Lanka’s president was still boasting that his agricultural policy was “in sync with nature”.
At the time, his organic decision was widely praised by environmentalists. Sri Lanka scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment.
Vandana Shiva, a feted environmentalist, said: “This decision will definitely help farmers become more prosperous.” She has been silent recently. Dr Shiva has led relentless criticism of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which brought fertiliser and new crop varieties to south Asia, banishing famine for the first time in history even as population increased. Her (and others’) claims that traditional, organic farming could feed the world more healthily remain wildly popular among environmentalists. Sri Lanka has tested that proposition and found it wanting.
As the agricultural scientist Prof Channa Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama once told me: “Sure, organic agriculture is sustainable: it sustains poverty and malnutrition.” Farming was organic when millions died in famines every decade and the US prairies turned into dustbowls for lack of fertiliser to hold the soil during droughts.
But if you watch or listen to the BBC, you will hear little of this. On its website, under the headline “Sri Lanka: Why is the country in an economic crisis?”, you have to read right to the end to find a grudging admission that “When Sri Lanka’s foreign currency shortages became a serious problem in early 2021, the government tried to limit them by banning imports of chemical fertiliser. It told farmers to use locally sourced organic fertilisers instead. This led to widespread crop failure.” The Indian commentator Shakhar Gupta calls Sri Lanka’s organic conversion an episode of “mega stupidity” on a par with Mao Tse-tung’s order to persecute sparrows.
In the Netherlands, too, farmer protests are mainly about a policy of reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser. In this country, organic farming gets publicity far out of proportion to its actual contribution: about 3 per cent of Britain’s farmland is organic.
If the world abandoned nitrogen fertiliser that was fixed in factories, the impact on human living standards would be catastrophic, but so would the impact on nature. Given that about half the nitrogen atoms in the average person’s body were fixed in an ammonia factory rather than a plant, to feed eight billion people with organic methods we would need to put more than twice as much land under the plough and the cow. That would consign most of the world’s wetlands, nature reserves and forests to oblivion.
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Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.
A country can score highly on any index it likes but when it comes to food in your belly thats when civil unrest occurs.
Like Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand are all on the same path to getting out index achievement award too.
Bang on point. Will the environmental warriors ala Dr Shiva, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and others be held to account for there positively dangerous opinions. I doubt it.
The environmentalists want to banish Oil, Gas, Nuclear energy, Fertilizers and a whole host of other practical inventions that have literally driven hunger and poverty to the lowest levels ever seen in history.
The media never mention this nor do the politicians whom support and promote these nutbags.
Just look at our own Dunderhead in Chief, Ardern banning Oil and Gas in NZ. Totally ignorant of how stuff works.
We are all going to get a lesson in misery in the next 6-12 months.
BASF have had to drastically reduce the ammonia production from its fertilizer plant's in Germany due to the gas supply shortage.
No Ammonia fertilizer = famine on a mass scale.
For the non engineering types reading this. Natural Gas is the feedstock for Ammonia fertilizer. No Gas, no Ammonia, no fertilizer, no food!!
The green policies of many Western governments are totally to blame for what's to come. And shame on them all.
"Sri Lanka scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment."
I wonder how those investments are working out?
The ESG is pushed by idiots like Mark Carney (ex Bank of England Governor!!!!) who has no clue how things work in the real world. He'd get on great with that other dick Adrian Orr. In fact Grant Robertson could join them for The Three Stooges reunion tour.
You feel for the people of Sri Lanka. That they were ruled by preening narcissists who cared more about being fawned over at COP conferences than they did about ensuring the well-being of their own citizens.
Oh no. That applies to us too!
This period in history is going to be remembered for the greatest collection of incompetents running the World all at the same time.
We must start the conversation about "making less people" or our civilisation is ultimately doomed. Over population of the world is on the horizion.
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