Nov 22 (The Telegraph) – Sri Lanka has abandoned its attempt to become the world’s first entirely organic farming nation amid spiralling food prices and weeks of protest.
Colombo in May banned imports of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in a shock move hailed by environmentalists.
The government said it would make farming in the South Asian nation more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Speaking at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow this month, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa defended the policy, saying only “entrenched lobbies” were against a move that would create “opportunities for investment in organic agriculture.”
But Colombo reversed course amid furious protest from farmers who had been forced to abandon vast tracts of fertile soil.
“Many farmers have decided not to cultivate paddy fearing financial losses,” Namal Karunaratne of the All Ceylon Farmers Federation told Reuters.
Some said they were expecting far smaller crops come harvest-time. “Ideally, I should have sprayed the [chemical] fertilizer now, about 30-35 days after sowing. I haven’t been able to do that.” Ketheeswaran, a 37-year old farmer, told The Hindu. “I doubt if I will get even half the yield I got last time.”
Professor Buddhi Marambe, a former Dean of Agriculture Faculty at the University of Peradeniya, was sacked from his position as a government adviser after warning of serious food shortages in recent newspaper articles.
On Sunday, Colombo announced it would immediately lift the import ban on pesticides and other agricultural inputs.
“We will now allow chemical inputs that are urgently needed,” Udith Jayasinghe, agricultural ministry secretary, told local media.
“Considering the need to ensure food security, we have taken this decision,” he said.
A global pioneer
Sri Lanka was aiming to be a global pioneer by switching to a fully organic agricultural sector. The European Union is also aiming to transition to organic farming under the Farm to Fork strategy, but at a much slower pace. The policy calls for increasing the percentage of EU farmland under organic management from 8.1 per cent to 25 per cent by 2030.
Sri Lanka’s organic farming policy was introduced as the economy was still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. The country is suffering a severe economic crisis, with the opposition blaming Mr Rajapaksa’s government’s policies for dwindling foreign reserves, high food prices, and shortages of food, fuel and other essential goods.
The shortages have worsened in the past week, with rice, vegetables and other essential food items doubling in price. Supermarkets have been limiting the amount of rice they sell to each customer.
On Tuesday, the country’s main opposition political party, the United People’s Force, led a protest of thousands of people in Colombo against the deteriorating economic conditions as the parliament debated next year’s national budget.
Authorities had already lifted restrictions on imports of fertiliser for tea, the country’s main export earner, last month. Sunday’s total lifting came ahead of more planned farmer protests in the capital, Colombo, including a march on the national parliament by farmers’ organisations to demand imports of essential chemicals to protect their crops.
Thousands of farmers have taken to the streets in recent weeks. Protesters carried coffins with signs reading “the death of farming” and burnt effigies of the agriculture minister as they urged a resumption of chemical fertiliser imports.
Agriculture accounts for 7 per cent of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product, and nearly two thirds of the island nation’s 22 million people are dependent on the industry.
Mohideen Ismail, chairman of a farmers’ association in the major paddy-growing district of Ampara in Sri Lanka’s east, told Reuters earlier this month that farmers were not wholly against a switch to organic fertilisers.
“But they are worried it is happening too quickly, without inputs and proper awareness,” he said. “This policy should have been implemented across multiple seasons.”