Sri Lanka: A Train Wreck of Organic Good Intentions
I would guess that the small country of Sri Lanka rarely intrudes on your consciousness. However, this island nation has been making headlines this week for all the wrong reasons.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of an economic implosion. They're facing massive inflation brought on by excessive national debt. Current estimates place the inflation rate at above 50% for the year the experts think it could reach as high as 70%! Compounding the money problems is a lack of fuel and food. The country is facing rolling blackouts, gas shortages and now, food shortages. This all culminated this week with widespread, desperate riots that forced the president to flee as protestors stormed his residence and demanded his immediate resignation.
What caused all this? And what can it possibly have to do with American agriculture? Glad you asked. As recently as 2018, Sri Lanka was viewed as one of the jewels of the southeast Asia, an up-and-coming economic force in the region on the brink of great prosperity. While there are always many variables in play when something like this happens, it was an ill-fated agricultural policy that pushed Sri Lanka over the edge of the economic cliff.
In the spring of 2021, the Sri Lankan president made good on a campaign promise to move the country into "green" agriculture. The president imposed a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and ordered the country’s 2 million farmers to go organic. The results were predictable and brutal. Sri Lanka has long been able to support itself through a combination of domestic rice production and by exporting tea as its primary cash crop. The bans on synthetic inputs devastated both industries. Production plummeted, and within a few short months Sri Lanka stopped exporting rice and was forced to import $450 million dollars' worth of this dietary staple to feed its people. Meanwhile, the tea production crumbled, causing a huge pendulum swing in the agriculture sector. Sri Lankan farmers went from being a profitable national asset to an expensive liability almost overnight.
So you might be asking, "Why are you bringing this up? I thought you guys were fans of organic agriculture!" Well, we are, but we're bigger fans of people not starving to death.
Here's the learning point: Positive change in agricultural practices take time to implement and needs to be led by market forces, not government mandates.
As much as I would love to see US agriculture reject pesticides, herbicides and synthetic inputs, I understand that if we banned it all tomorrow, the same thing would happen in this country. Decades of the use of these chemical inputs have allowed farmers to maintain impressive yields while using practices that degrade the soil. Like a drug addict, we're now dependent on these inputs in a very real way. It will take decades of holistic management and a comprehensive strategy to restore the soil health to the point that we can feed ourselves and our allies without these inputs.
But I'm not really trying to make a point about fertilizer, my larger message is that if we want to move agriculture in a positive direction, you have to vote at the grocery store, not the ballot box.
I believe the leaders in Sri Lanka had laudable intentions, but they didn't fully understand the reality of the situation. And unfortunately, they are not alone in this demolition of their own agriculture. New Zealand is on the verge of implementing an emissions tax on livestock flatulence. This tax would be the first of its kind and would do great harm to an industry that accounts for 80% of this nation's exports. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers in the Netherlands are protesting new restrictions on agricultural emissions that they claim would bankrupt 30% of the farmers in the country.
These nations all have agrarian economies, yet their leaders are actively knee-capping these industries under the banner of environmentalism. Unfortunately, the result will be increased human suffering as the global food supply is reduced and the prices continue to climb. These problems can't be solved through top-down, government mandates. However, that doesn't mean that hope is lost, change is possible, but we have to take a longer view of the problem and realize that overnight solutions don't exist. We have to give farmers a reason to change through market incentives. When enough people demand a different approach, (and prioritize it with their wallets) the farmers will react quickly.
Our farm is a good example. We believe in using practices that work in harmony with God's design in nature. We don't use pesticides, fertilizers or medicated feeds, we use better management practices to improve the health of our animals. Everything we do is "beyond organic" meaning that we go above and beyond the required practices to be an organic farm. The only thing holding us back from being a fully organic farm is the locally sourced grain we feed to the pigs and chickens. We took a hard look at the economics of switching to an organic feed so we could fall under the "organic" banner, but we realized it would nearly double the cost of our pigs and chickens that many people already find expensive. So while we would love to do it, we can't until we have a large enough customer base that would be willing to pay for a fully organic product.
I don't share this to complain, we believe in organic practices and prioritize organic products in our own diet, but until there is a path to profitability, farmers won't, and truly, can't change! Change will come through education and prioritization. If better farming practices are important to you, vote with your dollars and support farmers who are trying to do it right. Change through any other means will only result in disaster. See also, Sri Lanka.