Last spring, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa put a ban on agrochemicals. His goal was an ambitious one: to transform Sri Lanka into the first nation with 100-percent organic agriculture. Less than a year later, the country is left in an economic and supply shortage crisis as a result.
The transition to fully organic agriculture was a pillar of Gotabaya’s 2019 campaign, during which he proposed the move be phased out over a 10-year period. Just a few months after his election, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world. That didn’t stop Gotabaya from implementing a complete ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on April 26, 2021. What was intended to be a positive move ahead for Sri Lanka’s nearly two million farmers soon backfired.
The consequences of the decision were apparent quickly. Al Jazeera reported that nearly a third of all agricultural land in the country remained dormant due to the ban.
Within six months of the ban, rice production in the country—a once very sufficient industry—dropped 20 percent, forcing Sri Lanka to import $450 million of rice to meet supply needs and surging rice prices rose nearly 50 percent.
Now, Sri Lanka will pay farmers across the country 40,000 million rupees ($200 million) to compensate for their barren harvests and crop failures. In addition to the funding, the Sri Lankan government will pay $149 million in price subsidies to rice farmers impacted by the loss.
Harvesting crops in a rice field in Sri Lanka in June 2021. Photo by Green Nature Life, Shutterstock.
But Sri Lanka’s farmers who accrued huge debts and crop failures say the repayment is insufficient. The hit to the tea industry alone—Sri Lanka’s main export and source of foreign exchange—is estimated to have amounted to an economic loss of $425 million.
The ripple effect of the ban impacted the entire country. According to Foreign Policy, after the ban and the pandemic, nearly half a million Sri Lankans have sunken below the poverty line.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis—triggered by COVID-19 tourism closures and compounded by the agriculture industry collapse—has caused severe food shortages and even blackouts. As its first move in response to tea production crumbling and economic issues, the government partially lifted the agrochemical ban in November 2021—allowing the use of some non-organic farming practices while producing tea, coconut and rubber. Now, the country has entirely lifted the ban, but commercial banks lack foreign exchange to support importers trying to replenish the stock they went through during the ban.
In a 2021 USDA report concerning the country’s switch to only organic practices, the agency predicted “the lack of organic fertilizer productive capacity, coupled with the absence of a formalized plan to import organic fertilizers in lieu of chemical fertilizers, raises the potential for an adverse impact on food security.” And that’s precisely what happened.