No need to vilify regenerative agriculture

Several commentators have blamed Sri Lanka’s decision to go organic as the root cause of the current crisis. Additionally, this event was used to defame the regenerative agriculture movement.

The Sri Lankan crisis has caused deep suffering in the neighboring country. Food and agriculture seem to be at the center of this crisis. Several commentators have blamed Sri Lanka’s decision to go organic as the root cause of this crisis. Additionally, this event was used to defame the global regenerative agriculture movement.

Organic farming has also been a project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. It was during his tenure that the Paramparagat Kheti mission was launched. Did we also take the wrong step? But on a deeper level, was our traditional agricultural wisdom wrong? Could organic methods even work? I had a lot of questions, and the widespread slander against natural farming was not well received either. So I started meeting Indian experts to figure this one out.

First on the list was Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist and professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), in New Delhi. It was an exceptionally hot April afternoon. I walked into the India Habitat Center office. It was a very neat place, with dark wood furniture.

The Green Revolution

After half an hour of intense discussions, I asked him about Sri Lanka: Is organic farming the real problem? Gulati took me back in time and said, “Norman Bourlog said you can’t feed more than 4 billion people without chemicals. Now that we are at 7.9 billion, how are we going to feed the world? Organic farming cannot feed the whole world. After the fall, before the green revolution, everything was organic anyway, and India too got caught up in the ship-to-mouth scenario.

“Organic is good for niche markets, but extending it to a whole country requires a proper assessment of demand and supply. In organic farming, yields of most crops are likely to be lower than those given for chemical fertilizers. If the country’s natural resource endowment cannot feed the entire population with organic produce, it should be prepared to import produce and food. That’s the problem with Sri Lanka. Now they don’t have enough foreign currency to import goods. Hence the problem,” he added.

At this point, I remember meeting a famous Sri Lankan novelist in March at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). He too criticized the government’s decision to ban agrochemicals. Various reports pointed in the same direction.

Sri Lanka’s rendezvous with industrial agriculture has not always been pleasant. British-era plantations had destroyed much of the native biodiversity, and new crops like oil palm had further threatened the fragile ecosystem. Additionally, certain agricultural chemicals have also caused kidney failure in more than 40,000 people in the island nation.

Then I met the well-known environmentalist, Professor Vandana Shiva, given his position on the matter. She wore a dark blue sari with an embroidered white border. So, was organic fertilizer the main problem in Sri Lanka? She replied, “the crisis in Sri Lanka is a debt crisis, a financial crisis that has been made worse by the high costs of COVID.”

Biological agriculture

We talked for another hour about the various problems and the alleged propaganda against organic farming. But then our conversation took a serious turn. She explained that “the food crisis in Sri Lanka has deeper roots than a six-month ban on the importation of various agrochemicals. A short-term import ban policy is not a biological policy. We must look to Cuba for a full-fledged organic policy in the face of the shutdown of fuel and fertilizer supplies due to sanctions [imposed by the US].”

But what is the way out of this mess? She replied, “The solution to the Sri Lankan crisis is the restoration of democracy, including economic democracy, so that the people of Sri Lanka can choose development options that meet their basic needs instead of indebted more. A participatory policy for food sovereignty has become an imperative need for every country in times of climate change, wars, and economic and ecological collapse.

Of course, she believed organic was the way out of malnutrition, disease and climate change for the world. “Organic farming is a complete system. We must rejuvenate the soil, biodiversity, local communities, etc. But Sri Lanka should have planned this step carefully, keeping in mind all the factors to get the coveted organic label,” she added.

I had heard two sides on the issue, and it still wasn’t done. Then I spoke with India’s former agriculture secretary, Siraj Husain, to see where he saw the shortcomings. “I don’t think that Sri Lanka’s decision in May 2021 to stop importing chemical fertilizers is the only reason for the current economic difficulties in this country,” he said.

But was it an administrative failure? Has the machinery of government, including the bureaucracy, failed? “A country cannot become 100% organic in the short term. If all production is organic, the premium on organic products will collapse and farmers will end up with lower production. The current economic difficulties are also due to the nationalist policies of their president,” Siraj said.

What can India do? Siraj had a clear solution. “India can give wheat and rice like we did to Afghanistan a few years ago under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Also recently we donated wheat to Afghanistan and it was sent via Wagah through Pakistan. We can also come to the aid of Sri Lanka and help improve the problem.

For the last word, I met Sukhpal Singh, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. “The ban on chemical fertilizers was only imposed about eight months ago and was partially relaxed within a few months. Perhaps only one crop year was partly affected by this sudden change in policy which arguably should have been implemented more gradually, although there may be other constraints to this. Therefore, blaming all the blame for the Sri Lankan economic crisis on the shift in policy towards organic farming can only be a half-truth,” he said.

After hearing different points of view, I was not worried about the Indian biological mission. The Indian government seems to have a graduated plan for ecological restoration through regenerative agriculture. Besides environmental and health benefits, it also offloads growing fertilizer and fuel subsidies. Diammonium phosphate (DAP) and other nitrogen-based fertilizers may soon be as valuable as gold. I was reassured that India will not follow Sri Lanka’s path. But of course I was certain that organic farming was not the main culprit. Bad random political decisions would be closer to the truth.

(The author is an independent agricultural policy analyst and the former Director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India)

– First position

Comments are closed.