Nov 01 2021

The Sri Lanka Organic Experiment

Cautionary tales are extremely useful, as long as we take the right lessons away from them. As the saying goes, the best way to learn is from mistakes, but even better is to learn from someone else’s mistake without having to commit it yourself (and suffer the consequences). Sri Lanka has now made itself into a cautionary tale, and I would like to amplify any learning that can come from it. The primary conceptual lesson here is that – when ideology trumps science, the outcome is likely to be very bad.

There is also a specific lesson here. Organic farming may sound good in principle (if you just listen to the ideological marketing), but in practice it is a disaster. Sri Lanka has decided to do what other countries have done before, namely impose from above a commandment on how to run an industry based entirely on the philosophical beliefs of the leader. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union, where the archaic ideas of geneticist Trofim Lysenko were given official support and decimated Soviet agriculture, costing millions of lives.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has done something similar – banning agrichemicals in Sri Lanka and forcing all farmers to farm organically. The result was absolutely predictable, a crash in agricultural output. While Sri Lanka is a net food importer, they still are dependent on local rice and other staple crop productions. Their exports are also mainly agricultural, such as tea, rubber, and many spices. Some reporting has focused on the timing of the change, during a fragile recovery from a pandemic. Also some have pointed out that going suddenly full organic is a problem because most farmers don’t know how to do it, and there was no adjustment period.

But even if the change was handled optimally, there was still the unavoidable negative impacts inherent to organic farming. The European Union, for example, has already done an analysis and found that organic farming is not sustainable, and it is worse for the environment, mainly through increased land use. Organic food is also not healthier than conventional produce, as if often implied by proponents. Why, then, would Sri Lanka go full in on such a bad idea?

The answer is that organic marketing has worked. They have created a false impression about their brand, based on bad ideas and bad science, but it sounds superficially appealing and many people buy into it. Organic farming is based on the appeal to nature fallacy, that something which is “natural” (which is arbitrarily defined) is inherently better than anything “artificial”. Worse still, the origins of organic farming is pure magical pseudoscience, not even appeal to nature, but appeal to magic. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, their president has bought into the hype and marketing, and further still has the power to unilaterally impose their beliefs onto an entire industry.

As a result, across all crops, Sri Lanka farmers have had a 19-25% drop in their productivity on average (not evenly distributed, with some crops having a 50% drop or even complete failure). That figure is in line with previous research, showing similar levels of reduced productivity from organic farming. This is a disaster for the industry, and also the people, leading to food shortages and spikes in prices. Because exports are also hit hard, this is another strain on the overall economy.

The limitations inherent to organic farming are also exacerbated by trying to massively increase the scale. Right now organic farming accounts for about 1.5% of worldwide food production. It is only 0.6% in the US, and 8.5% in the EU where it is very popular. As you try to scale up industries, new problems are introduced, which is why we cannot just extrapolate from low levels of market penetration to very high levels. (The same issue arises when we talk about increasing renewable energy sources into the electricity supply, with the intermittency becoming a greater and greater problem.)

For organic farming one major issue with scaling up is the availability of organic fertilizer. When you are talking about one farm, you don’t necessarily have to consider the entire system at the scale of a nation or the world. But when you decide to make an entire country 100% organic, you do. Organic farming is possible at the 1-10% range because of the availability of organic fertilizer, which comes from composting and cattle manure. These are two ways of recycling nitrogen, but of course this recycling is not perfect, so we need to introduce nitrogen into the system. Some plants can fix nitrogen from the air (through soil bacteria) and these can be used as crops to put nitrogen into the soil. All this works if the percentage of crops grown without external inputs of nitrogen is kept relatively small. The system breaks down as you try to scale up.

Sri Lanka discovered this at the national level. They don’t have enough organic fertilizer to go around. They make about 2-3 tonnes of compost per year, but rice cultivation alone requires 4 million tonnes. They could try to import manure or compost from other countries, but the supply of organic fertilizer is largely already spoken for. A significant increase in demand will not necessarily be met by an increase in supply, and prices will therefore go up. Now imagine trying to do this on a larger scale. The world has no place to important organic fertilizer from. The system does not work without external inputs.

Organic farming is bad for the environment because is requires greater land use. It is also more expensive because it requires greater labor as well (you have to pull all those weeds if you can’t use herbicide). Further still, organic farming does allow for the use of pesticides, but they have to be “natural”. All of the pesticides they use find use also on conventional farms, but organic farming relies on a subset deemed “natural”. This does not mean less toxic. Further, they don’t always use the optimal pesticide for each situation, because they are artificially limiting their choices – following loose ideology rather than evidence.

The bottom line is that there is no real advantage to organic farming, and there are serious drawbacks. The negatives get exponentially worse if we try to scale up organic farming. Right now organic produce is a “boutique” option for the well-off.  Trying to feed the world organically would be a disaster – Sri Lanka on a worldwide scale, but even worse.

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