Sri Lanka’s collapse, from one of the fastest growing Asian economies to a political, economic and humanitarian horror show, seems to have taken everybody by surprise.
Five years ago, the World Bank was extolling “how Sri Lanka intends to transition to a more competitive and inclusive upper-middle income country”. Right up to the middle of last year, despite the impact of the pandemic, the country’s misery index (inflation plus unemployment) was low and falling. Then the misery index took off like a rocket, quintupling in a year.
What happened? There is a simple explanation, one that the BBC seems determined to downplay. In April 2021, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that Sri Lanka was banning most pesticides and all synthetic fertiliser to go fully organic. Within months, the volume of tea exports had halved, cutting foreign exchange earnings. Rice yields plummeted leading to an unprecedented requirement to import rice. With the government unable to service its debt, the currency collapsed.
Speciality crop yields like cinnamon and cardamom tanked. Staple foods became infested with pests leading to widespread hunger. As Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute put it in March: “The farrago of magical thinking, technocratic hubris, ideological delusion, self-dealing and sheer shortsightedness that produced the crisis in Sri Lanka implicates both the country’s political leadership and advocates of so-called sustainable agriculture.”
The government promised more manure, but it would take at least five times as much manure as the country produces to replace the “synthetic” nitrogen fixed from the air, and there’s not enough livestock or land to produce that much. In Glasgow for the climate summit last year, Sri Lanka’s president was still boasting that his agricultural policy was “in sync with nature”.
At the time, his organic decision was widely praised by environmentalists. Sri Lanka scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment.
Vandana Shiva, a feted environmentalist, said: “This decision will definitely help farmers become more prosperous.” She has been silent recently. Dr Shiva has led relentless criticism of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which brought fertiliser and new crop varieties to south Asia, banishing famine for the first time in history even as population increased. Her (and others’) claims that traditional, organic farming could feed the world more healthily remain wildly popular among environmentalists. Sri Lanka has tested that proposition and found it wanting.
As the agricultural scientist Prof Channa Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama once told me: “Sure, organic agriculture is sustainable: it sustains poverty and malnutrition.” Farming was organic when millions died in famines every decade and the US prairies turned into dustbowls for lack of fertiliser to hold the soil during droughts.
But if you watch or listen to the BBC, you will hear little of this. On its website, under the headline “Sri Lanka: Why is the country in an economic crisis?”, you have to read right to the end to find a grudging admission that “When Sri Lanka’s foreign currency shortages became a serious problem in early 2021, the government tried to limit them by banning imports of chemical fertiliser. It told farmers to use locally sourced organic fertilisers instead. This led to widespread crop failure.” The Indian commentator Shakhar Gupta calls Sri Lanka’s organic conversion an episode of “mega stupidity” on a par with Mao Tse-tung’s order to persecute sparrows.
In the Netherlands, too, farmer protests are mainly about a policy of reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser. In this country, organic farming gets publicity far out of proportion to its actual contribution: about 3 per cent of Britain’s farmland is organic.
If the world abandoned nitrogen fertiliser that was fixed in factories, the impact on human living standards would be catastrophic, but so would the impact on nature. Given that about half the nitrogen atoms in the average person’s body were fixed in an ammonia factory rather than a plant, to feed eight billion people with organic methods we would need to put more than twice as much land under the plough and the cow. That would consign most of the world’s wetlands, nature reserves and forests to oblivion.
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