When Sri Lanka Government Banned Chemical Fertilizers, Yields Tanked and Prices “Shot Up”

(p. A4) RATNAPURA, Sri Lanka — This year’s crop worries M.D. Somadasa. For four decades, he has sold carrots, beans and tomatoes grown by local farmers using foreign-made chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which helped them reap bigger and richer crops from the verdant hills that ring his hometown.

Then came Sri Lanka’s sudden, and disastrous, turn toward organic farming. The government campaign, ostensibly driven by health concerns, lasted only seven months. But farmers and agriculture experts blame the policy for a sharp drop in crop yields and spiraling prices that are worsening the country’s growing economic woes and leading to fears of food shortages.

Prices for some foodstuffs, like rice, have risen by nearly one-third compared with a year ago, according to Sri Lanka’s central bank. The prices of vegetables like tomatoes and carrots have risen to five times their year-ago levels.

“I haven’t seen times that were as bad as these,” said Mr. Somadasa, a 63-year-old father of two who sells vegetables in the small town of Horana, just outside the island nation’s capital, Colombo. “We can’t find enough vegetables. And with the price hikes, people find it hard to buy the vegetables.”

. . .

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cited health concerns when his government banned the importation of chemical fertilizers in April [2021], a pledge he had initially made during his 2019 election campaign.

. . .

The push for organic farming didn’t start with Mr. Rajapaksa’s current government, nor when another brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, currently the prime minister, was president from 2005 to 2015. Some farmers and agriculture industry officials say they are warming to the idea of reducing dependence on chemicals in farming. But the shift was too sudden for farmers who didn’t know how to work organically, said Nishan de Mel, director of Verité Research, a Colombo-based analysis firm.

Verité found in a July [2021] survey that three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s farmers relied heavily on chemical fertilizers, while just about 10 percent cultivated without them. Almost all major crops grown in the country depend on the chemicals. For crops crucial to the economy like rice, rubber and tea, the dependence reaches 90 percent or more.

The April ban went into effect just before what is known as the Yala planting season, which lasts from May to August, and was felt almost immediately. The Verité survey showed that 85 percent of farmers expected a reduction in their harvest because of the fertilizer ban. Half of them feared that their crop yield could fall by as much as 40 percent.

Food prices shot up in September [2021], . . .

For the full story, see:

Aanya Wipulasena and Mujib Mashal. “A Plunge Into Organic Farming Brings Disaster to Sri Lanka.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 8, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed years, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 7, 2021, and has the title “Sri Lanka’s Plunge Into Organic Farming Brings Disaster.”)

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