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Earlier this month, the Rajapaksa government imposed a state of emergency in Sri Lanka after its bungled response to a brewing foreign exchange crisis cascaded into food shortages. An army general has been put in charge of catching both hoarders of food and holders of foreign currency. Like a Greek tragedy, we know how things will unfold, but well-wishers of the Sri Lankan people are powerless to stop the avoidable suffering that lies ahead.

Running out of foreign exchange amid an economic downturn and with looming debt-servicing obligations, the Sri Lankan government imposed a slew of import controls earlier this year. Banning the import of automobiles, toilet fixtures, Venetian blinds, toothbrush handles and turmeric is one thing, but a complete ban on fertilizers is entirely another. Domestic production is critical for any food-importing country facing a foreign exchange crisis. In Sri Lanka’s case, it is even more important because it is a major exporter of tea. The fertilizer ban has left Sri Lanka both short of food and US dollars.

The Rajapaksa government’s folly is a warning to all of us. When the fertilizer ban was announced, it was heralded as a progressive policy aimed at making Sri Lanka the first country in the world to completely embrace organic agriculture. Suitable references to a “green socio-economic model of sustainable solutions to climate change" were made. In a few short months, however, reality caught up with the rhetoric and disaster followed.

Here’s the point. Across the world—and India is no exception—organic farming has been turned into a self-evident moral argument that dare not be questioned. Like all dietary preferences, individuals are free to attach morality to what they consume, but public policy has to be justified using reason and empirical evidence. We cannot push people into organic because we believe its a morally good thing to do. We need to make the policy case for organic, at the global, national and regional levels.

There is no simple, universal case for organic agriculture: Not even at a national, state or district level. Whether or not organic farming is a ‘good thing’ depends on crop, soil, geography and economic context. Pushing organic farming in a one-size-fits-all policy will inevitably lead to the kind of disaster that Sri Lanka currently faces. It is far better to leave cropping and farming decisions to the farmers themselves. Government and civil society can spread awareness and market knowledge, but must avoid embracing arbitrary targets of how much of agriculture ought to be organic. Indeed, studies that show ‘lack of awareness’ as the biggest factor holding back the growth of organic farming in India may well be indications that farmers are demonstrating greater awareness about their profession than the people who are trying raise it.

Ball-park estimates suggest that organic yields are 20-30% lower than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Subsidies trickling through an inefficient government system cannot override this. Would you accept a 30% pay cut for the sake of the planet, with an encouraging government offering you some tax deductions? I’m sure your hesitance is not due to lack of awareness. That is why I think it is unconscionable to ask a family earning less than 10,000 a month (that’s around the national average for farming households) to consider organic farming.

Nobody seems to have done the math on organic. I cannot see how the massively important task of doubling the incomes of farmers in the near future can be squared with increasing the area under organic cultivation. To double incomes, we need massive improvements in yield, a massive reduction in the number of farmers, or both. To increase organic output and income, we need more farmland and fewer farmers. More farmland means fewer forests. Fewer farmers would need more non-farm jobs. How can anyone claim to know what this means for the carbon footprint?

The solution to India’s agricultural crisis that has been clear for over 150 years is the creation of non-agricultural jobs. Far more than organic farming, it is industry that provides a ramp for farmers to attain better lives and livelihoods. Those who prefer to remain or venture into agriculture would then do it because it is worth their while. This is one reason why organic farming is catching on in Western economies and among India’s richer cultivators. Organic farming is a luxury—both for the farmer and consumer. Like all luxuries, it should be left to those who desire it.

None of this is to say that modern agriculture is unblemished. Far from it: reckless abuse of pesticides, fertilizers and hormones have pretty nasty effects on humans and the environment. These need to be fixed through better public policies and technology. Let us not forget this same modern agriculture proved everyone from Malthus to Ehrlich wrong. The world needs better governance of agriculture and food production, not a retreat from science.

The Sri Lankan experience will therefore be instructive. Amid mounting complaints of an acute shortage of fertilizers, the Rajapaksa government is currently giving farmers, well, organic manure in response.

(Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy)

 

 

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