A woman puts her hands in freshly picked leaves in a Sri Lankan tea factory
A woman works in a tea factory in Sri Lanka. Tea production fell by nearly a quarter between 2021 and 2022, owing in part to a government-imposed fertiliser ban © Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images

When former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa abruptly banned chemical fertiliser imports in mid-2021, he turned Sri Lanka into a case study for how not to do organic farming.

The restrictions — which caught agricultural officials and farmers by surprise — sparked chaos in the agricultural sector. The lack of alternatives led to sharp drops in output, with harvests of rice and other crops falling. This, in turn, stoked a severe economic crisis, which culminated in the country’s default on $40bn in foreign debt last year. The once-fertile island is now dependent on food grants and imports to manage a hunger crisis.

Even though Rajapaksa reversed the ban about six months later, fertiliser supplies in Sri Lanka never normalised. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 pushed up prices globally, while a lack of foreign currency in Sri Lanka led to severe shortages and rationing of imported fertiliser. A bag of urea that cost Rs1,500 ($4.65) shot up to as much as Rs40,000 before falling to a subsidised price of Rs10,000 ($124), says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a sociologist at the University of Jaffna.

Farm organisers and agricultural experts in Sri Lanka say that — even if many farmers have no intention of ever going “organic” again — the disruption to chemical fertiliser supplies has highlighted the importance of finding alternatives to help insulate them from future shocks. And a number of small-scale initiatives and pilots to explore those alternatives are now under way across the country.

“What farmers are doing on the fertiliser front is they’re experimenting,” says Kadirgamar, who is also chair of a rural co-operative federation. “They’re trying to use less fertiliser, or a mix of organic compost and fertiliser, but there’s no sort of conclusive direction in terms of how they’re going to go forward.”

A Sri Lankan farmer works in a paddy field
A Sri Lankan farmer works in a paddy field. Volatile prices for chemical fertilisers have spurred cautious interest in organic alternatives © Ishara S Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

Some of these schemes predate Rajapaksa’s fertiliser ban. Kadirgamar says that four co-operatives in Sri Lanka’s north started running small organic compost factories from 2018 onwards, using ingredients such as dried leaves and cow dung to create natural fertilisers.

The idea was never to replace chemical fertilisers, Kadirgamar says, but to reduce dependence on them. He adds, however, that demand form alternatives is trending higher as farmers try to offset the high cost of fertiliser, and some co-operatives are considering producing more organic compost. “From the farmers’ point of view, it’s just about survival,” he says.

While on the campaign trail to become president in 2019, Rajapaksa had railed against the dangers of chemical fertilisers to human health and the environment. But few expected the import ban, which some critics say was motivated not by environmental concerns but by an ill-advised attempt to stem falling foreign currency reserves.

If that was the aim, it failed, and the country’s bankruptcy fuelled mass protests that forced Rajapaksa out of office in July last year. The turmoil attracted worldwide attention, and was seen in some quarters as a cautionary tale about the risks of rethinking farming — with Tucker Carlson, then a host on Fox News in the US, calling Sri Lanka a “victim of ESG”.

JM Soorasena, who grew up in a farming family and is now president of the country’s Agriculture and Environment Professional’s Cooperative Society, acknowledges Rajapaksa’s move was damaging for advocates of sustainable farming methods, like himself.

“They didn’t have any good plan, they didn’t have any infrastructure,” he says of the government, adding that officials still “don’t know how to practice” organic farming.

Shamila Rathnasooriya, a co-ordinator with rural non-profit organisation Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (Monlar) says that, after the ban: “Farmers didn’t know how to do organic agriculture and they were seeing a drop in yield. Due to this experience, farmers don’t believe in organic agriculture.”

Monlar is now trying to change that, and works with about 2,000 farmers across the country to teach them alternative farming methods.

It distributes seeds for crops such as suwandel, an indigenous variety of rice, and green gram or vegetables that Rathnasooriya says are well suited to the country’s climate. It then trains farmers in organic farming methods such as preparing jeevamrutham, a fertiliser made from cow dung, cow urine, sugar and flour that is used in neighbouring India.

Rathnasooriya says Monlar encourages participants to start by testing the techniques on half an acre of their land, and to expand it if they see good results. If successful, he says, farmers enjoy a “similar amount of harvest, and they see the multiplication and improvement of micro-biodiversity”.

Ultimately, though, these efforts remain small scale. Kadirgamar says there is little sign that industrialised agricultural businesses in Sri Lanka are following suit, even if the ban also showed “they need to be much more careful in [fertiliser] use”.

Either way, Soorasena says the future of fertilisers in Sri Lanka will be tied not to sustainability, but to politics. With nearly a third of the country’s workforce engaged in agriculture, subsidising chemical fertilisers is a useful vote winner, he argues. “It’s not economical, but political.”

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