An ill-advised national experiment in organic farming yielded starvation, poverty and political chaos.
The Green Revolution of Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist who did more to feed the world than any man before or since, set Sri Lanka on the path to agricultural abundance in 1970. It was built around chemical fertilizers and crops bred to be disease-resistant.
Fifty-two years later, Sri Lanka has pulled off a revolution that is “antigreen” in the modern sense, toppling its president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In an uprising that has its roots in Mr. Rajapaksa’s imperious decision to impose organic farming on the entire country—which led to widespread hunger after the agricultural economy collapsed—Sri Lanka’s people have wrought the first contra-organic national uprising in history.
Footage of protesters swarming the presidential palace—splashing in the swimming pool, watching cricket on television in the bedroom, making tea in the lavish kitchen—resembled the mass break-in at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but with none of the menace of the American trespass. Mr. Rajapaksa was in fact an American citizen until 2019, the year he was elected Sri Lanka’s president. He has now fled the country.
Will this environmental visionary be offered refuge at Berkeley? At the headquarters of the Sierra Club? Or even by the Biden administration? Perhaps not, for he bears on his head some serious accusations of war crimes that would make housing him inconvenient. But the truth is, Mr. Rajapaksa was driven from office in part because he was an overzealous green warrior, who imposed on his countrymen a policy that the American environmental left holds sacred.
Sri Lanka came to detest Mr. Rajapaksa for other reasons too. He was an autocrat, the latest in the Rajapaksa political dynasty to be president after his elder brother Mahinda, who held the office from 2005-15. Mahinda was a ruthless president, waging a scorched-earth war against Tamil separatists in the country’s north that resulted in a resounding victory for the Sri Lankan army in 2009. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary during the war and is accused of signing off on tactics that resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.
The Rajapaksa method—take the action you want, the consequences be damned—may have worked to win one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times. But it was jarring in peacetime, as Sri Lankans found themselves ruled by a pair of brothers who consulted no one and did as they pleased. Corruption soared alongside the nepotism and despotism. Sri Lankans, whose literacy rate is among the highest in Asia and who are classified as middle-income by the World Bank, found this state of affairs increasingly intolerable.
Perhaps because of the seven years he spent living in America during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Rajapaksa was in thrall to green nostrums. He campaigned for president in 2019 on a platform that promised a form of technocratic utopia, including the commitment to turn Sri Lankan agriculture completely organic in a decade. He was particularly attentive to Vandana Shiva, a rabid Indian opponent of modern scientific agriculture. She considers Borlaug the enemy.
Covid hit Sri Lanka particularly hard, wiping out tourism, its economic mainstay. Heedless of this calamity, and of the wider impoverishment caused by lockdowns, Mr. Rajapaksa took a step that poleaxed Sri Lanka. On April 27, 2021—with no warning, and with no attempt to teach farmers how to cope with the change—he announced a ban on all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Henceforth, he decreed, Sri Lankan agriculture would be 100% organic. Agronomists and other scientists warned loudly of the catastrophe that would ensue, but they were ignored. This Sri Lankan Nero listened to no one.
Except, of course, to Ms. Shiva and other woke environmentalists, who rejoiced at the epochal nature of Mr. Rajapaksa’s decision. “Let us all join hands with Sri Lanka,” Ms. Shiva tweeted on June 10, 2021, “taking steps towards a #PoisonFree #PoisonCartelFree world for our health & the health of the planet.” Lost in all the ideological ululation was another likely explanation for Mr. Rajapaksa’s action: So debt-ridden was Sri Lanka—to China, in particular—that he may have decided to forgo imported fertilizer and pesticide as a money-saving measure.
What happened next? Rice production fell by 20% in the first 180 days of the ban on synthetic fertilizer. Tea, Sri Lanka’s main cash crop, has been hit hard, with exports at their lowest level in nearly a quarter-century. Whether from indignation over the new laws or an inability to go organic, farmers left a third of all farmland fallow. Food prices soared as a result of scarcity and Sri Lanka’s people, their pockets already hit by the pandemic, began to go hungry. To add to the stench of failure, a shipload of manure from China had to be turned back after samples revealed dangerous levels of bacteria. The farmers had no synthetic fertilizer, and hardly any of the organic kind.
So extensive was the damage done by his organic diktat that Mr. Rajapaksa had to reverse himself by November 2021. His scientific ineptitude was now matched by his economic illiteracy. Battling to salvage his political reputation, he agreed to compensate farmers for their losses, the bill for which totaled more than the money he’d ostensibly saved the country by banning imports of fertilizer in April 2021.
Organic activist groups are still in denial. The U.K.-based Soil Association tweeted this: “Lots of lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka, but ‘see, organic doesn’t work’ isn’t one of them.” Mr. Rajapaksa, for his part, has had to pay for his hubris with his job. Had he not fled the country, it is more than likely that he would have paid for it with his life. Would that have made him a Green Martyr? We’ll never know. Sri Lanka must now turn to better ways: accountability, democracy, the rule of law and yes, modern scientific farming that can feed all of its 22 million people.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society.
7) Matt Ridley: Eco-extremism has brought Sri Lanka to its knees
The Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2022
An obsession with organic farming ‘in sync with nature’ triggered an unsustainable but predictable economic crisis
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 fertilizers 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.
Specialty 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 the population increased. Her (and others’) claims that traditional, organic farming could feed the world more healthily and 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.
8) Collapse of Sri Lanka Is a Failure of Leftism
National Review, 12 July 2022
Rejecting the blessings of modern farming technology and energy production is a recipe for disaster. Combining green fanaticism with government power is simply unaffordable.
‘I cannot recall any time in the past when we had to struggle so much to get a decent harvest,” a Sri Lankan farmer told Reuters in March. “Last year, we got 60 bags from these two acres. But this time it was just 10.”
These are the real-world consequences of government central planning.
Sri Lanka, under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, decided in April 2021 to become the world’s first all-organic country. The government banned the use of chemical fertilizers and banned their importation. The move was pitched as creating a self-reliant economy on the island nation and hailed as a great experiment in green policy-making.
Milton Friedman said that if you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, there would be a sand shortage. What the Sri Lankan government has done is almost as unbelievable. There are few better places in the world for agriculture. Sri Lanka is a warm, tropical island with plenty of annual rainfall, perfect for growing rice, tea, cocoa, and spices, and located along numerous ocean-trade routes for easy market access.
With the addition of modern fertilizers and farming techniques, the country went from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Sri Lanka had been self-sufficient in rice production since 2005. A 20-year-old Sri Lankan has seen the country’s GDP per capita roughly double over his lifetime. In 1990, Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita was about $2,000 greater than in nearby India. By 2020, it was more than $6,000 greater.
But after the fertilizer ban went into effect, rice production fell by 20 percent in only six months. The country had to import $450 million worth of rice to make up the difference, and rice prices still went up by 50 percent. Tea exports plummeted, costing the economy $425 million. The government reversed parts of the policy in November 2021, but the damage was already done.
These decisions were made worse by a years-long currency crisis brought on by the government’s fiscal profligacy. The Sri Lankan rupee has lost about half of its value against the dollar since March of this year. The Rajapaksas (Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda, was also part of the government) have been on a spending spree since taking office, building unnecessary megaprojects financed by money printing and foreign borrowing. Creditors downgraded the country’s bonds, and Sri Lanka defaulted in May.
Sri Lanka went from lower-middle-income to upper-middle-income, according to the World Bank, in 2019. Now, millions could return to poverty as gas lines, food shortages, and political unrest threaten to undo all that progress.
The name of the government agenda that delivered these results? “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour.”
It’s not all the government’s fault, though. Sri Lanka has been the victim of bad luck as well. The country depends on exports, remittances from Sri Lankans living abroad, and tourism for foreign currency. Exports were tanked by the agriculture policies, but remittances and tourism revenue dried up because of the pandemic and the decline in global travel. And two of Sri Lanka’s top three tourism markets were Russia and Ukraine.
All emerging markets are facing challenges amid rising interest rates around the world. Investors are looking for safer assets than EM bonds. If Jerome Powell so much as sneezes, global markets notice, so it’s no surprise that raising interest rates is having an effect around the world. The last time a Fed chair raised rates to bring down inflation (Paul Volcker in the early ’80s), it helped trigger a debt crisis in Latin America.
Sri Lanka was the first developing country to come undone, but it will not be the last. Its green agricultural policies and exceptionally poor leadership drove it to collapse faster than other developing countries, but the basic global factors that affected it will affect other developing countries as well. Zambia, Lebanon, and Laos are only three of the numerous other countries that could follow.
But the most concerning is nuclear-armed Pakistan. Located between India, China, and Afghanistan, with 240 million people and a long history of political turmoil and instability, Pakistan already is dealing with soaring inflation and high debt levels; a Sri Lanka-like collapse there would be devastating.
U.S. policy-makers, including central bankers at the Federal Reserve, must pay attention to these global developments. Volcker’s deft management of the Latin American debt crisis is an underrated part of his legacy; Powell needs to be up to the challenge. Congress should repeal protectionist “cargo preference” laws related to the delivery of humanitarian aid.
And environmentalist zealots should be kept far away from the levers of government power, here and everywhere else. Rejecting the blessings of modern farming technology and energy production is a recipe for disaster. The rich West might be able to deal with the consequences of reduced production and growth, but the poorer countries of the world will not be able to.
Combining green fanaticism with government power is simply unaffordable.