Yet another IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warning of dire consequences if the world does not correct its course and pursue a low-carbon path. This means drastically reducing our dependence on all fossil fuels, among a range of other impactful measures. An Asian country has attempted this by announcing the ban on chemical farming and the decision to switch to organic. But now the global media is blaming the move for an unprecedented economic crisis.
Yes, it is true that Sri Lanka is facing a massive shortage of essential goods and services and a plummeting economy. But blaming chemical-free agriculture for a food crisis not only shows a simplistic understanding of the concept itself, but also reinforces a narrative long promoted by the fossil fuel industry and its backers.
For too long the fossil fuel industry has been sending the message that food can only be grown on a large scale by pumping it with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and that there will be a crisis global food supply on a large scale if these inputs are stopped abruptly.
The New York Times ran an article titled “Sri Lanka’s Plunge into Organic Farming Brings Disaster”, while an Indian news channel headlined “Organic Farming Is Responsible for Sri Lanka’s Agrarian Crisis “. Congressman Shashi Tharoor recently tweeted, “I’m all for healthy organic produce, but shouldn’t we be aware of how Sri Lanka’s switch to organic farming in 2019 is proved disastrous for its food security?
Such narratives largely ignore the dangers of chemical-based agricultural practices, such as the high costs for a country like Sri Lanka in terms of importing chemical fertilizers, the environmental impact due to declining water table and the impact on the health of the population. farmers who handle the chemicals on a daily basis, among other effects of concern.
Plus, organic farming no longer just means no chemical sprays; it means growing a multitude of crops so that if one fails, the farmer has a backup system. As the soil is replenished, the health benefits of organic farming not only benefit the consumer, but also the farmer, who is not exposed to carcinogenic chemicals on a daily basis. These benefits usually go unreported when weighing the pros and cons of organic farming.
So, before organic farming is dismissed as a failure, one has to wonder if the thousands of rice farmers and other farmers in Sri Lanka were prepared for this transition? Have the necessary supply and demand chains been created for the market to be ready? Farming without chemicals requires access to bio-pesticides, training in how to make them, knowledge of what crop to plant and when so the soil doesn’t lose its nutrients, and, finally, a local market that pays a premium for these bio-pesticides. some products.
India’s “ZBNF” model
Opponents argue that organic farming cannot be practiced on a large scale. However, India has a definitive example of how chemical-free farming has been rolled out to 138,000 farmers in 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh (AP), bringing nearly 150,000 acres of farmland under the ZBNF farming model. Commonly referred to as “zero-budget natural farming,” it was introduced with a time scale in mind as a grassroots agrarian movement. Farmers have been trained in this low-cost, locally sourced natural farming method, which does not rely on the use of agrochemicals and has the potential to achieve the twin goals of global food security and conservation of the environment. local environment.
Farmers were trained to be self-sufficient in developing local seed treatments such as bijamrita, preparation of microbial inoculum (jiwamrita) and techniques such as cover crops with mulching (achhadana) to improve soil fertility and control crop pests.
The model has been so successful that an analysis by environmental think tank EEW showed that scaling up ZBNF could lead to massive savings on chemical fertilizer imports and subsidies while reducing input costs. for farmers. Done the right way, chemical-free farming not only empowers farmers, but also helps the environment.
So while the intentions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government may have been noble in seeking to introduce organic farming, what has not been well managed is the transition to this method. An overnight statement of intent without the necessary groundwork in place led to hoarding, black market and panic among farmers.
Harjeet Singh, strategic advisor to the Fossil Fuel Treaty Initiative, sums it up well: “As countries seek to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, they will need help to make the necessary changes. This is why we insist on a “just transition” based on the support of the international community rather than on this anarchic transition which could wreak havoc in poor countries.
He adds: “What happened in Sri Lanka may have been done with good intentions. But any unplanned transition will be a boomerang. And fossil fuel companies will use these opportunities to justify their existence and their products.
What is happening in Sri Lanka is a lesson for all countries seeking to make a just transition to a world without fossil fuels. For that, we must start by countering the narratives conveyed by an industry that does not want to shut down its operations.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist and author. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are those of the author)
– The quintet