Organic farming should never be turned into an article of faith

Synopsis: Policies that respect the farmer’s economic freedom offer the best route to sustainable agriculture.


Recently, the Srilankan government imposed a state of emergency in Sri Lanka after its mismanaged response to the foreign exchange crisis cascaded into food shortages.

The Sri Lankan government had imposed a range 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 chemical fertilizers is entirely another.

The fertilizer ban has left Sri Lanka both short of food and US dollars.

How the ban has impacted Sri Lankan economy?

Ruined agriculture: Domestic production is critical for any food-importing country facing a foreign exchange crisis. It is even more important for Sri lanka because it is a major exporter of tea. The fertilizer ban has left Sri Lanka both short of food and US dollars.

It was being seen as a progressive policy aimed at making Sri Lanka the first country in the world to completely embrace organic agriculture. In a few short months it resulted in a disaster.

What are the lessons from Sri Lanka’s unplanned push for organic agriculture?

No simple, universal case for organic agriculture: Pushing organic farming as a one-size-fits-all policy will inevitably lead to the disaster. 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.

Leave cropping and farming decisions to the farmers: Government and civil society should spread awareness and market knowledge. In India, farmers are demonstrating greater awareness about their profession than the people who are trying to raise it.

Need policy support: Estimates suggest that organic yields are 20-30% lower than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Hence, it is unethical to ask a family earning less than ₹10,000 a month to consider organic farming.

Hence, organic farming is a luxury. Those who prefer to remain into agriculture do it because they can.

This is one reason why organic farming is catching on in Western economies and among India’s richer cultivators.

What are key takeaways for India?

First, we need massive improvements in yield, a massive reduction in the number of farmers, or both.

We need to make the policy case for organic, at the global, national and regional levels. Reckless abuse of pesticides, fertilizers and hormones need to be fixed through better public policies and technology.

Second, 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.

Hence, there is need for creation of non-agricultural jobs.

Source: This post is based on the article “Organic farming should never be turned into an article of faith” published in Livemint on 13th September 2021.

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