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Is 100% organic farming a revolution too far?

Globally, 1.5% of farmland is organic, with 16 countries boasting an organic farmland share of 10% or more. Keystone / Z1003/_jens Büttner

Amid deepening concern over the damage agrochemicals cause to the environment and public health, organic farming is widely touted as a green and sustainable solution. The experiences of Sri Lanka and Switzerland show the reality is far more complicated.  

This content was published on July 18, 2022 - 09:00

This article was first published on April 7, 2022.

In December 2019, newly elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa formally unveiled his vision for the country in a grand national strategy: “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”.  

Among the ambitious pledges was a commitment to “promote and popularize organic agriculture” over the following decade and to bring about a “revolution in the use of fertiliser”. The shift involved converting traditional farming villages to using organic-only fertiliser and a providing both organic and inorganic fertiliser to farmers free of charge.   

But in April 2021, President Rajapaksa stunned the nation when he announced that a ban on imports of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals, including pesticides and herbicides, would be imposed the following month. The official reason was to control healthcare costs caused by overuse of chemicals in agriculture. Analysts, however, suspect the real reason was the lack of foreign exchange to pay for imports — the Covid-19 pandemic had devastated the tourism industry and remittances by overseas workers collapsed, leaving the country struggling to pay for imported goods. The country spent $259 million on foreign fertilisers alone in 2020, some 1.6% of total imports, central bank statistics show. 

The decision, which was announced just as the rice planting season got underway, sent shockwaves through rural Sri Lanka. Thousands of farmers took to the streets in protest, complaining they were given insufficient time to prepare and were being asked to produce their own organic fertiliser.  

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The ban posed a potentially devastating threat to Sri Lanka’s key agricultural crops — some 94% of rice farmers and 89% of tea and rubber growers used synthetic fertilisers, according to a survey of more than 1,000 farmers commissioned by think tank Verité Research in July 2021.  

Opposition from the agricultural community and concerns that food prices would soar eventually forced the government into a U-turn. In November, just seven months after it was imposed, the ban was reversed, although the president still insisted that “the country’s agriculture policy is only for a green agriculture that focuses on the sole use of organic fertilisers”. He blamed the “chemical fertiliser mafia”, improperly educated farmers, and uncommitted officials for the hiccups. 

Bad reputation  

It is difficult to fully quantify the impact of the short-lived ban on productivity as many farmers are still using up their stocks of imported chemical fertiliser. Even so, average rice yields during the May to August growing season in 2021 fell to 4,307 kilograms per hectare from 4,552 in 2020, a decline some analysts attributed to farmers rationing their fertiliser stocks to make them last longer.  

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President Rajapaksa’s disastrous "go-organic" policy failed mainly because of poor implementation and the lack of an adequate transition period, even though it initially had the support of farmers — Verité Research’s survey showed almost two-thirds of the farmers polled said they supported the government’s vision for organic agriculture, but almost 80% of those in favour said such a shift would require more than one year.  

“Organic agriculture now has a bad reputation among many Sri Lankan farmers,” says Christoph Studer, an agronomist and professor at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. “Officials in Sri Lanka don’t use the term organic anymore. They prefer the term eco-friendly.”  

The decision to go organic overnight was not thought out properly and caught farmers unprepared and unable to adapt quickly, says Studer, who is also a consultant for Sri Lankan agrobusiness firm Baurs, founded almost 125 years ago by Swiss emigrant Alfred Baur to supply manure for coconut plantations. The company, the country’s biggest importer of chemical fertilisers, is now working to comply with the new farming policy and switch to organic fertiliser production.   

“For the last 60 years the country was focused on high agricultural productivity with the idea that Sri Lanka is a small country with not enough arable land to feed its people,” he says. “As a result, there is currently no knowledge in research institutions and the extension system to teach farmers how to go organic.”  

Various private and public entities have started compost production but need relevant expertise to get high-quality compost. Christoph Studer

Pioneering efforts  

Many countries are promoting organic farming — the European Union’s Farm to Fork Biodiversity Strategy commits the bloc to reducing the use of chemical fertilisers by 20% and has set a target for at least 25% of agricultural land to be set aside for organic farming. But fewer than a handful of countries have a formal policy to make their domestic agriculture sector 100% organic, and of those, none has made a successful transition. In 2008, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in South Asia committed to go completely organic by 2020 but only 10% of its crop production and 1% of its arable land was certified as such by the deadline. The target has now been pushed back to 2035. 

The results so far have not been encouraging. Organic agriculture yields in Bhutan are on average 24% lower than those from conventional farming, a 2018 study by researchers from the Humboldt University of Berlin showed. The country remains heavily dependent on non-organic food imports which made up 16% of imports by value in 2017, data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show.  

The closest to reaching the 100% goal is Sikkim, a state in northeastern India that claimed to have achieved full organic status in 2016. The vision was first announced by the state’s chief minister in 2003 and in 2010 an Organic Mission was launched to make it a reality.  The province banned the entry of 27 agricultural commodities from other Indian states in April 2018 to protect its farmers from cheaper non-organic imports, although staples like rice and potatoes were not on the list.  

The shift to organic farming in Sikkim, the world’s second-largest producer of the spice cardamom, has not led to a significant drop in yields of staple crops, according to data from the food and agriculture department of the state government.  

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In Switzerland, 15% of farmers have already gone organic and do not use chemical pesticides, according to the Federal Statistical Office. But the agriculture sector has pushed back against a more ambitious leap forward.  

Last year, two controversial proposals — a “drinking water” initiative that involved scrapping subsidies to farmers who use pesticides, and an “anti-pesticide” initiative that sought an outright ban on synthetic pesticides — were put to a nationwide vote under the country’s unique direct democracy system. They were both rejected by 60% of those who voted, but had they succeeded, they would have made Switzerland an organic farming pioneer by becoming the first European country to ban products like synthetic weedkillers and fungicides.  

Evolution not revolution  

Campaigners underestimated resistance from farmers and should have done more to get them on board, according to Edward Mitchell, a soil biologist at the University of Neuchâtel and one of the organisers of the anti-pesticide initiative. The farming community, which accounts for just 5% of the Swiss population, was vocal in its opposition, and the Swiss Farmers’ Association claimed that agricultural output would shrink by between 20% and 40% if pesticides were banned.  

A sign on a farm urging voters to reject the Swiss pesticide ban initiative of 2021. Keystone / Urs Flueeler

The government also objected to both initiatives, which Economics Minister Guy Parmelin said represented a “revolution” rather than the “evolution” toward sustainable farming preferred by parliament.  

A Sri Lanka-style ban on agrochemicals couldn’t happen in Switzerland, Mitchell says.  

“Sri Lanka is a rare case, because governments usually have strong ties with the industry,” he says. “We cannot hope for such an action from the Swiss government because of political and philosophical reasons but also the influence of lobbies and special interests.”  

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Mitchell claims the agro-industrial sector spent millions of Swiss francs backing opponents of the initiatives. Although Switzerland is a much smaller market than Germany, France or Italy, it pays top dollar for agrochemicals. A 2019 government study shows that sales prices for fertilisers were 20% higher than in neighbouring countries while herbicides and insecticides were sold at premiums of 63% and 68% respectively.  

The yield problem  

Opposition from farmers and the agrochemicals industry isn’t the only hurdle organic farming advocates are struggling to overcome. Lower yields are also a significant challenge.  

Average yields from organic farming are around 20% lower than conventional agriculture, according to Adrian Müller of the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). The gap is more than 20% for crops like roots, tubers and cereals although lower for fruits, oilseeds, legumes and vegetables, he says.  

But Müller and other experts including Studer, the agronomist, say there are ways of addressing this problem through agroecology, developing high-yield varieties specifically for organic agriculture, and providing training and incentives for farmers.  

Small-structured agriculture with a high diversity of cultivated crops offers a good basis for a transition to more agroecological farming. Christoph Studer

Currently, organic farmers have to plant crop varieties developed for conventional cultivation practices which puts them at an immediate disadvantage in terms of yield, says Muller. 

Countries also need to develop a good outreach and training programme for farmers, offer appropriate subsidies, invest in breeding high-yielding organic varieties and source enough organic fertilisers, he says. The long-term benefits are worth the initial cost.  

“Conventionally-grown food is too cheap because the external costs like environmental impact are higher,” he says. “But they are not paid at the supermarket till but by society as a whole.”  

Studer says the shift to organic farming needs to be incremental and can be done first by moving to more sustainable farming based on agroecology. This involves practices such as increasing the use of compost and preventing depletion of soil nutrients through methods such as crop rotation and intercropping with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants.  

In Sri Lankan rubber plantations the use of nitrogen-fixing legume plants is already quite widespread. Christoph Studer

Although the process can take years, it could be a way forward for Sri Lanka, which is already following some of these practices, he says.  

“It took a couple of decades for conventional agriculture to penetrate Sri Lanka,” says Studer’s colleague Gurbir Singh. “Organic farming has more challenges and requires more knowledge and therefore needs even more time to become mainstream.” 

Sustainable agriculture 

The trend toward more sustainable and organic farming has forced agrochemical giants like Syngenta to respond with less toxic and more environmentally friendly pesticides and fertilisers. The Swiss giant is among those in the industry developing alternatives to synthetic chemicals that are based on natural compounds and organisms, what’s known as biological products.  

“We want all farmers to become sustainable irrespective of the methods they practice,” says Petra Laux, the company’s head of business sustainability.  

Syngenta is already working to limit the negative effects of agrochemicals on people and the environment by improving product safety through testing and improved targeting of specific pests, she says. It also promotes better farming practices through training and digital tools like precision application of pesticides. 

The company’s biologicals portfolio comprises biocontrols, products used to manage fungal and bacterial diseases, pests, nematodes and weeds, and biostimulants, which are applied to plants, seeds or roots to improve the efficiency of nutrient take-up, crop quality, or tolerance to extreme temperatures. The latest innovation — currently being trialled in China — is a biological product that will reduce leaching and in turn will lower the amount of fertiliser needed.  

This is currently a niche market for Syngenta, accounting for less than 0.5% of its total sales in 2020, because there are few effective nature-based solutions, Laux says. She is optimistic that there is room to grow the business provided farmers can be convinced of the benefits and there is greater market acceptance for such products.  

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Shachi Gurumayum, a former Syngenta employee who now handles business development of AgBiTech, a Texan company that sells biological pest-control products, says that given the risk-averse mentality of farmers, sustainable and profitable agriculture rather than organic farming has a better chance of gaining acceptance.  

“The question we should be asking is how do we transition from a model that transformed agriculture and brought food security to one which uses safer products but sustains productivity,” he says.   

That does not exclude the possibility that a country could go 100% organic. But it would require investment in areas beyond farming such as soil fertility, groundwater quality, biodiversity and pollinators. It would also require a commitment from consumers that goes beyond just paying a little extra for organic food.  

“It is possible to feed the world with organic agriculture, but our habits have to change. We have to eat less meat and waste less food,” says Studer.  

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