Global Organic Farming
By P. K. Balachandran
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government appears determined to bring about an immediate and drastic change in Sri Lankan agriculture by replacing the conventional chemicalsbased system to an organic-based one without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Adopting a carrot and stick policy, the import of chemical fertilisers has been banned and assistance to acquire organic fertilisers has been announced.
But this has been done totally disregarding the advice of experts, who had recommended a step by step change-over to avoid losses to the farmer and the country. The Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association (SLAEA) had warned that a complete switch-over will result in a 25 per cent fall in paddy yield and the profitability of paddy farming will be reduced by 33 per cent. On the other hand, a mixed conventional-organic system will increase paddy profitability by 16 per cent.
A switch-over will see also tea productivity going down by 35 per cent, and decrease the tea export volume from 279 million kg to 181 million creating a loss of Rs 84 billion. Coconut yield will be down by 30 per cent. The SLAEA recommend that Sri Lanka follow the world trend and opt for a gradual and carefully considered, market-led and voluntary switch-over in place of sudden one.
According to World of Organic Agriculture 2018 Summary, there were 57.8 million hectares of organic agricultural land in 2016, including in conversion areas. The regions with the largest areas of organic agricultural land were Oceania (27.3 million hectares, which is almost half the world’s organic agricultural land) and Europe (13.5 million hectares, 23 per cent ). Latin America had 7.1 million hectares (12 per cent) followed by Asia (4.9 million hectares, 9 per cent), North America (3.1 million hectares, 6 per cent), and Africa (1.8 million hectares, 3 per cent). The countries with the most organic agricultural land were Australia (27.4 million hectares), Argentina (3 million hectares), and China (2.3 million hectares). But globally, only 1.2 per cent of farmland was organic. This, despite the quadrupling of the global organic retail sales reaching US$ 82 billion in 2015.
In their paper on the world organic farming scene in the journal Review of Resource Economics (October 2018), Eva-Marie Meemken and Matin Qaim of Gottingen University in Germany attributed the minuscule percentage under organic farming to lower yields. Across all crops, the gap in the yield of organic agriculture ranges between 19 and 25 per cent.
However, considerable differences can be observed between different crop species. Legumes (lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, and peanuts) and fruits, show smaller yield gaps than cereals and root and tuber crops.
Lack of Nutrients
Nutrient limitations are an important factor making organic agriculture show lower yields. Organic systems are often found to be limited in nitrogen and phosphorus. The release of plant-available nitrogen from organic sources is slow and can often not keep up with the nitrogen demand during peak crop growth periods, the authors point out. The amount of phosphorus provided in organic systems is also sometimes insufficient to replenish the quantities lost due to harvest.
Explaining the higher yields seen in legumes, Meemken and Qaim say that legumes can fix atmospheric nitrogen and are hence less dependent than other crops on externally added nitrogen. Fruits grow on trees that have longer growing seasons and extensive root systems and are hence better able to absorb nutrients in synchrony with crop demand, they add.
In terms of water availability and use, organic systems tend to have an advantage because soils managed with organic methods show better water-holding capacity and higher rates of water infiltration, the authors point out. “This is also one reason why organic systems are often said to be more resilient and have higher yield stability, even under drought conditions,” the authors say.
But organic systems are more susceptible to pest outbreaks because of the ban on the use of chemical pesticides. And since chemical weedicide cannot be used in organic farming, weeding has to be done one manually and that is both labourintensive and expensive. And labour is indeed expensive in Sri Lanka.
Demands More Land
Meemken and Qaim point out that widespread increase or expansion of organic agriculture would need more land, which in turn, will lead to a loss of natural habitats. It is encroachment of forest lands and elephant habitats in Sri Lanka which has led to elephants straying into farm lands and the farmers in turn killing elephants in self-defence. Elephant killing is mounting in Sri Lanka.
Even though, one of the reasons for environmental degradation is chemicals-based agriculture (it causes land degradation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, and climate change), organic cultivation will demand, not just more land, but also more water and other natural resources. But these resources are becoming increasingly scarce, particularly in poorer countries which are going through unplanned and haphazard development.
Production costs in organic farming being higher, there will be increases in consumer prices, making food less affordable for the poor in developing countries. On an average, organic products are 50 per cent more expensive than conventional products, the authors say. Therefore, the universal goal of giving the masses food security will not be achieved.
According to the FAO, there are still 800 million chronically undernourished people living mostly in Asia and Africa. To feed the hungry, global agricultural production will have to increase by at least 60 per cent and possibly up to 100 per cent by 2050, the authors say. A 100 per cent switch over to organic agriculture will retard progress towards the goal of ensuring food security for all.
However, Meemken and Qaim recommend a ‘smart combination’ of organic and conventional agriculture. Organic farming could be practised where conditions are suitable and where there is a demand for organic products, which is typically among the health conscious and wealthy sections of society, they say. Further, they point out that the demand for organic products is set to grow. A survey in Germany in 2013 found that 50 per cent preferred organic products. And with world-wide economic advancement and resultant social mobility, the market for organic products will expand to sections of the world which are poor now. Expansion of the market will also make organic farming profitable.
Meemken and Qaim recommend the adoption of ‘organic standards’ to ensure uniformity of quality. Today, more than 100 countries publicly support ‘organic standards’ developed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). The cornerstones of organic production systems are: balanced crop rotations with legumes, recycling of nutrients (e.g., through mixed farming), and the use of organic fertilisers.
In the developed world, compliance with organic standards is verified on an annual basis through farm inspections undertaken by accredited certification agents. In most of the developing or poor countries, farming is still organic for want of resources to go in for high yielding varieties which need chemical fertilisers, chemical pesticides and a lot of water, which do not come cheap.
But the organic farming in the poor countries is not scientific and is not ‘certified’. Certified organic farming is the hallmark of the developed countries and there has been an increase in certified organic farming. Over 15 years, the global area under certified organic agriculture has increased substantially from 15 million hectares in 2000 to 51 million ha in 2015. But still, in 2016, organic agriculture accounted for only 1.2 per cent of the total agricultural land worldwide.