Reversing the ‘Green Revolution’: Is it Possible?
By Sumanasiri Liyanage
On 22 April, at a meeting held with the heads of State corporations and statutory boards, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasised that “in order to produce a healthy and productive citizenry, the Government must ensure the right of the people to access a non-toxic and balanced diet.” So, he further said “that measures will be taken to ensure that only organic fertiliser would be used in the agriculture sector in the country in the future.” Although it was a sudden announcement, the President’s policy statement, Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour (VPS), promised the introduction of an integrated soil fertility management system as one of the key objectives of his development perspective. The decision, if carried out with proper commitment and determination, should be welcome.
Students of agriculture and practicing farmers know well that soil fertility in Sri Lanka has deteriorated for multiple reasons to an extent that it may lead to an irreversible disaster, unless drastic remedial action is taken. The remedial action taken so far that includes a continuous use and misuse of chemical fertilizer in fact has worsened the issue of deterioration of soil fertility. In this backdrop, VPS has proposed the following measures, so that by 2030 Sri Lankan agriculture would be transformed basically into organic agriculture. The steps proposed include: (1) Replace the existing fertiliser subsidy scheme with an alternative system; (2) Provide inorganic and organic fertiliser both free of charge to farmers; (3) Convert traditional farming villages into users of only organic fertiliser; (4) Develop 2 million home gardens using organic fertiliser; (5) Initiate a programme to produce all essential fertilisers domestically; (6) Production of bio-fertiliser and organic fertiliser of high standard using the forests and wetlands. Although some of these proposals are justifiably open to questioning by environmentalists, this ten-year programme, if adopted methodically and conscientiously, Sri Lankan agriculture would have a possibility to transform, if I use Vandana Shiva’s terminology, from current decadent industrial agricultural system to agro-ecological system. Of course, there are and will be many ifs writ large.
Will it be a disaster?
Responding to this statement, the Chairperson of the farmer organisations in Polonnaruwa, reminding an old metaphor, said this is tantamount to a farmer who chopped down a “murunga tree” in front of his house to take in the truck that was bought in his previous night dream. Is his fear valid? Before we discuss the obstacles that are in the way to implement this programme, let me turn to the critics and their argument.
Critique 1: Moving away from the agricultural system based on chemical fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides will reduce the agricultural production and as a result the GDP. According to one economist, the value added to the economy from agriculture will drop by half and reduce the overall GDP by 3.5 per cent. This may be true if someone adopts conventional system of national accounting. One may also add if as a result of non-use of chemical fertiliser, the money that has to be spent on the treatment of kidney disease will decline and it will have a negative impact on the GDP. Hence, to realistically value the impact of this kind of decision, conventional accounting is not adequate. So, the systems like energy accounting and atmospheric accounting should be used.
Critique 2: Shifting to agro-ecological system would increase the price of rice for urban consumers, as there will be a reduction in yield per acre. Recent studies done by the Institute of Fundamental Studies with regard to paddy cultivation has revealed moving away from agricultural system based on chemical fertiliser may reduce the market price of rice to Rs 75 a kilogramme.
Critique 3: Removal of a subsidy for chemical fertiliser would be a disincentive to engage in agriculture and as a result farmers’ income would decline and rural poverty would increase. This was the fear of the farmers as expressed by the Chairman of the farmers’ organisation in Polonnaruwa. Nonetheless, systemic transformation, in this case from industrial agriculture to agroecological system, is not something that can happen overnight. It is a prolonged process. Rejuvenation of soil would take time, at least two to three “kanna.” Hence, a subsidy can be given to farmers through an income stabilisation programme in a transitory period.
Critique 4: This is an extension of the Critique 3 and it says that the decline of farmer income would lead them to give up farming so that they would be dispossessed by big agri-businesses. This critique has no validity, since big agri-businesses depend more on chemical fertiliser.
Critique 5: This is not a conscious and well thought out measure, but a response to trade deficit so that an attempt to cut down on US$ 400 annual expenditure on importation of fertiliser. It may be true, but that is how import substitution policies were articulated and emerged. So what?
Critique 6: Banning chemical fertiliser would affect plantation agriculture adversely. Since this is a totally different subject, in this article I opt to bracket this issue.
Although it is in the VPS, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement, and the President seems to be determined to adopt this programme, pressure would be definitely mounted from varying forces, either to stop the programme completely, or to water it down. This fear is not unsubstantiated. Past experience has shown that powerful bureaucrats were behind in releasing a stock of chemical fertiliser with dangerous substance.
An amalgam consisting of fertiliser companies, top-level bureaucrats and politicians are capable of blocking this kind of programme, as it directly affects their thirst for power and money.
Secondly, there is another group that would complement the first. This includes agricultural experts and economists who would forecast using various mathematical models a bleak future such as the decline of GDP, reduction of productivity, and possible increase of imports of rice and other food grains.
Thirdly, since the implementation would be prolonged and entail transitory pain to the farmers, an opposition may emanate from the farmers themselves who have been heretofore practicing farming heavily dependent on chemical fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides. Since, rural farmers comprise the large portion of vote base among all communities, it may be electorally a disaster. Hence, it is necessary to introduce measures to minimise those transitory pains and outcomes.
Greening of agriculture is definitely a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, the pressure mounting against such a step would be formidable and countering it needs a strong alliance and a correct programme.
About the writer:
The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.