Does Sri Lanka's Farming Crisis Mean we Shouldn't go Organic?
In the weeks following Sri Lanka’s decision to ban the import of chemical fertilisers and pesticides overnight, the conversation about organic farming’s viability to ‘feed the world’ has been reignited. The most pervasive story going around is that the economic crash following the ban indicates that organic farming is not a viable model for economic stability or adequate food production (with industrial agriculture as the more stable alternative). We thought it was worth unpacking that story a bit further, looking both at what happened in Sri Lanka’s case, and what other countries’ transitions to organic farming have looked like in the past. We posted the abridged versions of these stories on social media but felt they deserved a more permanent spot here, too. Let’s dive in.
What went wrong in Sri Lanka’s case?
The first major point to consider when looking at Sri Lanka’s case is the geopolitical context. The ongoing economic crisis didn’t just pop up overnight after the government banned chemical inputs. It’s rooted in the colonial restructuring of Sri Lanka’s food and economic systems continued through IMF-coerced neoliberalisation. Let’s look back at the country’s economic history.
During the colonial period, Sri Lanka’s food system was effectively restructured to feed the needs of the European market. British-era plantations focused on producing cash crops including tea, coffee, and rubber, systematically destroying much of the native biodiversity and local food resilience. By the time of independence, Sri Lanka had already lost its ability to be self-reliant as its economy had grown dependent on exports of primary commodities and imports of essential food items, including grains, pulses, milk and sugar. The country had to rely heavily on borrowing to counteract its growing trade imbalance, build public infrastructure, and subsidise essential commodities for its citizens.
The role of debt
Debt also played a large role in setting the stage for the current crisis. Independent Sri Lanka’s inability to circumvent the rigidity of the economic and food systems it inherited resulted in a long-term reliance on debt, and, eventually, the collapse of its economy.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) weaponised Sri Lanka’s growing debt to force economic liberalisation. Between 1965-83, the IMF extended four major loans, conditional on the country cutting down on government spending, slashing subsidies, and replacing food subsidies with food stamps, encouraging private and foreign capital investment, abolishing price controls, devaluing the rupee, and liberalising the exchange rate. Sri Lanka became one of the first countries in the Majority World to fully embrace neoliberalism in 1977, and in order to rapidly industrialise its economy, it had to resort to heavy borrowing. The imposition of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s increased dependence on fertiliser imports, devastated soils, forced most farmers into debt, increased export dependence on a handful of cash crops, and destabilised food prices.
The result was a massive increase in income inequality, widespread food insecurity owing to high inflation and rapidly decreasing value of food stamps, a decline in welfare and health funding, an increase in malnutrition, and the suppression of trade unions. A crisis was practically inevitable.
Following the long civil war that began in 1983 and finally concluded in 2009, the Rajapaksa government went on a borrowing spree, from the West, from China and from India, in order to rebuild its war-torn economy. The government continued to recklessly introduce tax cuts favouring the wealthy, using foreign exchange reserves to import luxury goods, and investing in the rapid expansion of infrastructure for cities, ports, and tourist ventures, hoping to attract foreign investment. By 2019, Sri Lanka had taken 16 loans from the IMF, all conditional on some form of economic restructuring. The economy continued to deteriorate, and government debts piled up. The crisis was further compounded by an enormous strain on foreign exchange reserves caused by the decline in exports and tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic and severe government mismanagement.
The second major point to consider is not Sri Lanka’s organic policy itself, but the way in which it was implemented. While farmers, scientists, and environmentalists were pleading for a gradual transition, the Rajapaksa regime enforced an immediate ban on the import of chemical fertilisers and pesticides without providing any time or support for farmers to transition, influenced by the irrational understanding that restricting imports of fertilisers could reduce the burden on foreign exchange reserves and curb the crisis.
As warned by scientists and farmers, the fertiliser ban caused the collapse of the country’s food system, with food shortages expected to spark severe food insecurity and further aggravate the economic crisis in the coming months. Although the ban has since been reversed following farmer and citizen protests, the damage is already done. Through all of this, farmers have suffered the most, losing out on nearly a season’s worth of produce owed to an overnight ban imposed without their consultation, or the necessary support required to make the transition.
As is clear from the disastrous background conditions, the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka has little to do with the viability of organic farming at all. The root of it all is the power consolidation of the food system — at the hands of the colonial forces that forcibly restructured the food system, the transnational corporations that imposed the Green Revolution, the weaponisation of debt and forced neoliberalisation by the IMF, and the abuse of power by the Rajapaksa regime.
If anything, Sri Lanka’s organic farming policy is the perfect case study on how not to transition to organic. So that begs the question — what would a better one look like? We drew on the example of Cuba to show some of the key differences between the two transitions, which we’ll sum up at the end.
Learning from Cuba
In pre-colonial Cuba, small farms predominantly produced diverse crops that meet domestic food requirements. Under Spanish colonial rule, the Cuban food system was restructured — similarly to that of Sri Lanka — to meet the needs of European industry. Small farms were replaced with large cattle and sugarcane farms held by a few wealthy landowners and worked by enslaved communities from Africa.
Post-independence, the Cuban economy, and most of the country’s arable land was controlled by the United States. The colonial trade-dependent food system remained unchanged, but the export of sugar and the control of wealth largely shifted to the US and Britain. As sugar production continued to increase, so did the reliance on food imports. With wealth concentrated among a few landowners, most Cubans were forced into extreme poverty.
At the time of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959, nearly 75 per cent of the country’s agricultural land belonged to foreign entities. The Castro government undertook revolutionary agricultural reform, including nationalising all foreign-owned private property and redistributing over 100,000 land titles to sharecroppers and small farmers, eliminating large landholdings and placing a cap on land ownership.
Over the next 20 years, the government achieved remarkable improvements in life expectancy, food security, and economic prosperity, but the country was still unable to escape its underlying colonial trade structure. Cuba was dependent on the export of sugar to the Soviet Union in exchange for key imports. Furthermore, the food system was restructured to follow a Soviet-style agricultural model which favoured large state-owned monocultural farms heavily reliant on the use of chemical inputs.
For nearly three decades, Cuba relied entirely on the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the import of essential commodities from Russia to meet its food needs. After the Dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the following 30-year embargo imposed by the US, the country lost its largest trading partner and its ability to import food and chemical inputs nearly overnight. The embargo prevented businesses affiliated with the US from conducting any trade with Cuban interests, prohibiting assistance in the form of food and medical supplies, and effectively denying Cuba access to nearly all the commodities it was dependent on imports from the world market — a dependence that the US itself had created.
What followed was the collapse of Cuba’s food and economic systems. Cuba was on its own and had to urgently find a way to feed its people without relying on the rest of the world. In the face of economic meltdown, rising hunger and severe food insecurity, and no access to chemical inputs, the government radically reformed the Cuban food system, founded on the principle that every citizen has the right to farm.
The reforms shifted four key aspects of the Cuban food system: First, they redistributed land and placed control over production back to the hands of farmers. Second, they shifted focus on agroecological practices in curriculum and policy. Third, they ensured fair prices for farmers. Fourth, they promoted urban agriculture and localised food production and consumption. We’ll cover each of these in turn.
In 1993, the control over 80 per cent of state-held farmland was redistributed to workers in the form of cooperatives. Anyone wishing to exercise their right to farm would be granted a rent-free, perpetual lease on state land, in exchange for farming it. Farmers could sell excess produce in local farmers' markets at guaranteed, fair prices.
The state invested heavily in supporting agroecological research, and enabling a Participatory Plant Breeding program wherein farmers and scientists would work together to shape farming practices and policies. Agricultural policies were restructured to make agroecology the dominant paradigm in education as well as practice.
Although these shifts contributed a great deal to the growth of agroecology on the island, what truly revolutionized the movement was the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños (ANAP), the largest peasant collective in the country. At the time, virtually all Cuban peasants belonged to ANAP, planting on lands between one to ten acres. ANAP drew inspiration from the Honduras peasants’ Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) model to build a highly organised grassroots agroecology movement that facilitated farmer-led technological innovation, decentralised farmer-farmer knowledge exchanges and promoted the practice of agroecological diversification methods.
The farming practices developed through ANAP spread rapidly, achieving historic increases in food production and contributing massively to restoring food security on the island. A study conducted in 2011 estimated that small farmers in Cuba produced over 65% of the country’s food on just 25% of the land. Another study revealed that small farmers were not only receiving higher yields through agroecological practices, but they were also far more resilient during natural calamities too.
To be clear, none of this means that the Cuban government did everything right — this is not to unilaterally praise their actions. It is to point out a specific set of policies that led to a particular outcome for agriculture. And as more recent history shows, the benefits have not stayed consistent when we bring it into the present day. Although Cuba was enormously successful in building a strong case for food sovereignty at the time, the collapse of Cuba’s food and economic systems in the decades that followed are a result of mismanagement and abuse of power by the ruling government, and a continuation of the embargo that continues to systematically and violently cripple the Cuban economy and food system. The intention of the embargo has always been to starve Cuba. In 1960, when Eisenhower sat in office, he pushed for the blockade of the island arguing that “If they [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out.” The ongoing crisis in Cuba was evidently premeditated long ago, with the embargo causing severe food shortages, skyrocketing food prices and thousands of citizens taking to the streets demanding the withdrawal of the blockade and the dissolution of the ruling government. We must also understand that in order to sustain a self-reliant food system in the long run, the shift must ultimately be accompanied by a transformation of economic systems as well, away from an industrial, consumerist, trade dependant model, toward a local, self-reliant, cooperative economy.
Let’s recap the differences between these cases. Sri Lanka’s transition to organic agriculture was top-down, hasty, unsupported, and set against a backdrop of neocolonial exploitation that made an economic crisis almost inevitable. It did not change the material conditions of farmers, such as through land distribution. Cuba’s transition to organic was more moderate; it encouraged a staged approach; it supported farmers’ transitions; it redistributed land, and it contained meaningful farmer-led participation and choice. Again, the latter case is controversial as well for various reasons. However, there are clear differences between them that can be learned from.
Sri Lanka’s case was not a failure of organic. It was a failure of leadership. This is why it’s so crucial to carry the conversation from “which practice should we employ” to looking at the greater context these practices are embedded within. This is not to say that we should take a model like Cuba’s and simply export it to other countries. It worked there because the solution was appropriate to the context; it consulted the people it would ultimately affect.
Food sovereignty is the recognition that there is no one solution for all of agriculture. It is the call to support individual communities in finding the pathway—like Cuba did—to an agricultural system that truly reflects the wants, needs, and experiences of the people growing the food. It’s the restoration of genuine choices about how to farm. We must begin building transitions that are participatory, measured, and farmer-led. Only then can we arrive at a system that is not only productive and sustainable—but also just.
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Calling all journalists, podcasters and storytellers: We invite you to join the upcoming Press Forum — Resilience in a Food Crisis on Aug 2nd. Even amidst crises of food security, and climate change, grassroots peasant and Indigenous communities have developed incredibly resilient food systems. Tune-in to listen and cover these success stories, demonstrating food systems that are resilient to shocks, protect biodiversity, mitigate climate change, and combat hunger. This will be a 75-minute forum with speaker and live Q&A portions. Register here
This edition of Offshoot was written by Rohan, with editing support from the team.