In April of 2021, the president of Sri Lanka banned the import of fertilizers and pesticides and told the southwest Asia country’s 2 million farmers they were immediately moving to total organic production. The predictable result was a dramatic drop in yields and a food crisis for its 22 million residents.

While the government policy was dropped in November, it was too late to overcome limited food supplies due to 30-60% yield decreases for most crops and grocery prices that increased by as much as 90%. Even with the short-lived organic-only mandate, thousands of farmers are facing bankruptcy.

Costly Decisions

The effects of the fertilizer and pesticide ban were brutal and swift. Rice production fell 20% within 6 months, forcing the government to import $450 million of rice to feed its citizens. The unfortunate top-down government decision to immediately switch 100% to organic farming was made without consulting farmers, scientists or environmentalist who had advocated for a more gradual 10-year transition.

But the government was looking to eliminate a $500 million per year subsidy on the importation and use of fertilizer. This savings was to be used to offset the government’s debt-fueled spending and tax cuts that had slashed government revenue. Then Covid battered the country’s tourist industry and the war in Ukraine pushed up global costs for food and fuel.

No Fertilizer for Rice

A new president was installed in July after the previous president resigned and fled the country in the face of mass protests over fuel shortages and sky-high food prices. The new president needs $300 million to import enough fertilizer to prevent another disaster with the latest rice crop.

This is an unfortunate example of government officials making decisions that impact agriculture and the food needs of citizens without fully considering the consequences. In Sri Lanka, these poorly-made decisions mean over 6 million Sri Lankans lack access to adequate food. 

The crisis, the result of government officials making off-the-cuff decisions they have no business making without the input of ag folks who understand what can and can’t be done in terms of food production, could have been avoided.