Fully organic farming? Sri Lanka cripples farmers, causes food shortage


When we argue over genetically modified crops and pesticides in the developed world, the outcome of the debate does not determine whether or not we are hungry. Restricting and banning the technologies used by farmers can have very serious repercussions, but we have not yet experimented with many; most of us live within minutes of several grocery stores stocked with almost any food we could possibly need. We have so much to eat that even the the poorest of us fight obesity. [1]

This is not the case in many countries around the world. Restricting farmers’ access to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, for example, can limit their production and lead to severe food shortages. Sri Lanka is going through this right now, as George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok noted. earlier this week:

The president of Sri Lanka brutally banned chemical fertilizers earlier this year in an attempt to become 100% organic. The ban resulted in reduced production and soaring prices which, along with the decline in tourism and the pandemic, created an economic crisis.

This experience is not unique to Sri Lanka. Many countries have suffered from food shortages due to idealistic pro-organic policies. But analyzing the situation as it unfolds reveals precisely what is wrong when governments make decisions based on bad ideology and ignore the evidence.

Economy 101

Whatever else we can say about the all-organic craze in Sri Lanka, it is clear that farmers across the country have not approached the president to ask him to ban useful tools like chemical fertilizers. Ninety percent of these producers use these products, and 85 percent expect their yields to drop if denied access. About the same majority of farmers also said they did not know how to start organic farming, which is quite common. “Due to the higher knowledge requirements in organic farming,” a recent study noted, “the yield gaps currently observed between organic and conventional methods could increase further if more farmers adopt organic practices. “.

This is where the number one takeaway lies. If organic farming was so far superior to its conventional counterpart, most farmers would have adopted it long ago. You don’t have to force people to use cultivation methods that increase their yields or lower their production costs. Inputs excluded from organic farming (such as biotech seeds, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers)are expensive but increase productivity. The fact that producers still use these tools, sometimes even when they are banned, is the clearest proof that Sri Lanka’s policies are backward.

We can draw the same conclusion from the point of view of the consumer. The prices of everyday foods like sugar, onions and rice exploded following the ban on agrochemical imports. Has the president reassessed his organic policy solely in light of this result? Sound economic theory (and common sense) says that you should reverse a bad policy to avoid its consequences, so naturally the government left the ban in place and blamed someone else for the problem, leaving the root cause unanswered.

The president appointed a former military general to serve as “Commissioner General of Essential Services”And confiscate the agricultural products of the“ grabbers ”. The government then put in place price controls for these products “in order to protect consumers”, which has a well-documented history of provoking and exacerbate shortages. Nice work, commissioner. Economist Ludwig von Mises explained how this happens using milk for example:

On the one hand, the fall in the price of milk increases the demand for milk; people who could not afford to buy milk at a higher price can now buy it at the lower price that the government has decreed. And on the other hand, some producers, those milk producers who produce at the highest cost, that is to say the marginal producers, are now suffering losses, because the price that the government has decreed is lower than their costs.

This is the important point of the market economy. The private entrepreneur, the private producer, cannot suffer long term losses. And since he cannot take wasted milk, he restricts the production of milk for the market.

Ideology of well-being> science

These economic considerations lead us to another key conclusion: the government did not carefully consider the evidence for the benefits of organic farming before adopting this policy. Had he done so, officials would have seen the obvious drawbacks of an all-organic policy, among them an increase land use and greenhouse gas shows – and of course, upper consumer price. Science writer Dr Steven Novella explained what these shortcomings actually lead to:

The science is actually increasingly clear on this point – organic farming is not good for the climate or the global ecosystem. This often leads diehard organic advocates to argue that we need to reduce the human population (again, without sequitur – this doesn’t justify inefficiency), often without explicitly stating that they are talking about massive famine. (others, usually dark skinned). , people, of course).

These harsh realities can be obscured by calls to “protect the health of the people and the environment of the country which have been damaged by agrochemicals”. But it’s little more than the same welfare rhetoric that drives pesticide bans in the West.

This does not mean that organic farming offers no advantages; this is certainly the case, although its use must be more targeted. According to agroeconomists Eva-Marie Meemken and Matin Qaim,

The conclusion that organic farming is not the overall model for sustainable agriculture does not mean that organic methods cannot be useful in specific situations. Under certain conditions, organic farming can be clearly positive for the environment …

Experience shows that farmers can also benefit when they are linked to certified markets where consumers are able and willing to pay a higher price for organically produced food. This is the case in certain high added value niches but less so in mass markets aimed at the most modest segments of the population.. [my emphasis]

It is a balanced and scholarly analysis of a complicated question. But a universal organic policy that bans vital agricultural tools in the name of environmental protection lacks such nuances. The welfare of Sri Lankan farmers and consumers also appears to have been overlooked.

[1] the poverty-obesity paradox is another topic. My only point here is that most Americans are not hungry.

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