Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 15 August 2014
It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong, cautioned the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name, Voltaire.
Thankfully, men and women with the courage of their conviction regularly disagree with the establishment (whether political or academic). Societies move forward largely thanks to them.
A case in point is organic farming in Sri Lanka, sustained by a handful of committed individuals and groups while the full resources and might of the state promoted the opposite.
Half a century ago, Sri Lanka adopted the Green Revolution’s approach of high external input farming. It policy favoured hybrid seeds along with the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides. These boosted yields, for sure, but there was a price to pay.
By the 1970s, some scientists – like Dr Ray Wijewardene — and environmentalists realised that chemical intensive farming was not sustainable economically or ecologically. Importing fertilizers and other farm chemicals was draining the country’s foreign exchange. Rampant overuse of chemicals was poisoning soil and water. It threatened both public health and the natural environment.
But the government’s Department of Agriculture (DoA) persisted. Some now say that they were misled by foreign experts, but those drawing up policies and implementing them were our own officials and experts.
Against that backdrop, it was a handful of non-governmental organisations (the much maligned NGOs!) that dissented and looked for alternatives. Working with a minority of caring farmers and consumers, they nurtured an organic movement over 30 years. In effect, they went back to traditional ways of farming before synthetic chemicals distorted the picture.
In the 1980s, concerned NGO activists, planters, scientists and environmentalists formed the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM). Its objectives were to promote organic farming, to establish and maintain standards, and to create awareness of organic products among Lankan people. LOAM became a legal entity in 2001.
Politicians and other public figures are finally taking note of the value of organic food. In recent months, some have extolled the virtues of growing and eating organic.
As 2013 was ending, an organic food outlet named ‘Sethsuwa Medura’ was opened at the Sambodhi Viharaya in Colombo 7. Speaking there, President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged farmers to ‘refrain from using chemical fertilizers’ and to provide people with ‘healthy organic food devoid of toxins’.
Such statements need to be backed by right policies and enabling market mechanisms. Most of our farmers are addicted to heavy use of chemical fertilisers (given on a massive subsidy) and other agrochemicals. They look for quick fixes and higher yields, which are still promoted by state agro extension services.
Last month, Indian environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva was in Sri Lanka to share ideas with our farmer activists. Delivering a public lecture, she noted how “more and more Sri Lankans are becoming aware of the need to consume natural food against processed food through organic farming sans the use of fertilizer or pesticides.”
She added: “Rice and other food produced by organic means are more expensive because the production cycle is longer — but it’s attracting a growing consumer market.”
This is also confirmed by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), a global NGO that tracks trends worldwide. It says that organic farming is now practised in 164 countries where a total of 37.5 million hectares of land are managed organically by some 1.9 million farmers.
According to FiBL’s World of Organic Agriculture (2014 edition), Asia has 3.2 million hectares under organic farming – 9% of global total. The region is home to some 700,000 organic producers, most of them in India.
The report notes how China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have highly export oriented organic sectors, but adds: “The rising middle class and growing consumer awareness of organic production methods are however developing internal markets for organic foods”.
Cumulative figures for organic farming in Sri Lanka are not easy to find; most practitioners are small farmers, or small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
The Export Development Board’s website says about 31,585ha (1.33% of agricultural lands) were committed to organic farming in 2010. These efforts produced 41,129 Mt organic crops that year. FiBL’s 2014 report, on the other hand, gives 19,517 hectares for Sri Lanka in 2012 (land under organic can have annual variations). Both sources indicate the coverage to be expanding slowly.
Sri Lanka’s organic produce is diverse, catering mostly to growing niche markets in the West. These include tea and coconut products, rice, fruits, spices and extracts, essential oils as well as wild harvest like kitul treacle, jaggery (a sugar substitute made from coconut sap) and bees honey.
Cumulative figures for Lanka’s export earnings from organics could not be found. But market potential is enormous: in 2012, global sales of organic food and beverages had reached almost 64 billion US dollars. While demand is growing in all regions, it is highest in North America (with US having 44% of global organic consumption) and European Union (41%).
A challenge for all countries is to develop standards and certification systems. We cannot easily discern organically grown products from their appearance, smell or taste. Consumer trust — and willingness to pay a premium – depends on a firm assurance from growers and intermediaries.
At the invitation of the Sri Lanka Standards Institute, LOAM drew up national standards for organic agriculture in 2007. LOAL was also a partner in the EU-Sri Lanka Organic Agriculture Project that set up the first national certification company in Sri Lanka.
Top export markets have stringent certification requirements. The EDB says seven international certification agencies are operating in Sri Lanka. Some like Control Union (the Netherlands) and IMO (Switzerland) have local inspectors.
But the cost of certification is a key concern, especially for small farmers. Ranjith de Silva, who heads Gami Seva Sevana (GSS), an NGO based in Galaha practising and promoting organics, says an organic inspector from a Western country “would charge as much as one year’s wages of an average worker for one day of inspection in Sri Lanka”.
So small organic farmers need to be organised as cooperatives. Alternatives to third party certification also exist. One is the “teikei” system in Japan that connects food growers directly with consumers. Millions of Japanese consumers participate in teikei, widely cited as the origin of community-supported agriculture worldwide.
Perhaps both systems can co-exist: international certification primarily for export markets, and a trust-based teikei-like rapport for local consumers.
Colombo’s ‘Good Market’ seems to be nurturing such a model. Set up in 2012 under the leadership of Sevalanka Foundation (an NGO), this collective supports healthy eating and local groups engaged in organic farming. The volunteer-driven effort holds weekly fairs at Diyatha Uyana in Battaramulla (next to Water’s Edge) every Thursday, and at Colombo Racecourse every Saturday.
Despite their appeal, organics will remain a niche market, albeit a growing one, for years to come. Nobody wants to eat food laced with agrochemical residues (for which no safe upper limits have been set in Sri Lanka). But when organics typically cost 50% or more than non-organics, how many can really afford it?
Unless this gap is narrowed, organics will remain beyond reach for many.