By Dr Roshan Rajadurai
Inflation threatens all Sri Lankans as the price of food and other basic necessities continues to soar. At the center of this historic economic, political, social and humanitarian catastrophe are a series of deeply flawed and widely criticized policy decisions that have thrown the country’s agricultural sector into utter disarray.
Among the decisions facing criticism both locally and globally is the infamous overnight import ban on all agrochemicals, including synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides and fungicides.
At the time, the policy was touted as the first and only preliminary step needed to drive an immediate island-wide transition to organic farming. Dubious ‘organic farming experts’, doctors and monks abounded, loudly proclaiming the virtues of a ‘100% organic farming strategy’.
These former champions of organic farming claimed at the time that the “declining health of the average Sri Lankan” and the negative impacts of agrochemicals on the environment, as well as the US$48 billion a year that could be saved by stopping fertilizer imports were sufficient justification for the ban.
These same “experts” were quick to dismiss the warnings, counter-arguments and volumes of scientific data from respected academics and professionals with real farming experience as nothing more than the dishonest lies of this which the former Minister of Agriculture imaginatively dubbed a “fertilizer mafia”. greater than the rock of Sigiriya”.
In September 2021, after many months of frantic discussions with the leaders at the time, I said the following in a widely published article titled: “The current Sri Lankan tea crisis only reinforces the value of wages related to productivity
“Without any planning or notice, our entire industry was forced into mindless participation in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history…The broad consensus among experts is that we can begin to see exponentially worse crop losses from late 2021, reaching around 30-40% by next year.
“Had the RPCs ignored basic agronomic practices and standards in this way, it would have been labeled as criminal mismanagement. As best farming practices are now outright ignored in favor of an undefined and unplanned “100% organic farming” strategy, this historic and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive…
“Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself…With insufficient balanced nutrients due to the unforeseen push towards organic, we foresee a series of cascading failures resulting from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to reverse the tide of negative sentiment against such developments.”
Less than a year later, everything we announced has come true. Agricultural productivity of export crops fell by 20%. While the value of tea and rubber exports increased, volumes fell by 20% and 30% respectively. Had we been able to maintain production at pre-fertilizer ban levels, we estimate additional export earnings of US$240 million from plantation-related exports.
These shortcomings are reflected in Sri Lanka’s humiliating bankruptcy, crippling 54.6% inflation and deadly 81% food inflation. As a result, the World Food Program now estimates that 3 in 10 Sri Lankans – 6.7 million Sri Lankans – now face severe food insecurity. For context, one of the worst famines in modern history was the Bengal famine, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 3 million Indians. If we allow any more blunders, those are the dangerous waters we are swimming in now.
Meanwhile, the overnight 100% organic farming experts, doctors and monks whose only concern was the health and well-being of all Sri Lankans are nowhere in sight or heard. And it is up to once reviled professionals and academics to chart a roadmap out of the crisis and restore the industry upon which more than 10% of our national population depend for their livelihood.
A common framework for progress
Solving this complex mishap is going to be extremely difficult, but we think it’s possible. And we believe that the plantation industry will have a vital role to play in this difficult and necessary journey.
However, to do this, we must recognize and examine all the decisions that have brought us to this terrible low point. Moving forward, we need to appoint an industry task force – made up of credible industry experts, whom the government needs to consult, especially when formulating policy decisions that may impact the economy. entire agricultural sector. Failure to do so, even at this late stage, would risk causing even more irreversible damage to our industry and the millions of lives affected by it.
This means that the government in particular must commit to a strict regime of evidence-based policy at all times. If drastic policy adjustments are needed, the government should take a consultative approach, seek balanced and credible opinions, and obtain broad stakeholder approval.
With this common understanding in place, we can finally begin to bring together the best minds from our respective industries and work in partnership to develop a viable roadmap for a sustainable path to true Sri Lankan economic renaissance. As Sri Lanka’s first true export industry, we believe that the Sri Lankan plantation industry should be the first to rise to this challenge.
For more than a decade, our industry has painstakingly sought to articulate what the plantation sector needs to move forward. Currently, the consensus is that reform, investment and knowledge sharing are most needed in our industry in the following areas:
Sustainable and progressive productivity-linked wages that benefit workers and businesses
Best agricultural and operational practices
Research and development towards greater local added value
Modernization of the factory and the supply chain
Implementation of a coherent, science-based national agricultural policy framework
We call on all who have the knowledge and expertise to join us in this difficult and long-awaited endeavour.
About the Author :
Dr. Roshan Rajadurai is the Managing Director of Hayleys PLC’s Plantations business (which includes Kelani Valley Plantations, Talawakelle Tea Plantations and Horana Plantations). Former President of the Ceylon Planters Association, Dr. Rajadurai has 36 years of experience in the plantation sector.