Flindt on Friday: Sri Lanka farming fail is warning for all

Five thousand miles away, something very significant is happening. It’s a story that has gone all but unnoticed here, but has enormous significance for farmers and food consumers; in other words, all of us.

I confess I know very little about Sri Lanka. There were characters in my childhood who were once “tea planters” in what was then Ceylon.

They had a thousand-yard stare and were spoken about in hushed tones, almost like Lloyds Names of the 1980s, as if great misfortune had fallen upon them.   

See also: A guide to the updated autumn manure spreading rules

About the author

Charlie Flindt
Charlie Flindt is a National Trust tenant in Hampshire, now farming 40ha of recently “de-arabled” land with his wife Hazel – who still runs a livestock enterprise. He also writes books and plays in a local band.
Read more articles by Charlie Flindt

I know Sri Lanka shook up the cricket world with their revolutionary approach to run chases, and managed to get the rules on arm flexing rewritten – but that’s about it.

But I’m now watching the Pearl of the Indian Ocean with great interest – and sadness.

On 26 April 2021, with much fanfare, the Sri Lankan government announced a ban on all chemical fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Echoes of Eustice

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s justification seems awfully familiar. “The government must guarantee the right of the people to a non-toxic diet,” he said.

The time had come to end “soil infertility”, “declining yields” and “loss of biodiversity”.

The president also stated that “the government will directly intervene to provide all necessary facilities to the producers to encourage the production of organic fertiliser at the district level”, according to the Newsfirst website.

Wasn’t that the same script as the one handed to George Eustice? Sri Lanka would be the first country to introduce “give them what they want’ farming. “Them” being the environmentalists.

As The Times explained last month, the ban “was made not at the behest of neoliberal economists… but rather on the advice of environmentalists in the name of sustainable agriculture.”

Gosh, that sounds familiar.

What could go wrong? As it happened, rather a lot.

The Times went on: “That strategy backfired in spectacular fashion. Domestic rice production fell by 14% from 2021 to 2022, forcing the nation, long self-sufficient in rice production, to import hundreds of millions of dollars of rice… the ban decimated tea production, leading to a $425m (£340m) economic loss to the industry in its first six months of implementation.”

And let’s face it, The Times is no friend of modern farming.

Sri Lankan protestors

Protesters take part in an anti-government demonstration outside the Sri Lanka police headquarters in Colombo 16th May, 2022 © Pacific Press Media Production Corp/Alamy Stock-Photo

Civil unrest

A year on from the ban, a Sri Lankan delegation could be found at the International Monetary Fund’s door, desperate for a monumental financial lifeline.

On the island itself, there are shortages, riots, curfews, looting, and the military ordered to shoot on sight. The government is in chaos, with the prime minster resigning.

There are rumours of martial law and an imminent military coup. It’s not pretty.

Yes, it’s true that worldwide events (Covid, Ukraine) have had an effect on the island’s economy, just as they have on economies all around the world.

But let’s let The Times explain it as simply as is possible: “What turned Sri Lanka’s economic situation from difficult to catastrophic was the decision by the Rajapaksa government to implement a nationwide ban on synthetic fertiliser.”

Scarcely a week goes by without the anti-chemical brigade sounding off about the evils of pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

The problems of the world would all be solved without them, they claim – one letter in this magazine pleaded for the end of all fossil fuels. (One assumes it was written on parchment using a quill, rather than a fossil fuel-fuelled computer.)

Perhaps they should pause for a moment, and cast their angry eyes halfway round the world, and study a part of the world that has taken the plunge into giving them “what they want”. It might make them think again.