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Sri Lanka's Fast Track to Agricultural Collapse

Saloni Shah

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Saloni Shah Saloni is a food and agriculture analyst at the breakthrough Institute, and the co author alongside Ted Nordhaus of the recent foreign policy piece. In Sri Lanka, organic farming went catastrophically wrong. Saloni thank you so much for coming on making the time for Decouple today.


Saloni Shah  0:18  

Thank you for having me,


Dr. Chris Keefer  0:21  

says, Lonnie, we do a bit of a self introduction as well. I kept a pretty brief there. So help our audience get to know you a little bit.


Saloni Shah  0:28  

Yeah, absolutely. So as you mentioned, I'm an analyst in the Food and Agriculture program at the breakthrough Institute. The breakthrough is an environmental think tank that advocates for technological solutions to environmental problems. And I've been long interested in issues at the intersection of agriculture, climate, food security and innovation. So I studied environmental science and analysis policy, which gave me a really strong kind of background in forests and land use and then came to break through to apply that that knowledge and work on policy.


Dr. Chris Keefer  1:00  

Awesome. Awesome. Okay. Yeah, I mean, so I've had some, you know, we've been we've been dabbling in agricultural themes for a while now. Had some great guests, like Dr. Prakash, we had Kenneth Cassman, who's also affiliated with the breakthrough Institute. Most recently, I guess, kind of most worryingly, I had Doomberg, on the anonymous Green Chicken, they wrote a great piece called farmers on the brink, and really went through this perfect storm heading towards the world agricultural system. And that has a lot to do with probably Bosch energy policy, and of course, the Russian aggression in Ukraine. But Sri Lanka, and its experiment that we're going to be talking about today seem to be particularly pertinent something I've been dying to dive into, because it's kind of the canary in the coal mine, I think, for a lot of what the world is about to face as a country that sort of did this experiment of banning synthetic agricultural inputs. So I'm really, really excited to be able to deep dive this and I hope it's not too much of a kind of premonition for you know, what's going to be coming in the years ahead, particularly to low income countries. But maybe we can start off just by I guess, kind of laying the scene for we have a very international audience. But let's just get some background on on Sri Lanka, as a country. You know, we don't need to deep dive the history or anything. But you know, from what I understand, it's, you know, a middle income country, people, I think, have heard of the civil war there, and the Tamil Tigers and things like that. But if you can just give us a little bit of a background just to ground people in in this conversation. Of course,


Saloni Shah  2:36  

I think the important thing to consider and remember yours that Sri Lanka wasn't designated as an upper middle income country a few years ago, and so out of, you know, the South Asian kind of Asian region of the world, you know, it's been had been doing fairly well, the ag sector, had enjoyed subsidies and increased yields. They had achieved self sufficiency and rice, which is a huge accomplishment for such a small country that doesn't have a lot of land. Back in the early 2000s. Many people had moved into the foreign a formal wage economy and standards of living have been rising, it's considered it was considered a pretty rich country that enjoyed, you know, a surplus of kind of agriculture and, you know, farmers kind of benefit from these policies. But, you know, recently the government took a very protectionist turn and started to ban imports and the Rajapaksa kind of family came into power a few decades ago. And since they entered, there's been, you know, decades of financial mismanagement, rising debt, as they've, you know, essentially treated cheap debt for infrastructure development, some of which has not been as profitable as people hoped. And so, you have a country of a government that has also been plagued by corruption and voter fraud. And so, you know, enter the current president, he won the election when in a lot of Buddhist majority areas and he was able to rise to prominence as a managerial technocrat due to the platform that was private provided to him by the Viet Maga we have Maga is a think tank of sorts in Sri Lanka that is, has this goal of promoting the moral and material sort of development of Sri Lanka and he, you know, he was able to fashion himself this way, because of this influential and prominent group that had also created his election platform for him called the vistas of prosperity and splendour and SUV, a country that is really trying to continue on this path of upper middle income development and comes the Rajapaksa family that implemented policies and that you know, resulted in you know, kind of negative economic impacts pandemic hits. This really disrupts the tourist sector and the end minces which, you know, also leads this foreign exchange crisis which we can also get into?


Dr. Chris Keefer  5:06  

For sure. Yeah. Yeah. You know, I understand I think tourism's like something like 50% of foreign reserves are in terms of generating income. You know, something I'm really fascinated by, you know, with this, because I think there's many angles to this. There's a narrative that, you know, this is kind of outside influences the Vandana Shiva is of the world, the agroecology movement, sort of, you know, when I didn't have as deep of an understanding of this issue, I thought that was kind of mainly where this was coming from. Because, you know, the narrative I have around the organic food movement is that it's, you know, very much the production of, you know, the world's, you know, urban elites, essentially, and they're sort of eco romanticism, you know, and those kind of narratives seem to fit there in a way that didn't make sense for me, and in a country that's, you know, more of a developing developing world country, you know, these fears of, you know, contamination and toxins and things like that. It just seems to be so much of a, you know, more of a Western issue, not that those issues don't affect people all over the world. But, you know, at certain levels of development, one can develop different preoccupations. So I was I was curious as to, you know, where where this kit comes from within the within the Sri Lankan context? I'm not sure if you can unpack that a little bit. Yeah, you're


Saloni Shah  6:16  

right to point out that in the on the western side, you know, many urbanites are subjected to this idea of organic, being safer and having no pesticides and are willing to pay, you know, premium prices. But for a country like Sri Lanka, the economics of this is is untenable, right? Because they rely on agriculture's source of export income and for their food security. So, you know, it's really puzzling. Why would a low and middle income country in the lead this kind of policy, given how important the ag sector is 70 75% of rural people are employed in the sector. And it's a combination of a couple of things, looking back at the Gly phosphate ban and 2015 that was imposed by the country, a lot of that was motivated by fears around chronic kidney disease, and some of the environmental and public health concerns around fertilizers and pesticides. And this is a you know, controversial topic, very highly sensitive topic. And this disease tends to plague rural communities, rural agricultural communities in in Sri Lanka. And so in a bid to try to minimize these health problems, and to also back then save money from in Reno reduce their import bill for fertilizers, they impose this coffee glyphosate ban, which is a herbicide that helps to control weeds on especially on tea plantations there. And it turned out that a third of their farmlands were kind of were abandoned by farmers and the government ends up you know, lifting this lifting this ban, there's also a lot of illegal products that were illegal kind of pesticides and fertilizers that were coming in as a result. So there's already has, there's already with this, like long history of, of sensitivity around chemical use that helps to fuel anti chemical sentiments. And there's also this influential medical association called the governor Medical Association. org and is actually, well, their nickname is GM. Che. Yeah, yes. If you throw in the show notes. And the president of that was actually on a task force, one of the task forces that helped to kind of speed up the implementation of this ban, and he had long advocated against agrochemicals. And so in in the disc in the Sri Lankan discourse, political and public discourse, there is a lot of capture around agrichemicals kind of causing these diseases, but there's a lack of conclusive kind of evidence and availability of evidence for people on on why this is happening. And so I think people kind of forget that, you know, with the rational use, insufficient and safe use of fertilizers, you know, with proper guidelines in place, you know, in the US and in Canada, of course, there are food safety agencies, you can certainly have reused fertilizer and chemicals responsibly. And there's always going to be a concern around the overviews, and that's a very valid concern. But I think that there needs to be more widely accessible information around how much how much fertilizer to use, how much pesticides to use, but this is this is important issue. I mean, even the Ag minister was talking about fears of health concerns due to fertilizer and pesticide use, just to kind of demonstrate the capture that there is around this.


Dr. Chris Keefer  9:28  

Yeah, no, it was it was interesting. I think this this link to chronic kidney disease of unknown origin. I looked into that a little bit. I was curious, medically, and this channel JS Sumana guy because he became the Minister of Health. But But prior he and around the time of the glyphosate ban, he I think published in a kind of pay to play journal and then nothing peer reviewed. But you know, make you make these kinds of links and it fits into a kind of popular Gestalt. I guess. It's just so interesting, because when I was talking to Dr. channa Prakash, you know who was a huge fan of Norman Borlaug and kind of grew up at the tail end of one of the last big famines in India and really saw the Green Revolution deliver food security and real food independence and independence to the nation no longer being dependent on food aid. I mean, obviously, you know, we had a great discussion and really got him to sort of steal man, the best arguments, you know, against the Green Revolution, there obviously, is problems with it. And there's challenges but, you know, just the escape from regular famine and starvation would seem to be something that like a middle income country with a historical memory would be a little more careful about avoiding. And it's fascinating to me that that there, they had this experience with the glyphosate ban, which I guess they reversed or partially reversed. They experienced, you know, a real agricultural catastrophe as a result in terms of abandoning large sections of land. And then they did it all over again. So again, it seems part of this was because there was this huge foreign reserve crunch, they weren't getting any, you know, US dollars, or whatever the foreign currencies are that are important. They're from tourism. And this was a way to save half a billion dollars in terms of fertilizer imports and subsidies, am I am I getting that right?


Saloni Shah  11:08  

You're getting that right. And it turns out, when you look at the aftermath, the band aid costs them more than what they were going to save. Right. So looking at the numbers, the fertilizer import bill was around $250 million, back in 2020, was going to be about three to 400,000,020 21. Combined with subsidizing fertilizers at $250 million. It's about a few percentage points of government spending. When the fertilizer ban was put in place, rice production tea production, rubber and coconut production were heavily impacted their estimates around you know, 30 to 40%, of tea output being impacted a $425 million economic loss was estimated in the first six months of the band for the tea sector, combined with farmers protesting and then the government ended up providing compensation importing hundreds of millions of dollars of rice due to the production shortfall, I think the estimate is around a 14 to 16% drop in domestic rice production from 2021 to 2022. So when you look at all of that, they thought they were going to use this clever move of cutting their import bill cutting subsidized cutting subsidies system, the slide of the foreign exchange crisis, but it turns out that it ended up costing them more. And it also in you know, led to the partially led to also the food shortages. And like I said before, tea alone brought in around $1.3 billion annually to their economy. So it's an important source of ag export income, especially when you've your your tourist sector is devastated. So they need any kind of export income that they can get to be able to import food medicine, other critical supplies, even routine surgeries have been canceled. And also to import fuel, which farmers also need diesel fuel to operate the machinery. So all of this ended up costing more. And you're right. Part of the reason why this ban was implemented so suddenly, was to deal with rising costs. But it was a part of this transition to organic farming was a part of the government's election manifesto. They had intended to transition the country over 10, a 10 year period to organic farming and to ramp up production of organic fertilizers. But, you know, it turned out when they decided to implement this, as suddenly, as they did that, you know, they found out that didn't they weren't able to kind of meet the organic fertilizer requirement that they would need for their crops. I'd crunched some numbers. And it seems like they would need five to seven times more manure just to meet the or just to offset the amount of synthetic fertilizers that they normally would have used to help meet the crop crop nutrient requirements. And so all of this ended up costing more. It was short sighted. But at the same time, this is a part of the the plan for the government all along. And it's you know, partially due to the health concerns that we mentioned earlier, and just anti scientific kind of ideas around around farming and romantic notions around farming that we see all across the world in Sri Lanka and in the western world too.


Dr. Chris Keefer  14:13  

And I mean, you mentioned, you know, this has been this this plan this this 10 Year Plan, which, you know, may have been less disastrous if if put in place over 10 years. You know, there's other precedents for something like Sri Lanka that were entered into, not so much voluntarily. I've spent a lot of time in Cuba over the years and very acquainted with the Cuban Special Period when Soviet Union collapsed and they think their economy shrank by GDP shrink by 70 73%. The average Cuban lost 15 to 20 pounds. You know, and it was interesting because they had a model that was you know, they ate a lot of canned food from the Soviet Union. They had a lot of tractors in the fields, mostly doing sugarcane. And they had this this total crash and you know, they were kind of celebrated by the agroecology movement for sort of the desperate measures that they did do like plowing fields with oxen and these organic botanicals like urban gardens and things like that. I mean, still importing a ton of food. But yeah, I mean, just seeing a nation kind of do this to itself. I mean, surely there were a lot of agronomist and experts saying this is crazy. But like, who's who's to blame, like who are the intellectual author's because you've racked up sort of, you know, this was a losing financial proposition, it's ended up costing far more. And we rattled off a bunch of numbers, but I mean, the human suffering has been enormous food prices are through the roof. And I've just been paying a little bit of attention to sort of the riots and things and the instability that's happening right now. But I guess, you know, I'm just trying to figure out, you know, domestically and internationally, you know, who are the intellectual authors of this, you know, who, because I think those folks get off so easily all the time. You know, people that propose these ideas with utter confidence, you know, against the better the better advice of maybe agronomist and experts that, you know, it's just, it's just interesting to me. So yeah, I mean, can you can you point some fingers, I guess that the intellectual authorship of, of this of this, I guess I call it what it is, I guess it's a bit of a disaster. Right.


Saloni Shah  16:05  

Yeah. I mean, there's many different kinds of So, of course, there are folks that were on the task forces that advise the government, right, so there are people that have explicit ties to organic farming or the organic fertilizer industry, or have long advocated for banning agrichemicals. If you look at the composition of the green, SriLanka Task Force back in spring 2021, so right, you know, before the ban, you have several folks, if you look up, look up their backgrounds, either either academics that are studying biofertilizer development, or you know how to formulate biofertilizer. So they kind of supply organic fertilizers, or they grow organic tea. And then the President of the GMO A, that I mentioned, gonna get his name wrong, but maybe we can check that later. Dr. Polymnia, for example, was a long kind of advocate of, you know, banning agrichemicals. And, you know, you look at also the composition of the, the taskforce in October 2021, October 20 2021, right after kind of the ban and the impacts were starting to unfold, and you still have people that have explicit ties to kind of trying to manufacture organic fertilizer in the country. So there are obviously folks and advocates of sustainable agriculture within the country that made up the folks that were advising the government along with the Viet Maga who had ignored sound advice or agronomists and agricultural scientists. But then at the same time, you have, you know, long standing advocates of organic agriculture all around the world that have promoted organic and, you know, alternative agriculture as this sort of idealistic solution that would both reduce environmental impacts public health impacts without compromising food security without impoverishing farmers. And so here we've talked about these people at Chena. Joe's, not sure how to say his last name, but Dr. Jenner, Joe Suma, feel free to correct that in the edits, and, you know, and Vandana Shiva who have also captured discourse around this, but I think a lot of the blame can also be placed on the government themselves. I mean, they you're going to get advice from number from a number of people and it's going to be up to the government to make maintain evidence based policymaking right and to and to also ensure that the appropriate stakeholders are heard and that farmers from you know, various backgrounds are heard for smallholder farmers that you know, can't navigate the complicated international certification seems for organic that we have in the US and Canada, the EU, I mean, for them, being able to increase their harvest to both feed themselves and to also have surplus sell to market for their own income is important. And so synthetic fertilizers will absolutely be important. So I, you know, we can point fingers, I think there's a there's a long standing kind of infiltration of organic, you know, farming dogma, in Sri Lanka and all over the world from a combination of people. And I do think it's going to be up to governments and up to even the UN system. I think the UNDP UN Development Programme has long kind of called for reducing fertilizer use around the world too. So it's going to be up to kind of institutions, I think, to make sure that they are getting sound advice and that they're listening to all stakeholders and really putting everything in perspective here. Organic Farming makes about 2.5% of land in Sri Lanka, some farmers may benefit from it if they can, you know, sell to international markets at a premium and, and it can be lucrative business, but, you know, for the vast majority of farmers that are looking to, you know, increase their incomes kind of increase their well being and, you know, also sell the market, you know, pesticides and fertilizers are just a part of the business and, you know, a critical part of agriculture. So, I think, you know, we can definitely point fingers but the government has, you know, responsibility to its people to understand what the realities are of their ag sector and of their economy. It's a developing country. Right. That would be that'd be my, my long, rambling answer.


Dr. Chris Keefer  20:05  

No, no, it's all good. I mean, something you said earlier that they're the experts were saying they would need to have something like a seven times increase in the amount of animal manure available. I mean, there's this question, you know, we know that the haber bosch process provides the ammonia the nitrogen responsible for, you know, 4 billion bodies on of humanity, essentially, like 50% of humanity is here because of haber bosch in terms of the nitrogen that makes up the proteins that that allows us to exist as the organisms that we are. And the substitution of that is, is pretty wild. I mean, going back in the history of agriculture, I guess, you know, you have, you know, before inputs you had you had guano, you know, and then and then and then Sabur Bosch process, but the replacement of that struck me as interesting in the article, even TED talk about sort of the thermodynamics of farming. So could we step back, and maybe you could give us that sort of that abstract take, because I think when you go back to first principles, here, it's really helpful. Like we've been in the headlines a bit, we've talked about some of the cast of characters, but that that been on sort of the thermodynamics of agriculture, I thought was a useful first principles to unpack this and understand the enormity of of trying to swap out, you know, another source of nitrogen essentially, for for synthetic nitrogen.


Saloni Shah  21:19  

Yeah, before synthetic fertilizers, you're, you know, relying essentially on guano per animal manure, right, and organic fertilizer, the the composition, the nutrient content is just entirely different from the synthetic fertilizers that we were able to start producing in the 1900s, early 1900s. I mean, synthetic fertilizer has a high chance of a high hasn't higher nutrient content, and it's able to disperse nutrients much more quickly to crops. And so as a result, you're able to see a rapid increase in yields, as this, you know, allowed us to feed more people, but it also allowed economies to develop as agricultural productivity increased. And so you saw human labor shift from agriculture to sectors that could offer higher incomes and better quality of life. And as you said, Now, you know, about half million people, you know, depend on synthetic fertilizer and so with with both synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, modern plant breeding irrigation, large scale irrigation systems, we were able to see that food production, agriculture output actually tripled after World War Two and land use only increased by 30% in that same time period, so we're able to produce more food, while also minimizing land use and environmental impacts. Organic farming, as you know, tends to have lower or has on average, 20% lower yields than conventional farming. And so if you were to make up for that shortfall in production, you'd have to expand land. And so I think it's, you know, important to remember that, with the modern tools that we have available, the ag sector was able to just increase, or was able to become more and more productive than it ever has. And as a result, you were able to see flourishing of, you know, countries and economies all around the world, increasing food self sufficiency. And, you know, this allowed for a better quality of life, right. So if you use machinery and pesticides, you can produce human labor as well, on the farm, weeding, you know, is a really laborious task. And so, there are a lot of benefits that were provided by conventional farming. And, and I think that in our kind of environmental discourse today, many people do tend to focus on the overuse of chemicals in farming, and that's a legitimate concern. But you know, we also need to remember the benefits that modern agriculture has provided to society as well.


Dr. Chris Keefer  23:45  

There's this idea I think of kind of the organic sector freeloading on the conventional sector for its its inputs, particularly if you're going to be using manure, right and within the EU, where there's a ban on on genetically engineered food all over the place. A lot of the animal feed is genetically engineered soybean, but it's purified by the digestive tract of the animals that that eat it, you know, there are a lot of the animals animal cruelty in the EU is based upon feeding them, you know, Brazilian GMO soybeans, but then the manure is all of a sudden organic, and that becomes a source of organic fertilizer. So you know, I think that's that's a really interesting question right? I mean, this this sort of conventional side is producing this abundance not only of food but also of nutrients in the form of animal manure and then that's, that's been used. So what is SriLanka do to try and fill that that gap that was emerging in terms of, you know, meeting those basic plant nutrient needs.


Saloni Shah  24:46  

They realized they had to import organic fertilizer on a small tiny country there is not going to be enough organic fertilizer manure already there to supply the nutrients, I mean, supply the niche greens that are needed. I mean, this is a Herculean task that they were trying to implement here. They were never going to have enough organic fertilizer. So they, you know, try to import organic fertilizer from other countries, they imported a seaweed based fertilizer from China, which led to a diplomatic spat because the government, the Sri Lankan government deemed the organic fertilizer shipment to be unsafe and harmful and full of pathogens that would impact their their crops. And so, you know, they realize that, you know, in the fall as their synthetic fertilizer supply was dwindling, as they had difficulties importing organic fertilizer, because we're going to fertilizers can be made from a number of things, right and manure, crop residues, and it can be compost, which could also have certain trace ingredients, which may or may not be safe, they realized that they had to start importing synthetic fertilizer again, they started importing potassium chloride, which they claimed was organic, but you know, that's it. It was not it was they're importing this from Lithuania. And they ended up reversing the band partially reversing the band for key export crops like tea. And so they quickly realized that they weren't going to have enough organic fertilizer, especially on a country that doesn't have as much land here in the US and Canada, we have a lot of land so we can maybe produce a good amount of manure, but it's still not going to be enough to meet the nutrient requirements of these crops, especially for tea and rice, which are even more heavily dependent on synthetic fertilizers. Does that answer your question?


Dr. Chris Keefer  26:34  

Yeah, I mean, I'm just thinking about like, the distribution of like seaweed or of animal manure, like, it's just, it's not dense. It's not physically as compact as like, a sack of ammonia, nitrate or whatever. Maybe I'm saying that wrong or exposing my ignorance here. But like, it just seems like total madness to say, Okay, from one year to the next, we're getting rid of all synthetic inputs, we're going to completely change our model for how we get our plant nutrients, like the distribution networks that would be required to, you know, the trucking to ship around like it just there's enormous amounts of manure to spread it all over these huge fields. I mean, like, who could have seen this company, and like, who did it? And you know what I mean, and it's, and it seems to be leading to some, some real tragedy. And I think, you know, they started with a debt crisis, you know, as you're mentioning, it sounds like Sri Lanka's deep in debt, because they, you know, to China, particularly because of the infrastructure projects. This has not helped their foreign reserves, and now they're heading into next year where fertilizer prices are absolutely astronomical, and through the roof, as well as all the other kinds of inputs, you know, with, you know, I guess potash, you know, being sanctioned and Russian by the roots. And, you know, all the stuff we talked about with with Doomberg a couple episodes ago, I mean, it's these, this is not looking pretty, what's going on what's going on politically in terms of unrest in Sri Lanka right now. And I mean, like, what's the way out of it? I'm not trying to ask you to make the policy solutions here. But maybe just what like what's, what's the latest what's, what's the political result of this been? And maybe that what does that infer for what we're going to be seeing in other parts of the world that are struggling with a fertilizer shortage? That's not a political choice, but an economic one?


Saloni Shah  28:07  

The country and its people are angry. I mean, they erupted into widespread protests, as you know, because of food fuel shortages and shortages of other critical items. They're angry with the government, and especially the Rajapaksa family and the protests actually prompted the entire cabinet to resign. And there's calls for both our president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign into into leave and for there to be a new government providing reforms. And there the country is also trying to get itself out of the debt crisis and meet with the International Monetary Fund to negotiate a financial rescue package. I mean, the this economic crisis spiraled and now they're dealing with political political crisis, as you see now and people are angry. And ironically, or, I mean, unfortunately, the Rajapaksa family, they still have some, they still have the military, they still have some legislators that are behind them. And so they, they they're sort of in a position where people are calling for them to resign, but because they have they still have this, they still have a power and hold over the military, in parts of the government. So they're still in power. And so I think that there's gonna be a combination of things that are needed. I'm hopeful that since people are kind of protesting and and calling for large scale change, that there might be reforms and that the Rajapaksa family might resign but you know, it's we don't know what's going to happen. There's there's a lot of due to the past kind of protests and riots. The brothers in the family are implicated kind of, I think, in a human rights implicated in kind of human rights abuses as well. So it's, it's hard to tell what will happen um, But I am hopeful that there can be there can be changed. But the country in the meantime is suffering. I mean, there's blackouts that are lasting no 13 hours because of lack of fuel. And due to food shortages, people are really suffering and due to the inflation and depreciating currency, that's putting an even greater pinch on people. And their incomes are, are dwindling along with that of the country. And so they're really in need of of financial rescue. And this is not the first time that they've kind of negotiated final financial rescue package as well with the IMF. And so it's clear that it's clear that really large changes needed I think some analysts are calling this potentially the worst economic and political crisis since independence. And that, you know, they're also saying that it could be the next Arab Spring. So I don't know what will happen. But I'm hoping that there's large scale reform that's in the interests of its people.


Dr. Chris Keefer  30:57  

And I just have Arab Spring coincided as well with skyrocketing food prices, I think after the 2008 financial crisis, so that that fits I mean, what about, you know, our folks like Vandana Shiva, are they owning this? They're gone, they're gone quiet, like, where are they, the agricultural agro ecological movement leaders, what are they saying about Sri Lanka? Is there any narrative that they got it wrong? Because they didn't do it this exactly that it was prescribed? Or, you know, are they just are they just quiet? What have you seen?


Saloni Shah  31:28  

So far, I've seen folks like the Mona Shiva, be quiet, or I've seen some articles arguing that this was just a hastily imposed ban. And if they had, you imposed us over a longer period of time and work to develop the organic fertilizer production capacity and to train farmers and organic practices and impose a regulatory framework that they could have pulled this off. But in short, no one has pulled this off, and especially for a low and middle income country. Trying to pull that off is disastrous, and has large scale economic and political and environmental consequences, as we've seen. So in even the EU has struggled to try to transition to organic farming. And there have been states in India that have announced transitioning to organic farming completely, Bhutan lost a couple of percentage points on their GDP as a result in higher you know, household purchasing power also declined from trying to phase out chemical use in in organic farming. And so can you remind me of your question, I think


Dr. Chris Keefer  32:29  

we're just kind of intellectual authors of, of what's happened in Sri Lanka, are taking ownership or finding excuses or,


Saloni Shah  32:36  

in short, no, they have not. In short, no, I mean, it seems like the country based off the task force's that they have established, even after the economic consequences, they still want to go down this path of transitioning country to organic farming and kind of see it as, as improving the, you know, environmental and public health of their country, despite the economic consequences that we've seen and the consequences of the country's food security, they have to import rice now. And so, no, they haven't surprisingly, I think overall, I mean, maybe there's private conversations, but in public sphere, they have not opened up to this crisis.


Dr. Chris Keefer  33:13  

I think sometimes like the the narratives that I hear that the critiques I hear of this process sound like an argument for the status quo. You know, and just that this is a sort of pro agro business kind of institute that you're you're working with, at the breakthrough Institute, for instance, you know, what, what is the answer just simply to kind of maintain that status quo or, you know, there are legitimate concerns, obviously, with eutrophication and over application of, of synthetic fertilizer. So, you know, what, what, what is the way forward? You know, there's obviously this this idea of, you know, we can return to a garden of Eden by by going back to kind of ancient ancient techniques. You know, what, what are the alternatives? I guess?


Saloni Shah  33:58  

Yeah, the status quo is also not enough, right? It's important to Yes, both increase yields, and to, and to, you know, minimize environmental impacts. And that's going to require a combination, I think of both technology and appropriate policies, especially in low and middle income countries that are really experiencing a pinch from rising fertilizer and fuel costs. And so on the you know, innovation side, of course, at the breakthrough, we've advocated for both kind of using precision agricultural technologies, which allow farmers to target fertilizer use and you know, increase yields while minimizing fertilizer. And for, you know, low and middle income countries, these sorts of technologies are certainly expensive, but there's a lot that government can do to start kind of incentivizing the the use of these technologies and reducing the costs of them as well. We've also seen some promising, you know, bioengineered microbial soil treatments that can help fix nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for fertilizers as well. And, you know, we've talked about genetically engineering genetic genetic engineered crops that can also help to reduce dependence on on fertilizers. So there's a lot that can happen on the tech and innovation side. Governments can also, you know, implement a, you know, smarter and targeted subsidy policies and to us and also increase agricultural extension services and, you know, provide farmers with, you know, appropriate advice on how much fertilizer to use, what kind of what, how much fertilizer to use, and how, what, what kinds of fertilizer to use, as well, and for what kinds of crops and you know, that sort of advice can help to discourage and disincentivize the overuse of fertilizers that we see as well. And, you know, there's also integrated pest management and different techniques that can help to that, that when used in conjunction in conjunction with agrochemicals can help to, you know, kind of discourage the overuse of fertilizers as well. So I think it'll be a combination of, you know, both making sure that there's an active kind of public sector actor here that's working with farmers to ensure that the right amount of fertilizers are used, but also, you know, further innovation and technological development could help to, you know, reduce fertilizer use, well, if you look at the average fertilizer use in the United States, and in India, more fertilizers are used in India than in the US. And that's because farmers have been able to increase yields using technologies, while also, you know, using the appropriate or amount of fertilizer use, and not overusing these, these chemicals as well. So, I think that there's a future future that's possible, that's better than the status quo that utilizes both kind of low cost methods of just, you know, providing the appropriate advice to farmers and looking at techniques to target target fertilizer use. And then there's also technolog technologies and, you know, innovations that can help to further target pesticide and fertilizer use as well. I think that there's a new kind of future here. That's not just the sort of pro agribusiness sort of side of things and pro just, you know, only technology but and there also isn't this, there's a future that, you know, isn't just the whole garden feeding utopia, where you don't need to use any chemical inputs to improve agriculture, I think that we could go go and find more outcomes kind of based approach that is not mired by, you know, any kind of ideology and that's, you know, centered around both, you know, helping farmers increase output, increase incomes, but also improve the sustainability of agriculture too.


Dr. Chris Keefer  37:24  

Alright, I think that's a good place to wrap it up. Certainly, thank you for shining a light on this important example, and hopefully one that's not going to be too reflective of what the global self report nations in general feature with a you know, this was this was a policy based error. And I guess we're gonna see high fertilizer prices around the world and it'll be interesting to see how countries respond and whether Sri Lanka is the the canary in the coal mine. Thanks again for joining us, silly.


Saloni Shah  37:57  

Thank you for having me.



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