The U.S. Must Learn From Sri Lanka's 'Green' Policy Mistakes
(AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
The U.S. Must Learn From Sri Lanka's 'Green' Policy Mistakes
(AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
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Since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, its agricultural policies focused on reaching self-sufficiency in food production. Thanks to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, modern hybrid seeds, and bold irrigation schemes, Sri Lanka essentially achieved this goal.

At least that was so until April 2021, when ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned agrochemicals, boasting to make Sri Lanka the world’s first 100% organic country. Production quickly dropped by 40%. When he fled the country due to riots in July, 7 out of 10 families were cutting down on food, and 1.7 million Lankan children risked dying from malnutrition – 17% of them from deadly chronic wasting.

Even though this poor policy decision was reversed, the situation has become even more dire. The UN recently confirmed that Sri Lanka’s poverty rate doubled from 13.1 percent last year to 25.6 percent this year; the numbers needing urgent humanitarian aid also doubled – from 1.7 million in June 2022 to 3.4 million today. What’s more, the cost of food increased by 90 percent since last year.

The United States recently promised $40 million in aid to help Sri Lankan farmers produce food and avert famine, while the UN sought equally large sums. Undoubtedly, Sri Lankans appreciate this support. However, neither the need for such aid, nor this dire situation would have arisen if politicians like President Rajapaksa had heeded his scientists instead of fearmongering organic activists and mythmakers.

This political turmoil and agricultural collapse were triggered in Sri Lanka by fearmongering organic ideologues: the likes of Vandana Shiva in India, and activists like Dr. Ranil Senanayake, who recently came out of the ashes to re-scare Sri Lankans back into its ruinous organic policies.

Sri Lankans have a name for these people. They are “gonibillas,” or boogeymen. They became part of the Rajapaksa political machine and sought to frighten the public against agrochemicals while touting “toxin-free”, natural organic food to “grow” its economy and cure the country of epidemics falsely attributed to agrochemicals.

Frenzied activists maneuvered politicians to adopt their vision. Professor Buddhi Marambe, a leading government advisor, and Linnean Medalist Rohan Pethiyagoda were among those ringing alarm bells. They emphasized that conventional agriculture produced far bigger harvests than organic agriculture, doubled life expectancy, and eliminated infant mortality compared to Sri Lanka’s pre-agrochemical era. Marambe was summarily dismissed, and Pethiyagoda was ignored.

Sadly, America and the European Union are infected by the same bug of unreason. Scientists in Europe are marginalized by organic activists leveraging the so-called precautionary principle to ban pesticides.

The herbicides atrazine and glyphosate, for example, are vital to protecting crop yields; yet atrazine was banned since 1980 in Europe. Why? While Canadian scientists accept 5 micrograms of atrazine per liter of drinking water, some EU scientists cry wolf at 1/50 of that! Powerful activists capitalized on such ambiguity by scaring politicians to get a total ban.

In fact, glyphosate and atrazine are utterly safe compared to dangerous “organic” pesticides like copper sulfate. Atrazine and glyphosate break down naturally in soils within the growing season, with no bioaccumulation in plants.

Heavy metals, like copper from copper sulphate, bioaccumulate in crops. And if crop residues are reused in organic composting, accumulation is enhanced, threatening the environment and the food chain. Copper sulfate, being soluble, can get ingested and will strongly bioaccumulate in the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles.

Yet these gonibillas share only the “dangers” of, say, glyphosate and atrazine.

The EU’s boogeymen have bullied its politicians to create its Farm-to-Fork strategy, aiming to cut Europe’s already low agrochemical usage in half by 2030.

Worse, the EU’s leaders are pushing this misguided policy on trading partners, as it plans to ban all imported foods containing residues of EU-banned pesticides – when, in fact, they often aren’t completely banning use of these pesticides themselves. Europe has allowed more than 200 emergency authorizations of neonicotinoid insecticides since the EU supposedly banned them between 2016 and 2021. This is hypocrisy at its worst, and it helps illustrate just how much power and influence these gonibillas can have over the EU’s politicians.

Meanwhile in America, the gonibillas are hard at work in the U.S., engineering the scare campaigns behind the proposed “Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides” Act (PACTPA). This plan is not supported by EPA regulations; it is a fear-mongered plan to ban in America all the same pesticides that Europe bans.

Organic-friendly agrochemical policies cater to wealthy elites demanding choice foods from limited harvests. Meanwhile, ordinary farmers and citizens in Sri Lanka and other nations struggling with dense populations face famine. Even Europe and America, if divested of its agrochemicals, would face the harvests of the Dust Bowl era and struggle with famine, pestilence, and instability.

American leaders should not follow Sri Lanka’s or the EU’s footsteps. When scaremongering – not science – determines agricultural policies, citizens go hungry.

Chandre Dharma-wardana is a Sri Lankan-born chemist and physicist. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1967 and currently works for the National Research Council of Canada and Université de Montréal.

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