Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped nation in the Indian Ocean, and tears are what many of the country’s farmers shed once President Gotabaya Rajapaksa mandated organic farming in the country. After five disastrous months, the experiment was mercifully terminated.
The results had upended Sri Lanka’s crop production and had a calamitous effect on agricultural exports like tea, rubber, and spices. All this for food that is no healthier than traditional fare, marketing claims to the contrary.
Organic farming proponents fall for the appeal to nature fallacy, which holds that something which occurs naturally is preferable to anything synthetic. For example, Dennis Prager foolishly exposed himself to the coronavirus in the mistaken belief that he would be better off doing that than being vaccinated. Besides putting himself – an older man – at risk of death and long-lasting complications, he will suffer through weeks of misery rather than having two unpleasant hours the next day. Even if he pulls through, he will not enjoy the long-term benefits about which he gloats. For antibodies that the vaccine creates are no different than the ones he will acquire through exposure from another carrier.
Organic farming proponents commit a similar error when they consider their favored crop production to be superior since it eschews the use of synthetic chemicals. They are mistaken, and not just because there are dozens of exceptions to the so-called ban. In a second appeal to nature fallacy, organic farming proponents think the natural herbicides are safer than synthetic ones but the origin of a product is unrelated to its danger level. Moreover, organic farming is unsustainable on a large scale because of the calamitous combination of needing more land to yield fewer crops.
Additionally, it requires greater labor since more weeds are likely to grow since there are fewer herbicide options. Consequently, Sri Lanka farmers experienced nearly a quarter-decrease in productivity. Some crops suffered a 50 to 100 percent drop. These numbers are depressingly similar to other locales that have relied heavily on organic farming.
Besides gutting a farmer’s livelihood, there are resultant food shortages and price increases. Additionally, the drag on exports harms the gross national product.
Organic farming shortcomings are aggravated when trying to massively increase the scale. Organic farming accounts for about 1.5 percent of food production worldwide. Trying to ramp up those numbers (especially to 100 percent) will create obstacles, some predictable, some surprising.
Writing for the New England Skeptical Society, Dr. Steven Novella noted it is possible for about five percent of farming to be organic. Trying to go beyond that will encounter organic fertilizer availability. Novella explained that composting and cattle manure are the primary organic fertilizers and both ways recycle nitrogen, though at a compromised rate.
He wrote, “Some plants can fix nitrogen from the air through soil bacteria, and these can be used as crops to put nitrogen into the soil. All this works if the percentage of crops grown without external inputs of nitrogen is kept relatively small.”
But his system falters as one attempts to scale up, and will be an unmitigated failure if trying to go from five percent to 100.
Fortunately for Sri Lankan farmers, the forced experiment is over. Here’s hoping the rest of the world learns from their misfortune.