An activist shouts slogans and holds up bread as he protests against rising living costs in Colombo on March 15, 2022. (Ishara S. Kodikara via Getty Images)

Sri Lanka Just Fell. What Do We Have to Do With It?

The anti-growth environmental movement deserves much of the blame.

Sri Lanka has fallen. On Saturday, thousands of protesters stormed the presidential palace. While the angry and the aggrieved swam in the president’s pool, had a cookout on his lawn, lounged on his bed, and set fire to his residence, the president was spirited away to a naval ship off the Sri Lankan coast.

The proximate reason for the chaos is that the nation is bankrupt, suffering its worst financial crisis in decades. Millions are struggling to buy food, medicine and fuel. Between June 2021 to June 2022, food prices rose by 80 percent. Last month, annual inflation hit nearly 55 percent. Since the start of the pandemic, half a million people have fallen into poverty.

If you’ve never paid attention to the island country just off India’s southeastern coast, you might think this is just how it goes in developing nations. But the truth is that Sri Lanka had been gradually rebuilding itself—after decades of civil war and authoritarianism—and then this happened. We in the West had a lot to do with it.

The underlying reason for the fall of Sri Lanka is that its leaders—starting with former President Maithripala Sirisena and continuing with his successor, the recently deposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa—fell under the spell of Western green elites peddling organic agriculture and “ESG,” which refers to investments made following supposedly higher Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria. Sri Lanka has a near-perfect ESG score of 98—higher than Sweden (96) and the United States (51).

What does having such a high ESG score mean? In short, it meant that Sri Lanka’s two million farmers were forced to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, laying waste to its critical agricultural sector. (Never mind that Tesla has been booted from the ESG S&P Index, while Exxon Mobil is in the top ten. None of it makes much sense.)

To be sure, there were other factors behind Sri Lanka’s fall. Covid lockdowns and a 2019 bombing hurt tourism—an industry that usually generates between $3 billion and $5 billion a year. Sri Lanka racked up huge foreign debt, with China lending the country billions of dollars as part of its Belt and Road initiative. Transportation costs have rocketed 128 percent since May due to rising oil prices. And overall trends have not helped: Since 2012, growth has been declining.

But the biggest problem was Sri Lanka’s chemical fertilizer ban, which passed last year and was central to the country’s effort to comply with ESG.

The numbers are shocking. 

One-third of Sri Lanka’s farm lands were dormant in 2021 due to the fertilizer ban. Over 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s farmers had used chemical fertilizers before they were banned. After they were banned, an astonishing 85 percent experienced crop losses. Rice production fell 20 percent  and prices skyrocketed 50 percent in just six months. Sri Lanka had to import $450 million worth of rice despite having been self-sufficient just months earlier. The price of carrots and tomatoes rose fivefold. All this had a dramatic impact on the more than 15 million people of the country’s 22 million people who are directly or indirectly dependent on farming. 

Things were worse for smaller farmers. In the Rajanganaya region, where the majority of farmers operate two-and-a-half-acre lots, families reported 50 percent to 60 percent reductions in their harvest. “Before the ban, this was one of the biggest markets in the country, with tons and tons of rice and vegetables,” one farmer said earlier this year. “But after the ban, it became almost zero. If you talk to the rice mills, they don’t have any stock because people’s harvest dropped so much. The income of this whole community has dropped to an extremely low level.”

But the damage to tea was the key to Sri Lanka’s ruin. Before 2021, tea production generated $1.3 billion in exports annually. Tea exports paid for 71 percent of the nation’s food imports before 2021. 

The fertilizer ban, starting in April 2021, changed everything. Four months after the ban took effect, the president, realizing that things were not going according to plan, lifted the ban on the import of chemical fertilizers—and then, two days later, reinstated it. 

The results have been devastating and widely predicted by tea farmers, with exports crashing 18 percent between November 2021 and February 2022—reaching their lowest level in more than two decades.

“We don’t have enough chemical fertilizers,” Rajapaksa admitted in December 2021, “because we didn’t import them. There is a shortage.” 

In May 2022, Sri Lanka failed to pay $77 million on its foreign debt repayments. That may seem like a small sum in the bigger scheme of things, but the default made it hard for Sri Lanka to borrow money. So, it devalued its currency, inflation rose 30 percent, and the government ran out of the cash it needed to import fuel, food and medicines.

Protestors swim in a pool inside the compound of Sri Lanka's Presidential Palace on July 9, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

What, exactly, were Rajapaksa and other Sri Lankan leaders thinking? Why did they engage in such a radical experiment with the most important industry in their country?

After World War II, Sri Lanka, like many poor nations, subsidized farmers to transition from biofertilizers, like manure, to chemical fertilizers in what is known as the Green Revolution. (This was popularized by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist.) Rice yields rose quickly, and the nation overcame chronic food shortages and started earning foreign revenue through the export of rubber and tea

As yields rose, young people were able to get jobs in cities. Salaries increased—so much so that Sri Lanka became a middle-income nation.

But what looked like a dream to most Sri Lankans looked like a nightmare to many environmentalists in the West. In the 1970s, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and other activists raged against the Green Revolution. They claimed that overpopulation would cause mass death and suffering and that humankind needed to play “triage.” In other words, we had to let some people die so the rest of us could live. 

In their 1977 book, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, Ehrlich and his co-authors, Anne Ehrlich, his wife, and John Holdren, who would go on to become Barack Obama’s science adviser, argued that the world did not have enough energy to support the economic aspirations of the world’s poor. “Most plans for modernizing agriculture in less-developed nations call for introducing energy-intensive practices similar to those used in North America and western Europe—greatly increased use of fertilizers and other farm chemicals, tractors and other machinery, irrigation, and supporting transportation networks—all of which require large inputs of fossil fuels,” they wrote. The better strategy, they argued, was “much greater use of human labor and relatively less dependence on heavy machinery and manufactured fertilizers and pesticides.” 

In other words, they were calling for poor nations to do what Sri Lanka did before the Green Revolution. Such labor-intensive farming “causes far less environmental damage than does energy-intensive Western agriculture,” they claimed. The “secret” to “alternative farming methods” was for poor, small farmers to remain poor and small. 

The Ehrlichs and Holdren were followers of the late 18th-century British economist Robert Thomas Malthus, who thought human beings were doomed to overpopulate and starve. Malthus professed concern for the poor while advocating for policies that would keep them poor. He urged governments to prop up the old aristocratic system by prioritizing agriculture over manufacturing, and pointed to the superiority of the country life that he, as an aristocrat, enjoyed. 

Some defend Malthus by claiming that he wrote his famous 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, when it was still too early to know that the Industrial Revolution would radically increase food production. But that didn’t stop his ideas from leading subsequent generations of environmentalists to obsess over population—and oppose economic growth.

In the 1960s and 1970s, neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich and Holdren justified their opposition to the extension of cheap energy and agricultural modernization to poor nations by using the left-wing language of redistribution. It wasn’t that poor nations needed to develop. It was that rich nations needed to consume less.

Over the years, this language was picked up by the United Nations and influential environmentalists, from Greta Thunberg and Michael Pollan to Vandana Shiva, the Indian ecofeminist, and Frances Moore Lappé, the author of the bestselling book Diet For a Small Planet. Organic farming, they said, would reduce environmental harm.  

They had a deep impact on Sri Lankan intellectuals and policymakers. 

Dr. Ranil Senanayake, for example, was one of the first students to study organic agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1970s. He received a grant from the Ashoka Foundation and was an advisor to the U.N. Environment Program, and, since the early 1980s, he has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s organic-farming movement. 

Where in 1977, the Ehrlichs and Holdren proposed international control of the “development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources,” many green NGOs and U.N. agencies today similarly seek control over energy and food policies in developing nations. Only they do so in the name of climate change and biodiversity. The Ashoka Foundation, for example, is funded by MasterCard, Disney, and J.P. Morgan, among other multinational firms. There’s no evidence these corporations have any interest in organic farming per se. But the cause of organic farming in places like Sri Lanka has become a signal that one is on the right side of history.

Progressive economists, along with the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and other globalizing institutions, have since promoted “sustainable” agriculture and tourism for poor and developing nations like Sri Lanka. “Given its education levels,” wrote progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz for the World Economic Forum in 2016, “Sri Lanka may be able to move directly into more technologically advanced sectors, high-productivity organic farming, and higher-end tourism.”

It was into this context that Sri Lanka went organic. 

In 2015, then-President Sirisena announced plans for a “toxin-free nation.” President Rajapaksa, who came to power in 2019, built on this theme. He called for a return to the pre-Green Revolution days—demanding the use of biofertilizers and drawing on superstitious claims that farm chemicals caused kidney disease.

Rajapaksa was elected on a platform to transition the nation to organic agriculture over a 10-year year period. “Sustainable food systems are part of Sri Lanka’s rich sociocultural and economic heritage,” he told a U.N. summit. 

In December 2020, Sri Lanka’s environment minister announced a government program to save the planet from “our own geoengineering misuse, greed and selfishness” before a conference on cutting nitrogen fertilizer waste. It was part of a broader effort by the Sri Lanka government to seek the blessing of Western banks and the UN under so-called ESG goals. 

Then, in April 2021, the government made good on its pledge by banning chemical fertilizers. 

The move enjoyed support in Washington, D.C., and Brussels. One month after Sri Lanka announced the fertilizer ban, in May 2021, the World Bank rewarded Sri Lanka a $125 million grant for small farmers on top of $2 billion in other grants targeting transportation, agriculture, education and healthcare. The EU provided a $1 billion grant to reduce poverty, among other things. 

But at the very same moment, Sri Lanka’s agricultural scientists and economists were warning Rajapaksa that the fertilizer ban would be disastrous—leading to dramatic reductions in rice paddy yields. They also warned of the impact on tea, predicting a loss of nearly $233 million.

Organic agriculture around the world is fueled by the appeal-to-nature fallacy, which holds that “natural” things—wild fish, manure, wood fuel—are better for the environment than “artificial” things like farmed fish, chemical fertilizers, and fossil fuels. This ignores the fact that the so-called artificial things are as natural as the “natural” things. They’re simply newer.

What the proponents of organic agriculture really want, like the Malthusians of yesteryear, is to stop economic growth, which they believe drives overpopulation, which they insist is the real basis for environmental disaster. They believe that by targeting innovations like chemical fertilizers, they get to the root of the problem: They cut off the growth at its knees.

Nonsense. Humankind needs chemical fertilizers to produce sufficient food and use land efficiently. Around three or four billion acres of additional farm land would be required to meet today’s food demand without chemical fertilizers.

Sri Lankans occupy the president's official residence on July 10, 2022. (Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

So what, exactly, were Sri Lanka’s leaders thinking? They weren’t. They were following a rigid, pro-scarcity dogma, which was developed in the 18th century and has been recycled and greenwashed through the centuries by global elites who use nature as cover for their anti-human, anti-civilization worldview and policy agenda.

Not everybody got Sri Lanka wrong. The United States Department of Agriculture warned against it. “The lack of organic fertilizer productive capacity, coupled with the absence of a formalized plan to import organic fertilizers in lieu of chemical fertilizers, raises the potential for an adverse impact on food security,” it warned in 2021, around the same time the World Bank announced its grant in support of Sri Lanka’s efforts. “There has been no mention by the government yet as to how it would tackle a food security crisis brought about by drops in crop yields.”

The Green Revolution, fossil fuels, and chemical fertilizers were—and remain—more good than bad. High-yield farming produces far less nitrogen pollution run-off than low-yield farming. While rich nations produce 70 percent higher yields than poor nations, they use just 54 percent more nitrogen. Nations get better at using nitrogen fertilizer over time. Since the early 1960s, the Netherlands has doubled its yields while using the same amount of fertilizer.

To be sure, we should continue the trend away from dirtier to cleaner fuels, or what is known as “up the energy ladder,” from wood to coal to natural gas to nuclear. But the way to do that is gradually, not abruptly, and with greater scientific, technological, and economic progress, not less. Such a process will allow us to use less fertilizer more precisely over time.

Environmentalists, Norman Borlaug once observed, “have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they would be crying out for tractors and fertilizers and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Sri Lanka must deal with other factors beyond its immediate agriculture policy, including the willingness of its people and elites to fall for such obviously wrong dogmas, including around Covid, and the country’s deference to China. But at bottom, Sri Lanka will fix itself when its people understand that they must move from a biological economy to a chemical one if it is to sustain its population and return to middle-income status.

Sri Lanka’s deposed president was right that organic farming and wood fuel use were part of Sri Lanka’s rich sociocultural and economic past. But he was wrong that it was a past worth returning to.

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