CHEDDIKULAM, SRI LANKA — Sellan Yogarasa returned to Sri Lanka in 2014, after more than two decades of exile in India. He leased 9 acres of agricultural land and began growing rice, a staple food for the island’s 22 million inhabitants. A harvest typically yielded about 288 bags of paddy, each weighing 25 kilograms (55 pounds), enough for a decent livelihood. But overnight this calculus crumbled for Sellan — and for many others in the Sri Lankan labor force, over a third of whom are involved in the paddy sector.
In May 2021, the government banned agrochemicals, with the professed aim of becoming the world’s first country free of chemical fertilizer. A year on, as the country reaps the consequences of that decision — while also grappling with a broader economic crisis — its new prime minister has warned of an impending food shortage.
Sri Lanka harvests rice twice a year, contingent on its two monsoon seasons. During the maha cycle — maha means “bigger” in Sinhala — rice is sown in September and harvested by March, while the yala, or “lesser,” cycle begins in May and ends by August. Although the agrochemical ban was partially rolled back in November, its impact on the island’s ability to feed itself was immediately evident. Rice imports in Sri Lanka, which is usually self-sufficient in its staple crop, leaped from 15,770 metric tons in 2020 to 147,091 metric tons in 2021, and more than 90% was imported in the last two months of the year. Nationwide data is not yet available, but experts estimate that the rice harvest could decline by about 33%.
Across northern Sri Lanka’s Vavuniya district, the average annual paddy yield has decreased from 101,831 tons to 49,218 tons following the ban on chemical fertilizers, says Nesarathinam Vishnuthasan, assistant commissioner at the district department for agrarian development. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sellan, 63, says his yield plummeted by more than 60%. His 9 acres produced just 108 bags of paddy, a decline so precipitous that this season he is only cultivating groundnut, a legume crop that he says doesn’t require chemical fertilizer.
Farmers are not necessarily opposed to organic farming. A nationwide survey of farmers in July 2021 by Verité Research, a Colombo-based research firm, indicated a majority (64%) favored moving away from agrochemicals, but a higher number (78%) requested more than one year to transition. Eighty-five percent of surveyed farmers predicted a decline in harvest. Sellathambi Sritharan, head of a farmers federation in Vavuniya district, says organic agriculture is welcome but should not be forced upon farmers — especially overnight.
“It will take some time,” he says, “for the soil and man to get used to organic farming.”
Ninety-four percent of paddy farmers use chemical fertilizer, according to Verité Research, and many don’t have sufficient knowledge of organic alternatives. Kantaiya Kanagalingam, 62, has been cultivating rice for 25 years but struggled to sustain yields without chemical fertilizers. “In all my years, the last harvest was the only time I saw a massive drop in yields,” he says, gloomily spraying pesticide on fledgling stalks. They are pale and drained of color, he says, because of deficiency in soil nutrients, due to the limited application of fertilizer.
Selvarathinam Santhirasegaram, an economics professor at the University of Jaffna, says the government will have to make peace with agrochemicals for now if it wants to resuscitate local production and limit its import bill.
“Food is essential for survival,” he says.
Despite a rollback of the ban — which was ostensibly imposed to tackle chronic kidney disease among farmers, though the country’s dwindling foreign reserves may also have been a factor — supplies remain limited, partly due to a global spike in prices.
According to the United Nations, global fertilizer rates have increased by more than half in the past year, a spillover effect of the Ukraine crisis, since Russia and Belarus are the world’s second- and third-biggest producers of potash, a key fertilizer ingredient — and due to Sri Lanka’s depleted coffers. In Vavuniya district, the price of urea, a low-cost nitrogen fertilizer favored by local farmers, has increased by a factor of 25, says Antony Kamilas Mathusan, a local seller.
“Farmers who bought 50 or 100 kilos of fertilizer now buy 5 or 10 kilos after hearing the price,” he says.
The government announced compensation for those affected by last year’s ban, but Vavuniya farmers say they have yet to receive any. The nationwide political and economic crisis has led to delays, says Nesarathinam. Sellan intends to cultivate rice on just 1.5 of his 9 acres next season unless fertilizer prices decline or are further subsidized by the government. If other farmers make similar reductions, it’s likely to prolong the island’s food crisis.
Meanwhile, the market price of rice has also skyrocketed — from 145 Sri Lankan rupees (40 cents) per kilogram in May 2021 to 230 rupees (64 cents). Sellathurai Mohanadevi, who sells ilia kanji, a traditional herbal gruel made from raw rice, coconut milk and leafy greens, saw his customers dwindle when he raised the price by 10 rupees (3 cents). “I do not know how to live with the current price,” he says. He has resorted to skipping a meal each day.
Earlier this month, on Twitter, Sri Lanka’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, acknowledged the country’s declining harvests. “Around $150m [million] is required for our monthly food imports,” he wrote. “We require around $600m a year to ensure an adequate supply [of] fertilizer for our local and export crops. We are working on international assistance to obtain this.”
Sri Lanka’s crisis, albeit aggravated by government missteps, reflects a worldwide emergency. Global hunger has reached unprecedented levels, the U.N. has warned, with the number of severely food insecure people doubling in just two years, from 135 million before the pandemic to 276 million as of May 2022. “At today’s prices, farmers cannot afford seeds, fuel and fertilizers,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said last month. “There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets — despite the war.”
Sellan’s 90-year-old mother, Sellan Valliyammai, remembers the last time there was a food crisis of the sort now looming over Sri Lanka — decades ago, in 1974. Villagers rose before the sun to line up for rice, wheat and sugar. Mothers despaired over hungry children. She doesn’t want to revisit that time, even in her memories. Nor does she want her children and grandchildren to experience anything like it.