Everything that claims to be “free from pesticides” is not always the best solution

Everything that claims to be “free from pesticides” is not always the best solution

In the Indian state of Sikkim, it has been forbidden to use synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers since 2016. Western media outlets have been happy to quote this example as proof that switching to completely organic farming works. This does not, however, tell the whole story. The farmers have to contend with huge yield losses, as they are unable to use suitable crop protection products for pest control. Inspired by Indian activists, Sri Lanka also opted to ban pesticides, but this was abandoned again after just six months in November 2021 due to crop and quality losses and the doubling of prices for staple foods.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Sikkim is an Indian state located in the southern Himalayas. With a population of 600,000 people and measuring slightly more than 7000 square meters, it is one of the smallest states in India. In 2010, Sikkim started with the changeover to “pesticide-free” farming. Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers have been strictly forbidden since 2016. This has been well received in the European media and in green circles. Sikkim is being increasingly depicted as being a working example of pesticide-free farming. However, the farmers there are having to contend with serious problems due to the pesticide ban, as Ludger Wess reported in his blog article on the “Salonkolumnisten” website. They no longer have any potent means to combat scale insects, grubs, caterpillars, bugs and other pests. They also do not have access to the relevant pesticides to protect against fungal diseases.


Major harvest shortfalls

The consequences of this are serious. For example, ginger harvests fell by one-third in comparison with previous harvests. Dramatic harvest losses were also recorded for maize and legumes – with yields per hectare having fallen from 470–500 kg to 130–140 kg. In comparison with the time when synthetic pesticides were allowed to be used, farmers have reported orange and cardamom harvest losses of 25–50 percent and tomato harvest losses of more than 50 percent. As mentioned by Wess in his article, newspapers in India have described this situation as a “fiasco”. Sikkim is supposedly only producing 20 percent of the amount of rice needed by its population itself and the amount of wheat being produced has fallen by more than 21,000 tons to 350 tons. Cardamom is the state’s most important export commodity. While yields in 2004 totaled 5400 tons, this figure fell to 4000 tons in 2015. Sikkim is heavily dependent on food imports from neighboring states, where conventional production methods are used in agriculture. Although it is true that food also had to be imported before the change to pesticide-free agriculture, the amount needing to be imported is likely to further increase.


Sikkim’s farmers are left with nothing

As Wess continues in his article, the import of pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables into Sikkim was also supposed to be banned in April 2018. However, the sixfold increase in prices resulted in protests being held – the retailers rebelled. The government subsequently backpedaled and numerous conventionally grown products from neighboring states were still allowed to be imported. Ultimately, Sikkim’s farmers were the ones left suffering. Their organic products produced in line with government orders have to compete with the cheaper conventional products from other states. And as it is in most places, the people in Sikkim buy the products that are reasonably priced. As the government has also set a price ceiling for the organic products, the farmers cannot offset their lower yields by raising their prices. Despite this, the conversion to organic farming may in fact have some positive aspects, writes Wess. For example, farmers are being taught for the first time about the biology of pests, the nutrient requirements of plants, and soil ecology. He continues by saying that this could lead to increases in yields in the long term. All in all, Sikkim certainly cannot be used as a role model for pesticide-free agriculture in Europe.


Sri Lanka ends pesticide-free farming after just six months

On November 21, 2021, Sri Lanka abandoned its efforts to become the first nation in the world to fully embrace organic farming and announced that it would be immediately lifting the import ban on pesticides and other agricultural inputs. The authorities had already cancelled the restrictions placed on the fertilizers used for tea – the country’s main export commodity – one month previously. In the run-up to the planner farmers’ protests in the capital city, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Agriculture announced that the comprehensive ban on all agrochemicals, including herbicides and pesticides, was going to be lifted. The Ministry Secretary was quoted as saying “we will now permit all of the chemical inputs that are urgently needed.” “We made this decision based on the need to guarantee food security." Food shortages have intensified in the last few weeks, with prices for rice, vegetables and other staple foods having doubled throughout Sri Lanka. The country’s supermarkets also started rationing the sale of rice.


Production drops by 40 percent

The «New York Times» also reports on the disastrous effects of the pesticide ban. The most important crops for export, such as rice, tea or rubber, rely heavily on the use of pesticides and fertilisers. About three quarters of Sri Lanka's farmers use chemical fertilisers. Most farmers were not prepared for the sudden ban on pesticides and fertilisers. Crop failures were so enormous that food prices skyrocketed in September 2021. According to the «New York Times», tea producers are talking about harvest losses of 40 per cent. There is simply not enough organic fertiliser in Sri Lanka to replace synthetic fertiliser. They hope that the government's change of direction will not come too late and that fertiliser for the next harvest can be imported in time.

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