Billionaire climate activist Bill Gates wants farmers to stop using fertilizer, a plan that has already been tried, with catastrophic consequences for food supplies and costs.
Gates denounced fertilizer and livestock as two of the biggest contributors to the global climate change menace, during a recent episode of his Unconfuse Me podcast. Gates commented that “of all the climate areas, the one that people are probably least aware of is all the fertilizer and cows, and that’s a challenge.”
The real challenge, however, seems to be the ensuing consequences of restricting the specific “climate area” of chemical fertilizer that Gates deems to be so problematic. Two years ago, the Sri Lankan government made the decision to ban chemical fertilizers, a decision which ultimately led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being forced to flee the country amid an economic crisis - which was, in part, catalyzed by dramatically reduced crop yields.
In September, 2022, John Stossel cataloged the drastic effects of Sri Lanka’s policies, which began in April, 2021, when the Sri Lankan government banned the importation of agrochemicals, notably nitrogen fertilizer. The ostensible justification for the ban stemmed from synthetic fertilizers producing nitrogen waste, a greenhouse gas, as well as creating nitrogen runoff, which can poison waterways.
However, according to a report from the World Food Program, as a result of the sudden shift to total organic farming, “the total cultivated extent declined by 26 percent, resulting in a 52 percent yield loss after the policy change.”
“Suddenly,” Stossel noted, “the same farms produced much less food. Food prices rose by 80 percent.” What resulted thereafter were riots and protests, culminating in the storming of the presidential mansion and President Rajapaksa’s subsequent flight and resignation. Of course, this does not seem to have come about because Sri Lankan farmers lacked motivation. A rice paddy trader described that the farmers “really tried everything possible to grow their paddy. They applied coconut fertilizer, liquid fertilizer, compost,” and “anything they could get their hands on.” Yet, crop yields decreased anyway.
Perhaps the greatest injustice in the Sri Lankan situation is that chemical fertilizers can be used in a way that is environmentally responsible. Michael Shellenberger, an environmentally-focused author, pointed out that nitrogen pollution from fertilizer is “best dealt with through a gradual process of farmers getting better at applying the fertilizer.” Shellenberger added that this policy has been successfully applied in the Netherlands where “they reduced fertilizer pollution by 70 percent.”
Indeed, it appears that prudence represents a better standard for agricultural policy than environmental dogma. Unfortunately, this realization seems to have arrived too late for Sri Lanka’s government to avoid catastrophe.