Why Sri Lanka’s current crisis shouldn’t overshadow its success in suicide prevention

One year on from their success at the Future Policy Awards, Mark Davis explains why Sri Lanka’s pesticide suicide prevention policies remain an exceptional story of success and shouldn’t be confused with their sudden and poorly executed move to organic agriculture.

Exactly one year ago, Sri Lanka’s policy makers were applauded for their exceptional work to protect people from hazardous chemicals, winning a global ‘Future Policy Award’.

This prestigious award, often referred to as the ‘Oscar on Best Policies’, celebrates policies that create better living conditions for current and future generations.

Sri Lanka was recognised for its Control of Pesticides Act No. 33 of 1980 and the National Policy and Action Plan on Prevention of Suicide of 1997, which together have contributed to one of the greatest falls in suicide rates ever achieved in the world.

However, over the last year, this achievement has been overshadowed by the news of Sri Lanka’s economic and humanitarian crisis – linked partly to its ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Rather than being applauded, Sri Lanka’s policies are now seen as something other countries should look to avoid.

So what went wrong? And should the current crisis nullify Sri Lanka’s previous success?

A tale of two policies

The first thing to say is that the two sets of policies should not be confused.

The policies for which Sri Lanka won its award were specifically for its work to reduce suicide deaths from pesticide poisoning.

In 1988, pesticide poisoning accounted for more than 76% of all suicides in Sri Lanka, and the country suffered from one of the highest per capita suicide rates in the world at almost 120 per 100,000 population. This was a particular problem in rural farming communities where people had easy access to lethal pesticides that were sold locally and stored in their homes.

Between 1980 – 2010, Sri Lanka implemented a series of policies designed to limit the access and availability of pesticides responsible for deaths. This included bans on 36 highly hazardous pesticides.

Each policy decision was carefully considered, based on research to identify the pesticides that were causing most harm. The impact of the bans on suicide rates and agriculture was measured, ensuring that as lives were being saved, crop production was not being negatively affected.

The result of these policies was a staggering 70% drop in the annual suicide rate. It is estimated that 93,000 lives have been saved, with a direct government cost of $43 USD for each life saved.

Sri Lanka’s current crisis is, in part, a result of an ill-conceived and poorly executed policy to introduce organic agriculture with no preparation.

In April 2021, the government introduced a swift and sudden ban on the import and use of all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Almost overnight, the country’s 2 million farmers were forced to go organic.

Transition from conventional, high external input agriculture to organic is normally planned in a phased approach lasting up to five years, during which farmers are trained and have access to alternative technologies throughout the process.

The bans imposed recently in Sri Lanka were very different to the carefully considered regulations previously introduced to selectively remove a small number of highly hazardous pesticides for which alternatives were available to farmers.

The impact of the new comprehensive pesticide and fertilizer bans on agriculture has been catastrophic. Harvests collapsed and crop production fell, forcing the country to import staple foods and sending prices soaring. Many farmers abandoned their fields altogether, realizing that they would lose money if they tried to produce crops.

It would be unfair however to place the blame on organic farming itself. When implemented correctly, organic practices can limit environmental and human harm without affecting food production.

Organic farming also doesn’t exclude all inputs. Biopesticides and low toxicity inorganic chemicals are permitted, and farmers learn to use ecological controls such as natural predators, cultural practices and mechanical traps and barriers to protect their crops. None of these were available to Sri Lankan farmers.

The problem for Sri Lanka was the sudden way this policy was introduced. An entire country cannot turn organic overnight, especially one so reliant on agriculture, without there being a shock to the agricultural productivity and the economy.

What next for Sri Lanka?

It is impossible to know what lies ahead for Sri Lanka’s economy; this will depend on political decisions taken by future governments.

The move to organic farming has halted, with the ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides already reversed, but the absence of foreign currency means that essential inputs cannot be imported.

Meanwhile, work continues to prevent deaths from pesticide poisoning.

The Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention is currently working with partners in Sri Lanka to analyse the impact of the 2008-2014 bans. This work will identify the key pesticides responsible for suicides following these bans, with the aim of introducing further regulation.

Community interventions are also being tested. This includes training for pesticide vendors, helping them identify people at risk of self-harm so that they do not sell to them.

We have to hope that the rebound from recent, misguided policies do not result in renewed imports and higher use of highly hazardous pesticides.

An example for neighbouring countries

There is a risk that Sri Lanka’s pesticide policies are seen only in the context of their failed move to organic farming.

Neighbouring countries might resist following Sri Lanka’s successful example of selective pesticide controls that led to dramatic declines in deaths from pesticide poisoning.

Other countries might now fear that their own economy will falter. Public opinion also plays a role, with farming communities fearing any change that could affect their livelihood.

However, this would be a mistake. Sri Lanka’s policies to restrict access to specific, deadly pesticides remain an exceptional story of success.

With pesticide suicide rates remaining high in many neighbouring countries, they would be wise to look to Sri Lanka for the solution.

Mark Davis, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention

Mark Davis

Director for Agriculture & Regulatory Outreach
Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention

Watch a recording of the Future Policy Award 2021 Ceremony