Agriculture is a difficult problem to solve. It feeds 8 billion people but is also one of the world’s most environmentally damaging sectors. It’s the leading driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, land use, freshwater withdrawals, and water pollution.

The world will need effective governmental policies — called agro-environmental policies — and innovations in sustainable food technologies if we want to reduce these impacts while feeding 9 or 10 billion people.

You might think, then, that the obvious thing to do is to have more and more policies focused on reducing its environmental impacts. But this assumes that all policies are effective and don’t impose trade-offs with food production or socioeconomic outcomes. This is not always the case.

Sri Lanka is a particularly dramatic case showing how rash and poorly designed policies can lead to tragic consequences. In mid-2021, the government abruptly banned the import of chemical fertilizers. On an agri-environmental policy scorecard, this might have looked good. Fertilizer use — which can cause pollution — plummeted.

But it caused dramatic losses in the country’s food supplies. Rice production fell by almost 40% from 2021 to 2022. The production of key export crops, such as tea and rubber, also fell significantly. The country spiraled into an economic crisis. While this crisis is not entirely the result of its fertilizer ban — the import ban was partly in response to economic problems — it made things worse.

The lack of planning or foresight made this policy so damaging. Farmers had no time to find nutrient alternatives or learn how to optimize organic production. It illustrates clearly that just because a country has a policy in place doesn’t mean it produces good outcomes.

I’ve written previously about how different national priorities are when it comes to food production. Farmers in most low-income countries don’t have access to fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, or other vital inputs, and their yields suffer as a result. In middle- and high-income countries, farmers often overuse fertilizers and pesticides, causing lots of water pollution.

Effective policies must consider trade-offs and priorities, not just in terms of national outcomes but also the global environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

In this article, I look at global data on agricultural policies, some success stories, and what policymakers need to consider to prevent environmental damage from being offshored to other countries.

Read the full article about agriculture policies and the environment by Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data.