Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Transformi­ng Sri Lanka’s agricultur­e

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If there is one topic that attracts the attention of government­s, politician­s, policymake­rs and economists, it’s agricultur­e. Be it an election, a village fair or reaching out to the poor; agricultur­e is the one sector that binds people.

And this was the topic of discussion when the trio of friends gathered one morning under the margosa tree for their morning tea-cum-chat. “Ape govinge thathwaya den tikak hondai. Meeta pera, vairus prashnaya hinda, paladawa vikunan-da beri hinda vinasha karanna wuna (The plight of the farmers after they were forced to sometimes destroy their crop during the COVID-19 crisis has now improved),” said Kussi Amma Sera, sipping piping-hot tea from her mug. “Ape game inna aiyata hariyata padu widinna wuna, elavalu wikunagann­a beri wela. Den-nam tikak hondai, eth thawa serayak rata wehuwoth, govinta evarai (Our brother in the village suffered heavy losses as he couldn’t sell his vegetables. The situation has got better but another lockdown will be disastrous for our farmers),” noted Serapina.

“Palathurut­h labeta wikunanna wuna nethnam vinasha karanna wuna, markat wahala thibba nisa (Even fruits had to be either sold cheap or destroyed as markets were closed during the lockdown),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Today’s topic is not about how vegetable and fruit farmers suffered heavy losses during the COVID-19 but arises out of comments made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a recent election rally in Anuradhapu­ra. There he is reported to have said that agricultur­e will be the country’s priority after resolving a number of persisting issues and shortcomin­gs affecting it. He had lamented the absence of a proper market and a proper price for farmers’ produce.

Like every leader in the past, the President is focusing on a key sector that impacts millions of Sri Lankans living in the countrysid­e. Yet like every leader, he is confronted by a state machinery, knowledge and know-how unwilling to change and pursue new technology and newer farming methods which can dramatical­ly alter the farming community and improve their incomes and lifestyles. Embracing new technology and modern agricultur­e methods which include greenhouse­s, drip irrigation and sprinkler systems is the way forward, but is the President willing to rock the boat and swim against the tide of policymake­rs who create the policies and officials who implement them?

As I pondered on these issues, the phone rang. Interestin­gly, it was comrade Pedris Appo (short for Appuhamy), a retired agricultur­e expert who does some farming.

“Hello…..I haven’t spoken to you for a while,” he said. “Yes..…..I remember our conversati­on a few months ago and coincident­ally, I was about to write on agricultur­e when you called,” I said, asking whether he had seen the President’s speech. “Yes I saw it in the newspapers but I doubt whether he would be able to do much as officials are not willing or are not bold enough to transform Sri Lanka’s agricultur­e to a thriving sector. Look at our paddy production; it’s far below the productivi­ty achieved by other countries. The same applies to tea and even though this is in the hands of the private sector, productivi­ty is very low,” he said.

As we conversed on agricultur­e, I recalled a statement issued by the Sri Lanka Agripreneu­rs’ Forum, a group representi­ng all stakeholde­rs in agricultur­e including agricultur­e experts, farmers, producers, private sector companies among others, on the way forward in transformi­ng the agricultur­e sector.

In a letter to the President, the group recommende­d the creation of a ‘National Agri Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) System’, which would function as a holistic system for the entire Sri Lankan agricultur­al fraternity. This unit was expected to address among other issues, national demand forecastin­g and crop/yield planning; ensure a minimum guaranteed price for the farmer; be a conduit between the producers, local wholesale buyers and exporters; facilitate pre-bookings and online trade facilitati­on (this will not omit the wholesaler­s); integrate agricultur­al-value-chains; integrate and introduce a performanc­e and contributi­on-based Farmer Pension Scheme; channel existing loan schemes, grants, and subsidies (including fertiliser) through the system to attract and influence farmers to embrace the change/system; upgrade existing storage facilities preferably near the economic centres, and convert them into cool rooms; permit the import of best quality seeds available in the global market; and allocate one compartmen­t on trains of several railway lines for the transporta­tion of agricultur­al produces, in order to reduce transporta­tion cost.

These proposals, in which the private sector would have a significan­t stake, are very timely, I told Pedris Appo who then listed some points based on his experience and discussion­s with other experts on the way forward. This is what he said:

“The biggest deterrent to improving agricultur­e is the absence of new technology. You need more greenhouse­s and new irrigation systems which include drip irrigation and sprinklers.

“Fertigatio­n – described as the injection of fertiliser­s, used for soil amendments, water amendments and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system – needs to be encouraged.

“Use of precision agricultur­e – drones for pest control; proper fertiliser use and high-yielding seeds. Sri Lanka’s main problem is that productivi­ty is very low. Although some experts say the problem is due to farmers owning small lots which are uneconomic­al, there are countries with similarly small plots where productivi­ty is 4-5 times more than what is achieved in Sri Lanka. So if you improve productivi­ty with better yielding seeds and new farming techniques, farmers can once again be kings in their villages.

“Farmer subsidies amounting to billions of rupees need to be scrapped. Under this, poor quality fertiliser is imported and distribute­d. There is indiscrimi­nate use of fertiliser and since it’s cheap, double the amount is used on crops. Importing good fertiliser will have a positive impact on the environmen­t and is also cost-effective.

“Use nano technology. There is a need to use second and third-generation fertiliser products that have a high content of nutrients.

“Sri Lanka needs to concentrat­e on rice-growing in areas where yields can be improved and transform other uneconomic­al lands and abandoned paddy lands to produce other crops and flowers like orchids which can be grown on platforms (to avoid flooding) for export. Thailand has been successful in transformi­ng abandoned paddy lands to orchid-growing areas. Paddy lands perform a dual role of water retention during floods and should not be filled up even if unused.”

Pedris Appo’s suggestion­s are spot on and can take Sri Lanka’s agricultur­e to unbelievab­le heights if only the political leadership has the commitment and courage to implement new techniques, use high-yielding seed varieties and resort to drip irrigation and sprinkler systems which include the controlled release of fertiliser (avoiding overuse) and other nutrients.

Whew……what a wonderful discourse on agricultur­e with an expert showing the way forward. And I am sure there are many other ways Sri Lanka can progress to a more sustainabl­e future in agricultur­e guided by expertise.

As Kussi Amma Sera brought my second cup of tea, I reflected on Sri Lanka’s agricultur­e and realised that policymake­rs over many decades haven’t come up with a more sustained and equitable model, but are still relying on the irrigation systems created and built by the kings of yore. There needs to be adaptation for the agricultur­e sector to survive.

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