Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Transforming Sri Lanka’s agriculture
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.