We in Sri Lanka have not yet been able to distinguish fact from fiction in the food production dilemma. There was a time, when it was thought that we should not bother with growing any food, as other people can do it better and cheaper, so lets do what it is that we can do better, and effectively let all our agricultural lands go to forest, where we can encourage tourism with the growth in the National Parks!
I am not one to subscribe to that viewpoint, though I do agree that our agricultural practices are inefficient and outmoded. I have belabored this point right through the blog as any reader would notice. So all I am advocating is a complete change in the way we operate, being focused in all we do, and remove as many of the risk factors as possible, because agriculture has the most unknowns in any venture.
The government MUST work with one purpose, without encouraging grape growing for a wine industry, or importing ostriches to increase meat consumption. Such fantasies are by those unaware of the ground situation aka ‘politicians’. We have a lot to learn from the agricultural practices of the plantation industry, as well as those of the outsource success stories of companies like Ceylon Tobacco Company for their management of labor and outgrowers. We must also learn from the past mistakes of large scale agricultural failures that led to the small holder emphasis. This issue demands so many resources and thought put to it that no one appears to have the time or patience to attempt this, least of all politicians.
In my opinion, lets take product by product and have a definite national plan to encourage or discourage as well as the preferred size of operation. It was noticeable that once again, people were encouraged to apply for blocks of land in the Mahaweli zone in 50acre lots for agricultural projects, as if it was some kind of panacea for these ills. We know what happened to the original leases granted thereon, and once all the trees were cut, the top soil eroded, you cannot give this land away free if you wanted to. It is important to have a goal, as to what will be suitable for that land. Then assistance subsidy and sound business plan must accompany this as well as follow up thereon. So many agricultural projects in SL have floundered even with the best of intentions, that only a concerted effort can arrest this likelihood.
Let us begin with paddy production and have a national plan for that. Let us all understand that this plan should encompass all varieties of Paddy and different objectives for high yielding and organic varieties as both have a market, but at different levels. Then understand the workings of the farmer, best practice, work ethic and develop a practical plan, first by selecting an area which can be replicated nationwide if successful. In order to be selected, various criteria must be in place, and then the subsidy and education of the farmers and best planting practices can be implemented. People will say we already have Bathalagoda Rice Research Institute for training and imparting knowledge. If so look why it has failed and look at methods of turning it around. They have recently set up a Rice Research station to advise farmers, but I would like to know who have obtained training, and how much land has been cultivated by them, and see how their yields have improved due to the training, as that is the obvious measure of its success.
Without learning the lessons of the past we can never improve for the future and as a working paddy farmer I can honestly tell you I learn something new every day, and blame the lack of common sense of the farmer for a lot of the ills we are faced.
I have digressed somewhat from the main point of the article, namely to find away out of the mess. By way of example I have highlighted the problem in one instance, but am convinced that there is NO attempt YET at arriving at a comprehensive agricultural policy to match all the suppliers and consumers, and improve productivity as all this will contribute to the growth of the GNP at a far higher pace than simply relying on the service sector to take up the slack.
I firmly believe that this is the key to economic growth that has completely eluded the planners and politicians, one that will directly flow into the hinterlands, if only we can harness sufficient interest. With the hotel sector also growing and willing to pay a premium for quality produce, even they are struggling to get the variety of produce at the exorbitant price they are being asked to pay. We cannot play catch up with supply and demand and wait for that to come to equilibrium. Proactive steps must be taken immediately. I recently read an article where a prominent Buddhist priest was exhorting people to realize the value of growing some of their own food at home in pots or in a small plot, just to mitigate their food cost, and gain an appreciation for quality food and value of agriculture, something that is desperately needed, but which is not the solution to the problem per se.
You only have to go to the Pola at any village to realize how little is grown locally as in local to the village, and how costly the food items are with much having been transported from afar, from dried fish to coconuts. If today’s Rs60/- coconuts are any indicator of the future, we have no idea what we are in for, are we waiting for the coconuts to reach the magic Rs100/-? This to me is the most important task, surpassing the cost of living committee, which are all playing to the gallery. Only an immediate focus on food security and the plan to insure against it will suffice.