Monday, January 23, 2012

The Never ending debate about self sufficiency in Rice and what it means

The arguments carry on and it is a highly politicized and emotive subject. Bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is shortly to assume a GNP per capita of US$4000 (target 2015) that is at current exchange rates Rs500,000 for every man woman and child in this country of over 20million we must take a different and futuristic view.

The politicians maintain we are now self sufficient in Rice production in Sri Lanka and with the news we were to give Somalia food aid in the form of Rice as our stores are bursting, is another feather in the propaganda cap of the government. The fact that our stores cannot prevent spoilage and rodents is another matter.

The reality is somewhat different. We subsidize the heavy use of imported, chemical fertilizer to the tune of over Rs50B a year to produce this rice and self sufficiency. The flip implies that if the govt. did not subsidize then many will not grow rice and therefore we may have to import rice. The other increasingly important point to consider is the high cost of labor as mentioned in the first paragraph, added to which is the scarcity of labor, both of which WILL impact severely in this drive to preserve self sufficiency and also increase exports, the latter being another objective of the government.

Due to the subsidy it does not require a rocket scientist to remind us that if we sell a kilogram of rice for Rs60 to an overseas buyer before freight and insurance, the govt by way of subsidy has already chipped in Rs20 as that is the subsidy. Otherwise the seller has to receive Rs80 for the same profit. That is bad economics. The photos show my efforts at paddy production in my paddy fields and one can see for oneself how inefficient the small-holders paddy production really is. The cost of labor will prevent me from carrying out a profitable operation in the future unless I go hi-tech using many labor saving measures, which can only be productive on paddy production on a much larger scale, implying that 90% of Rice grown in Sri Lanka is not cost effective, and is exploiting the inefficiencies and the perpetuation of poverty in Sri Lanka.

This analysis of the continuation of the status quo only to permanently keep people mired in poverty is not sustainable in the long term and steps must be taken now to predict this problem and avoid the unintended consequences. In my case I can improve my costs only by the following method. I must farm my property, along with that of my neighbor for a minimum extend of 10 acres or 4 hectares. I require earth moving dozers to grade the land and make large fields so that large 4 wheeled tractors can operate, and I am sure I can cut the cost of production in half.

The state’s continual policies of land distribution amongst landless, its ownership rules and restrictions with regard to sale of land and the archaic thinking that is now outdated all contribute to this fallacy that we are a land of farmers, dependent on farming for a living. The electoral politics where land is a highly emotive subject all contribute to the politicians who exploit these prejudices at the expense of taking people out of poverty and into a new thinking to ensure the survival of the rural family as an economic unit. We must give them the tools to get themselves out of poverty.

I have not touched on the very poor management of water resources, which I have been pointing out in my blog for a while, which also plays a major role in this argument. When a person farms a much larger extent using the latest techniques, then one is much less prone to waste water and is ablt to manage water. I have pointed out how in my irrigation canal, the farmer ahead of me diverts water to his plots and lets excess water flow out into the river, when I am starved of water to my fields, using the lame excuse that they are taking advantage of the water that they have been allowed by the way the canals have been laid out. Actually letting the excess water flow into the river is itself wasteful as with it flows some of the soil nutrients, but in his pig headed way is not open to another opinion, thinking it is just a means of exploiting him and his electorally won rights!!

The old techniques of transplanting have now completely been abandoned due to the cost of the exercise, but the lack of use of technology in this area leads substantially both to yield loss, as well as the high incidence of weedicide usage which could easily be prevented by transplanting methods which do not give weeds as much of a chance to take off, with mature plants having a headstart in being able to suffocate the possibility of weed seeds being germinated.

Getting back to the point of self sufficiency, exports of rice, and the fertilizer subsidy, they all need to be studied together to obtain an optimum equilibrium so that we are able to maximize on our comparative advantage in utilizing our most productive lands for the most productive purposes, instead of the wholly unsatisfactory use of existing agricultural lands that barely produce yields that can sustain farming families despite the fertilizer subsidies which are meant to increase productivity. I will not go into the need for renovating the water retention capacity of our irrigation tanks a subject I have written about on numerous occasions but which are all part of the same issue in being able to get the optimum out of our land without harming the soil, loading it with permanent damage from the over use of chemicals, and outdated farming practices that all contribute to environmental damage, all for no lasting benefit.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Seed Certification Bill (Panatha Ketumpatha) to be introduced shortly

A new Bill will be presented in Parliament shortly to enforce ‘a Certificate of Conformity’ from the Department of Agriculture of ALL seeds sold in the Island. It will therefore be forbidden by law (liable to be prosecuted for non compliance) if anyone person, retailer or company sells seeds without such approval.

The reason perceived by the State in presenting this Bill is to ensure minimum standards of conformity for all seeds sold, as it is confusing to the farmers to determine which brands are reliable, and choose with no basis to ensure quality. The quality of seed is a key determinant of the productivity and profitability of a crop and in that regard and is considered the most crucial input in agriculture.

Consider the reality! Most overseas seed companies some which are subsidiaries of multinational grain, fertilizer, chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto, Cargil or Archer Daniels Midland will gain the upper hand as they have all the technical know-how and expertise to obtain such approval for their products. Most of these imported high-yield seed varieties are hybrids that require extensive use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides for their propagation to receive the ultimate gains in yields and harvests, enslaving the farmer to purchase the whole range of products suitable for their propagation, by the self same enterprises.

At the other extreme, I share seeds with my fellow farmers of local varieties which are not available in the market place, or those that are available show little sign of germination. Under the bill, I will not only be unable to sell these if I am the producer as they are ad hoc depending on any current cultivation, nor will I be able to buy similar seeds from farmers I happen to know, who grow cultivars of vegetables that are hard to find. In addition, growing varieties such as ‘Thalana Batu’, ‘Thibbatu’, 'Karavila' and ‘Thumba Karavila’ can only be done on an adhoc basis as seeds of these varieties in the best of times are not available, except the foreign hybrids which are really not the same.

My contention therefore is that the end result of the enforcement of the proposed Act would be to benefit these foreign seed companies and a few well established local ones, who have the resources to obtain certification. This will hasten the disappearance of local varieties which though have much lower yields, can be grown with much less use of pesticides and harmful chemicals be it fertilizer or fungicides to prevent diseases.

Instead, I propose that in order to safeguard the local varieties which need to be propagated and nurtured, especially in the event that organic produce becomes more popular that all types of seed be permitted, but those that have received certification obtain a special seal of approval, which will nevertheless carry with it a premium price over those that do not receive such certification. The farmer will then be able to choose what variety he wants. If the standards granting authority is suitably equipped they can even give different grades for the seeds such as A B C etc. which guide the buyer as to what to expect.

It is important that the Agricultural Department is armed with the necessary quality control tests to ensure compliance, and there seems to be less urgency in that regard. There is no point in obtaining certification, if there is no way of testing the quality adequately to give the certificate and only rely on foreign organizations for that reliance.

The introduction of this bill will ONLY help well established companies especially foreign ones to increase their sales at the expense of local operators. That is bad and counterproductive. I am therefore very skeptical, if the Bill will achieve what it set out to do, rather it will be a step backwards, though the intention in bringing up this bill is indeed well intentioned. Only a Farmer in the field will know the challenge of choosing the correct seeds. I can from past experience clearly say that the seeds from the same company can vary dramatically in quality, especially as to germination, and I am not sure this Bill will satisfy the simple issue of ensuring quality seed material at all times, by obtaining certification. Seeds so certified will also likely not be any different.

Let us go back to basics and ask, how farmers can obtain the confidence that the seeds they use are reliable? I would say to include ONLY imports of Seeds in this Bill and exclude local varieties, or give local companies the option of obtaining certification and NOT make it compulsory. When that is done the farmer must be notified as to choices available, as well intentions of those who have obtained certification, so that considered choices can be made whether to buy or not.

I have serious nagging doubts that this is another hair brained scheme for officials and bureaucrats to obtain money for favors,(for certification and licenses) a wholly unsatisfactory process, when the whole objective should be to give the best possible input for the particular form of agricultural enterprise farmers are engaged in be it for high yield, organic or home garden. Seed inputs VARY for each of these growing options. This essential difference in the type of agriculture farmers engage in is missing in this Bill and completely misunderstood by the law makers.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A few more days left before ‘Battle lines are drawn’ – let us nip it in the bud!

The crate rule is coming round to the next installment and it seems the government is trying to placate the farmers by giving them veiled subsidies, fooling them with free plastic crates to farmer organizations, which I have already noted as being a very bad precedent, and absolutely counter-productive. They are aiming their fire power on the transport mafia, and in that war they can never win. This mafia has already extracted unprecedented exceptions by excluding a whole host of fruit and vegetables from the rule! In the end they are going to screw the consumer, putting it down to the government’s lack of flexibility. When will this government understand that whatever they do ostensibly to help the consumer, is only going to increase the consumer’s cost of the weekly food basket, not lessen it, as the Minister dreams, when he fantasizes about his expected gain in popularity.

A band of swashbuckling pirates in the guise of Ministers of the Rajapakse realm, is holding the hapless people hostage to rules, regulations, and route permits, when they must provide the infrastructure to lessen the wastage. This lack of understanding that the process of transport and storage is intermingled means they must look to examples internationally how other countries overcome this problem.

In the end it all boils down to education, both about the quality of the food that is grown, along with the safe methods of growing and then making the consumers aware of the difference between healthily edible against outwardly attractive, which will then change our consumption patterns to eating nutritious food. We can then address the cost effective means of achieving both goals of post harvest loss, as well as quality, wholesome food, to be cooked and consumed in a way to both prevent sudden bouts of food poisoning due to improper storage and the long term bouts of non communicable diseases arising from unhealthy eating, which is the gravest public health issue of the day. This is the need of the hour.

The lack of a proper perspective in food policy as it concerns both quality and minimizing wastage at all stages is what causes this type of hap hazard policy shift that rankles all concerned. This in my opinion is just glossing over lightly, by apportioning blame on a vital cog such as the transport sector when responsibility lies with all stake holders. This lack of vision on the part of the government as indicated in this blog time and time again in the past is what holds back any progressive thinking in this area. Let us all junk these Ministries making a hash of food production and food consumption and open the management of this to the private sector to show by way of such practices that the market forces can do a darn sight better than the state sector in this intricate process.