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Threat to food security in Sri Lanka

2018-03-14 00:00:47
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I have seen firsthand that agricultural science has enormous potential to increase the yields of small farmers and lift them out of hunger and poverty
— Bill Gates   

When the father of our nation D.S. Senanayake went ahead with his ambitious plans for farmers as Minister of Agriculture in the State Council of Ceylon, he was met with resistance by cynics. The naysayers attempted to discourage D.S. from promoting paddy cultivation insisting it was far cheaper to import rice than to invest on paddy here.   

However DS being the far wiser statesman and forward thinker went ahead with his plans renovating neglected irrigation systems and creating new ones assuring food security for the country in the decades to come.   

Unfortunately for us not everyone who ruled the country after DS shared his vision and concern for the paddy framer and during the past four decades or so saw a dwindling interest in their grievances. Hundreds of tanks remain overgrown with grass and trees and damaged and dried up canals have been now occupied by squatters. This has been the fate of even the engineering wonder the 87-km Yoda Ela or Jaya Ganga which carries excess water from Kala Wewa to Thissa Wewa in Anuradhapura. The precision of the incline in the canal still baffles even foreign engineers but this marvel of engineering is now inhabited by squatters due to neglect.   

Thus with no one to fix the perennial water problem, the future of a majority of the 1.2 million farmers in the country and nearly five million of their dependents is now poised on a precipice of uncertainty.   

The water shortage has resulted in an over dependence on imported rice thus jeopardizing the country’s food security in an unstable global economy. Right now the agriculture officers are advising farmers to cultivate maize onn 50% of their paddy lands to face-off the water shortage. Besides creating a greater demand for imported rice this practice will leave another problem for farmers as there’s no such demand for maize in the country.   

Meanwhile, a couple of weeks back the media reported that a farmer in the Kovil Adi area in Thambalagamuwa division in the Trincomalee district has successfully experimented with rice seed variety BG 74-2. Till then it was grown only by the farmers in Polonnaruwa. The variety it is learned gives a rice yield of 150 bushels from ten acres and the farmer in Kovil Adi has shared his success story with others. While the farmer has carried out his own experiments on seed paddy there’s very little patronage from successive governments on research despite rice being the country’s staple food.   

Even if a farmer manages to get a good harvest braving all the challenges still he is not assured of his income as the Paddy Marketing Board itself grapples with its own problems due to a shortage of storage capacity. For instance farmers in the drought-hit Kantale who finally managed to cultivate paddy after seven seasons were last month seen lamenting over the Paddy Marketing Board’s refusal to buy their harvest citing various reasons. In such an eventuality the desperate farmers are forced to sell crops to the middle man at a cheaper price often incurring a big loss.   

It goes without saying that there’s an urgent need to help start farmer co-operatives and groups and encourage them to engage in processing and marketing of rice as the governments seem to be losing interest in the matter. These farmer organizations should be provided with necessary skills and technology in areas like weed and insect management, nutrient management and post-harvest management. Empowering the farmers so that they would be in a position to bargain with any government is helpful as with the farmer community forms 25% of the country’s vote base. Last week saw some 85,000 farmers in the Indian state of Maharashtra walking 180 kms to Mumbai and getting their demands met by the state government.   

As for the water problem, in addition to rehabilitating tanks and canals, the government needs to have a blueprint on how it’s going to face the effects of climate change especially in the dry zone with agriculture being one of the most vulnerable sectors to be hit by the impending global catastrophe. Implementing the proposal for the River Basin Authority (RBA) to control and develop the country’s 103 river basins would be a good starting point.   

Agriculture, as Thomas Jefferson said, “is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness”. We cannot think of a secure future as an island nation with food security unless we take care of our farmer.   


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