24 May, 2022


Australia’s Rice Miracle: Should Sri Lanka Learn A Lesson Or Two From It?

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Sri Lanka, a rice country for many millennia

People of Sri Lanka from time immemorial have been cultivating and eating rice. According to Sri Lanka’s Great Chronicle, Mahavamsa, when Prince Vijaya and his retinue landed at Thammanna beach some 2,500 years ago, fully exhausted and famished, they were treated with a meal of cooked rice by Princess Kuveni using the rice procured from the wrecked ships. Though Mahavamsa is silent about whether that rice was being exported from Sri Lanka or being imported to Sri Lanka, a probable inference is that rice would have been in short supply in the local markets, and it was a common practice of natives to procure rice and other valuables from such wrecked ships. So, rice had been connected to the lives of Sri Lankans inseparably like the bark to a tree. Yet, for thousands of years, Sri Lanka had not been able to produce a miracle in rice compared to its peers as well as the newcomers to rice cultivation.

Aussie rice miracle

In this connection, the Sri Lanka born scientist, Nimal Chandrasena, formerly a Don at the University of Colombo and presently at the GHD Water Sciences in Australia, has documented Australia’s miraculous rice story along with three other scientists. The other three scientists have been Malcom Taylor of Agro Praisals of Australia, Gulshan Mahajan, and Bhagirath Singh Chauhan of Queensland University, Australia. The paper has been published as a chapter in the book titled Weed Management in Rice in the Asian-Pacific Region and edited by A.N. Rao and H. Matsumoto.

Necessity makes Aussie farmers efficient growers

This is what Chandrasena and his co-authors have said in their Australian rice story. The medium grain rice was introduced to Australia in 1914 to diversify its grain production and is being cultivated only as a summer crop. Since Australia is a dry continent, the driest in the world for that matter, rice is grown in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria, mainly by using irrigated water complemented at times by rainwater. Because of the dry conditions, water supplies and land availability are strictly regulated by authorities.

In fact, rice is cultivated on an annual permit system implemented by authorities considering the availability of water and the suitability of soil conditions. This itself has become a blessing and it has forced rice farmers to go for efficient water use, innovative farm management, highest value addition and effective marketing, four basic strategies that ensure farmer sustenance, viability, and long-term success.

The milling of rice was done through Rice Growers’ Cooperative Mills in the initial period but later they were all amalgamated to a large cooperative which does its business under the brand name SunRice, a world-known brand for quality rice. Its role is to receive, store, mill, package, and sell rice locally as well as in international markets under its own brand name. It now possesses an export market covering more than 60 countries spread throughout the globe. That includes the Middle East, Japan and Hong Kong, large rice eaters in the world.

Australia: World’s highest rice yield

Growing rice is costly in Australia compared to a crop like dryland wheat because of the high use of water for which the farmers have to pay, and the need for converting soil to be suitable for paddy farming. Accordingly, to establish and grow rice, a farmer has to incur a cost of approximately $ 780 to 1,600 per ha depending on whether water is readily available or not. The corresponding cost for dryland wheat is about $ 200 per ha. Hence, farmers are very cautious when they decide to grow rice in any given year. Hence, rice is grown in rotation with other crops like cereals, oilseeds, and pulses and pastures for livestock farming.

Nimal Chandrasena

Because of the labour shortages, Australian rice farming is completely mechanised. With improved varieties and the use of fertilisers and pesticides in correct amounts and at the correct time, supported by efficient water and farm management, Australian farmers have created a world record by having the highest yield level in the world. The average yield of world’s rice farmers is about 5,400 kg per ha. But Australian farmers have more than doubled it by achieving a yield rate of 9,000-11,000 kg per ha.

Rice, the notorious water guzzler

Rice is a notorious water guzzler. According to the estimates of the Manila-based Rice Research Institute, on average, to produce 1 kg of rice, about 2,500 litres of water must be used. However, because of the constraint of water shortage, Australian farmers have over the years improved the water use efficiency in rice farming. Over the last decade, the water use efficiency was improved by Australian rice farmers by about 60%, while improving yields by 30%. Accordingly, with an average yield of 10,000 kg per ha, Australian farmers use only 1,200 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice.

Highest per worker rice production

In Australia, rice is not given a priority treatment when water is allocated for different purposes. Hence, the extent of cultivation and therefore the total output have crucially depended on the water availability. In a good year, Australia may produce about 1.4 million metric tons of rice. But on average, its rice production has been about 763,000 metric tons of rice. In comparison, this is about a fourth of the rice produced in Sri Lanka that amounts to about 3.1 million metric tons, after allowing, out of paddy produced, about 10% for seed paddy requirements and waste in the milling of rice.

Australia’s output is about 100,000 kg per direct worker, whereas in Sri Lanka, it is about 2,000 kg per direct worker. Thus, the mechanisation of rice farming has enabled Australia to produce a bigger output by using a lesser number of workers. The higher productivity in Australia has enabled the workers employed to enjoy a bigger share out of the increased total output. Sri Lanka’s rice farmers do not enjoy such a luxury. It therefore explains the cause of the perennial problem of poverty among Sri Lanka’s rice farmers.

Adoption of scientific methods

How has Australia performed this miracle? It is by adopting scientific methods for rice farming. One advantage which Australia has, and which Sri Lanka does not have is that it started its rice farming as a new crop at the turn of the 20th century. Therefore, there was no old knowledge which was transferred from one generation to another.

In the case of Sri Lanka which has been producing rice for many millennia, there is this old knowledge passed from fathers to sons preventing them from going for new discoveries. If the father had inundated the paddy field with water up to about 12 inches to keep the weeds from growing and rodents away from the field, the son too was following the same without questioning.

Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Department too recommends scientific methods

But Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture in its website has recommended the Integrated Weed Management Practices to farmers as follows: “Weeds are most efficiently and economically controlled by the simultaneous application of a variety of practices. These practices including preventive, cultural, manual, mechanical, biological, and chemical. Integrated weed control practices (IWP) combine these different practices. If any single control method is used for a long time, weed species resistant to that method may build up and eventually the control measure will fail. So, the objective of IWP is to create conditions unfavourable to weeds while maintaining suitable condition for crop”. 

Preventive control measures recommended are as follows: Use clean seeds; keep seed bed weed free; keep leaves, bunds, and irrigation canal clean; keep tools and machinery clean; keep livestock out of field; prevent weeds from seedlings; prevent vegetative reproduction in seed bed. the cultural control measures are the following: proper land preparation; cultivar selection; crop establishment; water management; control of fertiliser application. The use of rotary weeders has been recommended for mechanical weeding, while manual weeding for hand weeding. In addition, chemical and biological weed control measures too have been recommended. For controlling weeds chemically, a large number of herbicides has been recommended by the Department of Agriculture.Use of different herbicidesIn the table containing these herbicides, farmers have been given the information on the type of the herbicide, how it should be diluted, how it should be sprayed and at what stage of the crop it should be used. For biological control, what has been recommended has been what is presently used in Australia in rice farming. One is the covering of soil to preserve its moisture through a process known as mulching. In addition to using natural mulches like leaves and straw, farmers in dry countries use synthetic mulches like polythene or plastics.The other biological mean of controlling weeds is the activation of allelopathic effect – inhibiting the growth of neighbouring plants. These are standard weed control measures used elsewhere globally and specifically in Australia. However, what is missing is translating them for actual use in the field and educating the farmers of the need for using them. Hence, Sri Lanka’s rice farmers have been using the traditional methods which they had learned from their fathers to control weeds by inundating fields with excess water and wasting much precious water in the process.A variety of rice for every tasteOne of the contributors to the success of Australian rice farming is the use of the high yielding varieties of rice, appropriately fertilised at the correct stage in correct amounts. According to Chandrasena and his co-authors, “The primary focus of rice breeding in Australia is to develop stress tolerant varieties that use less water, whilst enhancing grain yield; quality, palatability; and speciality attributes, such as grain appearance, flavour and aroma”.

These new varieties, according to authors, are developed to attain the following four main objectives:

* Stress tolerance – breeding for tolerance of cold, heat and drought; breed and/or select for varieties with aerobic potential (e.g., a vigorous root system able to ‘pump’ water in the same way as wild rice types). Augment stress tolerance breeding with the search for shorter season varieties. 

* Meeting specific market requirements – breed varieties that meet high-value, niche markets, e.g. medium grain for the Middle East (i.e. ‘Reiziq’), fragrant, long grain (i.e. ‘Topaz’), Sushi (Cvs ‘Koshihikari’ and ‘Opus’) and low Glycemic Index (‘Doongara’) types for both overseas and Australian consumption.

* Developing rice varieties suitable for tropical Northern Australia, where water supplies and agronomic conditions have been assessed as favourable for establishing a new rice-based industry. 

* Maintenance breeding to stop genetic drift; breed for disease and pest resistance; ensuring the breeding program has access to molecular assessment skills that permit rapid selection for multiple traits.

Drive for precision rice growing

The continued research on increasing farm productivity-crop inputs, crop protection, and farming system have also helped Australia to keep its rice farming updated. This is necessary to maximise the efficiency of farm inputs, cut costs, and improve yields. One such area where Australia has excelled is the precision farming, the use of high-tech tools to generate greater yield with less resources, while minimising any potential harm. In an environment where arable lands are depleting, while populations rising, precision farming is the way out today for countries to save themselves. It requires agricultural policymakers to move from macro to micromanagement of farms.

At present, water, fertiliser and herbicides are managed generally at macro level according to the general needs of the rice plant. However, at micro level, these have to be done by reference to the specific needs of the plant when it is producing tillers or initiating panicles. This can be done just by looking at the field but by measuring and assessing the needs of the rice plant. To do so, sensors are being used by modern farmers to release the exact amount of water and the correct type of fertiliser.

This is not a complex technology that can be used only by farmers in developed countries. Sensor technology is in common use today and therefore can easily be accessed by farmers in emerging economies as well. If the farmers could minimise the use of inputs and use them by reference to the need of the plant, its effectivity is to increase yields and consequently their incomes as well. This is the effective protection that can be given to farmers who are being harassed by vicissitudes of markets, weather, and adverse government policies.

Development of sensor-driven weed chipper 

Australian universities are competing to come up with the next best technique of precision farming. Since there is a growing global concern about the use of herbicides in agriculture, scientists have been focussing on herbicide-free weeding methods. In this connection, agricultural engineers at the University of Western Australia together with those at the University of Sydney have invented a weed-chipper that uses sensors to detect weeds and remove them from the fields without damaging the plant or the upper soil of the field.

It uses commercially available sensor-fitted arms similar to tines in a fork to scrape the weeds and then bury in the field to provide additional organic fertiliser to the plant. A Western Australia based manufacturing company is to produce and supply these weed-chippers to the market soon (available at: http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/2020022411870/australian-farmers-reap-rewards-weed-chipper). This is a breakthrough technology and once its benefits are known by farmers and consumers, it is inevitable that it would soon be caught-up in a world now wary of hazardous health effects of the use of herbicides in agriculture.

Should Sri Lanka learn a lesson or two from Australia?

Sri Lanka is planning to improve its agriculture solely by denying it chemical fertilisers and pesticides and introducing organic fertilisers to take their place. As Australian rice farmers have proved to us, it is not a simple task. It needs much concentrated integrated planning. In this connection, Sri Lanka can learn a lesson or two from the Australian rice miracle.

*The author, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 16

    If only our government and leaders have the intelligence to learn from other successful nations, take the advice of experts, and NOT make it yet another means to personally benefit from it, like they always do, even if there is a pandemic, and they make money off vaccines. It seems they seem to put their greed before the good of the country, which results in this nation never progressing, and always going backwards.

    • 17

      “2,500 years ago, fully exhausted and famished, they were treated with a meal of cooked rice by Princess Kuveni using the rice procured “
      Perhaps inadvertently, Dr.W has exposed the root of our agricultural problems. Yes, it IS the 2500 year old civilization, in which we are firmly stuck. Do the British talk about 3000 year old Stonehenge in agricultural discussions? Do Egyptian rice farmers invoke the 5000 year old Pyramids?
      The fact is that our alleged glorious history prevents us from changing our ways. Look at the way the government banned chemical fertilizers recently, on the advice of a monk who places much faith in ancient rice varieties.
      How can Dr.W expect such people to learn from faraway Australia when they are unwilling to learn from Tamil Nadu ,which has produced its own agricultural revolution without the water resources that Lanka has?

    • 8

      …take the advice of experts…
      This is the problem with SL. Everything , if you listen to the News, is on the advice of the President, the PM or the Minister. The Xpress Pearl disaster was, according to news, handled on the “advice” of the Prez, even though experts from NARA MEPA Coast Conservation and other special institutes were there. They even go on boats to advise the district secretaries how to handle the flood situation.!! (today Bandula G did it).

  • 17

    I am yet to read the article. But, that doesn’t stop me making this comment, – The Title is enough!
    When did Sri Lanka learn anything?
    The British left us with cash crops. We earned our Foreign Exchange with our Tea, Rubber and Cinnamon. Our Tea was so popular that the name Ceylon Tea continued even after the country answered to the name of Sri Lanka.
    We ruined everything trying to wipe out our colonial past.

    • 5

      Very true,the colonials left a good country and most of our rice was imported from Burma where their farmers were very hard working where they are willing to bend down and uproot the weeds, which our farmers did during the colonial times
      My elderly relatives of my wife in Japan owns little over 2 acres of rice and the old couple pull the weeds out and after the harvest they make some eatables with the rice and sell them in their shop run by their daughter in law.The old couple help them to make their traditional food for the shop. They hire machines to prepare the land for the next crop. They seem to minimize the use of chemical fertilizer but make their own biological from the waste.
      writer could give a helping had with advise to gosl,even get Australians to get to the island and train our farmers and even have a big rice field run by themselves,which is now happening in some African countries.

  • 13

    During his second come back, former PM of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir Mohamed said, even with state subsidies farmers of Malaysia loose money for their units are small, costs high and productivity is very love. Hence, he suggested, combining their units and making bigger units by forming co-operatives would bring better life for them, owing to higher income. He said Israeli and New Zealand are the good examples, and the farmers could leant from them.

  • 11

    I don’t think it is advisable to compare the Australian Rice production with Sri Lanka for many reasons but it is worth learning lessons from their experience and other nations that are successful in rice production.
    The basic problem is Sri Lanka that Sri Lankans never learns lessons from the past of its own or successful other nations not only in Agriculture but also in other industries and other matters such as solving ethnic problem or economic problems. These are matters for the development and growth of the Nation.
    The import ban on artificial fertlizers is not a decision made by the Scientists or needs of the sector. Every Scientist will agree that the yield per ha is low using organic fertilizers and organic fertilizers of the country cannot meet the needs of the sector. So, organic ferilizer and rice has to be imported to feed our people of this nation. Where we are going to this imports from? The answer is obvious.

    • 5

      A European NGO group is presently helping and training people in a West African country to make bio fertilizer out of sewage and local materials and the yield is good, must try and use that method.
      Using inorganics are lethal in the hands of our simpletons where these chemicals get into the water tables resulting in deaths due to kidney failure.

  • 9

    The ‘Mahawansa’, although facts maybe unsubstantiated, is our accepted historical ‘text book’. Accordingly, in our glorious past, we had advanced irrigation systems & even exported grain. So why go for modern scientific methods, mechanisation, pesticides & weedicides or fertiliser? We don’t have to learn from others, we have our healthy traditional methods (productivity is immaterial), abundant water resources, & if necessary, divine intervention. Of course, divine intervention & home remedies didn’t seem to work for the pandemic but the govt., in its infinite wisdom, probably believes it is better to save our money, even if a few die of starvation, than investing on foreign expertise, methods & technology. SL needs all the money to keep the politicians in comfort with SUVs & other perks, like pensions. Unless foreigners are prepared to pay us (that is the politicians) for the privilege of imparting their expertise & investing in SL, we don’t need foreign intervention.

  • 2

    TO be self sufficeint Agriculture in modern conditions some one like Ghandhi has to come, Gandhian prism, what are the roots of the current agrarian crisis The whole india is exporting agri products to world and self sufficeint to its population To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves

    Or like Muhammad Yunus Global Thinkers find ways in which to break out of poverty introduce

    Bangladesh has become one of the top producers of small scale fish farming , having village pond preparation and fertilising

  • 1

    People should understand that “Mahawansa” without ‘Tika’ (sub-commentaries) and ‘Tippani’ (annotations) is incomplete.
    All Sanskrit and Pali texts written by our ancestors were accompanied by Tika and Tippani.
    Contrary to popular belief, Mahanaman (not a Sinhalese) was NOT the author of the entire Mahawansa. His account only covers from 543 BC (the year Lord Buddha said to have attained Parinibbana which is debatable) to AD 301. He only copied down our history which was already written by our Sinhalese ancestors. His account is disputable as he has added Vijaya Hora and many other Kalingas and omitted our Sinhalese sovereigns.
    For example; King Panduwasadeva is not Vijaya Hora’s Baappa’s son.
    According to Rajavaliya, he is a Sinhalese King who reigned as Pandukabhaya I or Panduka Abhaya I. His son Abhaya was Deegha Gamini Abhaya, who’s son reigned as Pandukabhaya II whom we were taught as the only King Pandukabhaya. After Lord Buddha’s Parinibbana, there has been a massive sea swell (the 2nd of the 3 tsunamis) and while Sinhala people were in mourning for 90-years, the country is said to have been subjected to invasions. It was King Pandukabhaya II who had chased all invaders and brought the country under one flag.
    The undisputed history of Sinhaladwipa prior to 543 BC is available in the original ‘Tripitaka’.

    • 1

      Where is the link to the original Tripitaka?

      • 4

        This Champa mixes all it up.
        There are also increasing number of so called SB men that believe Buddha should have been born in SL.

        Pidurangala- sinhala extremists, calling themselves buddhists but have only been busy with pointless issues. I was born to a so called buddhist family, but looking back today, how they reacted over the decades is beyond bearing. This is very common to many families down there. That is why I focus only one part of BUDDHISM, which is MEDITATION.
        Let RAJAPKASHES to reap the harvest so long CHAMPA or the like CTIZENS be engaged in so called SINHALA BUDDHISM mantra.

    • 1

      Dear Champa,
      Relevance to the topic of the article?

    • 2

      Please get back to writing stuff that is comprehensible.
      In certain moods, you seem to write absolute rot!

  • 1

    My above comment was actually a reply to Raj-UK re: Mahawansa.
    On a separate matter, Rajapaksa hackers seem to have blocked my two replies to Native Vedda in the news item titled ‘Cardinal blasts Nandasena’. One was about Army Commander General Shavendra Silva and the other was about our history. Malaccan Rajapaksas are allergic to both topics.

  • 0

    The U.S. is another non-native rice producer doing well in the export market and too has many a methodology and technology lessons to offer.

    The U.S. accounts for less than 2 percent of global rice production, buy has a share of more than 6 percent of global exports and is the 5th largest exporter.

    A look at SriLanka’s department of agriculture – Rice Research and Development website indicates that its efforts are around traditional rice growing methods, and has set a goal for increase in yield per hectare;
    “The research and development program at RRDI focuses on increasing farm productivity from current 4.3 t/ha to 5.0 t/ha within the next 5 years while reducing cost of production and improving grain quality of rice.”

    While it’s all good improving crop success and yield… We also need to work on curtailing over consumption of food in general and put forward health goals which should be a mandate of the Ministry of Health.

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