By 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.
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”.