30 May, 2023


Revisiting, Reforming & Reordering Our Agriculture

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

“Replanning Agriculture” has become a virtual annual exercise. Usually, such deliberations are held as a Multi-day Residential Meeting at one of the plush Tourist Seaside Hotels, attended by a large number of participants. The word “Policy” is also smuggled into the title somewhere, to give it an air of seriousness and respectability. This is an expensive exercise both financially and in Staff Time. Therefore at the present time, deliberations must factor in the realities of (i) The Coronavirus pandemic and (ii) The dire foreign exchange crisis. Over above these loom many peripheral, issues impinging on our local and global circumstances. My own professional life has been concerned one way or another, with Plant Science and Agriculture. My earliest dreamy vision for the Agriculture Sector, was to compile a list of a dozen or two appropriate crops of special importance, and then to set up Trials, representing each of the recognized “Agro-ecological zones”, comprising plots of suitable size, on which observational and yield records were to be kept. Based on this initial screening, promising ones being selected for further intensive study, and refinement towards evolving “best management practices”. After more than half a century of exposure, this remains for me, a valid proposition. In identifying candidate crops for trial, considerations of import substitution, export potential, nutritional value, growers’ experience and preference, ‘conservation and rescue’ of threatened crops, integration of harvesting, handling, storage, quality control, processing and likelihood of lucrative ‘niche markets’ to be duly factored in.

Certain features of our land use are over-arching. (a) Our culture is overwhelmingly Agrarian. (b) There is a preponderant concern with rice-farming, and less so for seasonal “other crops”, dictated by market demand. Rice naturally has priority for space, time and labour. (c) Water management is central, (d) There is a traditional dichotomy into “export” and “domestic” agriculture. Each has its own norms and practices, weaknesses and strengths.

Our farming is strongly woven into cultural and traditional norms. The small farmer is paramount. With limited financial means, advisory and extension packages need to be simple and low cost. Recent ill-conceived and revolutionary changes have hit him most. To play around with “novelty” is unfair, injudicious and perilous.

When roused by unnecessary foolhardiness, the farmer is apt to rebel violently. One shudders to think of what may yet be in store. Abject poverty in a helpless, hapless, yet vital sector of our society, unable to service their obligations to creditors and even faced with the reality of a starving family, should dominate our concerns. It clearly does not. The highly unwise assertion is that all this is a display orchestrated by evil multinationals – the most popular current scapegoat.

The Agriculture Minister is grossly in error when he is reported to declare that this display, is by a minuscule provoked faction. He also has seriously erred when he asserts that “over 90 %” of paddy extents have qualified to use the Government’s fertilizer generosity. Where is source that enables such (optimistic) precision when daily visuals on TV suggest something very different?

A fairly regular and ill-advised view is that our agrarian culture is primitive and backward. The familiar manthram is “to grow exportable crops where we have a comparative advantage, and use the income to purchase our food needs”. The pandemic has a profound impact on the fallacy of this prevalent paradigm of creating a “globalized market”, rejecting concepts of self-sufficiency and urging focus on the “Global Market” as the “driving force,” that should determine farmers’ choice of what to produce.

The dramatic destruction or breakdown of freight cargo systems, perhaps for the first time since World War Two, should wake us up to the reality of looming starvation or severe food shortages, irrespective of the (most unlikely), ability to pay. This becomes a very real and inevitable tragedy. The last official who said this, was promptly sacked!

Trying to blame all our ills on the Covid Pandemic is neither convincing, nor is it a passing inconvenience. It is an inherent ailment, arising out of our negligence in management, exacerbated by faulty prioritization, inexcusable profligacy and widespread corruption.

The pandemic should urge us to rethink strategies, re-order priorities, rectify errors and refine institutional arrangements.

Grow, export surplus and import necessities is no longer a viable strategy. Fiscal mismatches and transport disruptions (both of inputs and exports) should be eye-openers. Romantic visions of a glorious past, of plenty and surplus, must factor in the reality of vastly increased populations and expectations. Urbanization and depletion of farm labour, with massive automation and sophistication, are beyond the reach of cash-strapped farmers. With increased automation, catering to the consequent increase of leisure introduces a fresh dimension. Shortfalls of leisure time demands would inevitably encourage substance abuse, especially among youth.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Economy & Agriculture.
    I have not the slightest knowledge on the subject. But, I wish to step in.
    Our land was once the granary of the East, I have heard. I don’t contest it.
    BUT, we are in a different era. Modernisation is called for in thought and planning.
    For how long can a country be sustained economically by agriculture alone?
    We should have spread out to Industrialism and Technology. We are paying the price for our lack of imagination.
    We started a few industries, no doubt. Only for local consumption. (Even those were not expanded, maintained. KKS cement factory comes to mind.)
    It is never too late.

  • 1

    A well-argued piece by Dr.P, putting political “agriculturists” in their place.
    I do have a small quibble:
    “The familiar manthram is “to grow exportable crops where we have a comparative advantage, and use the income to purchase our food needs”. The pandemic has a profound impact on the fallacy of this prevalent paradigm of creating a “globalized market”, rejecting concepts of self-sufficiency and urging focus on the “Global Market” as the “driving force,”
    The Prime reasons for attempting self-sufficiency are food security and cost. If a country produces its own food, it is cheap, and it isn’t dependent on imports. Or so the theory goes. But if you analyse the current situation carefully, it turns out that even locally produced food has followed global trends. Local milk, rice, sugar, chicken, coconut oil prices are around the same as in India. Among others, onions and potatoes are actually cheaper in India. The difference is that an Indian can afford 40 INR for rice, but we find 200 LKR exorbitant.
    So why can’t our rice farmers perform? Much of this is due to imported inputs like fertilizer. Efficiencies of scale too are absent.
    We do have exportable crops which demand less water resources than rice. Why not export tea, rubber, bananas, mangoes, etc and use the proceeds to import rice?

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