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Pushing up food production levels in Sri Lanka through artificial means cannot be sustained

Feb 6, 2011 8:02:38 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. M. A. Mohamed Saleem and Arjuna Hulugalle
Gandhi Centre, Colombo, Sri Lanka

"War is over, terrorism is subdued, separatism is a taboo, and therefore Sri Lankans should come to believe that everything is on course for making this country of ours into an economic hub in the region" was the message a senior member of the governing party tried to convey recently.

No one will go against the vision of making Sri Lanka competitive and prosperous in the globalizing world, and of course, we now have an opportunity for rebuilding this country that will truly belong to all. Since independence, mistakes have been made and every community claims hurt by targeted and tangential transgressions committed by the other but, the most serious and outrageous oversight of the successive governments which affects all is the inability to make this country food secure. The same mistake should not be allowed any longer.

Food security simply, for the laymen, is the ability of a country to meet people’s present and growing food demands. It also assumes that a food secure country will have tested out mechanisms to tide over life-threatening emergencies due to food shortage. Food security measures adopted by Sri Lanka over the years can be generalized into the following three areas: accelerated production drives for increasing food output, imports of various items to make up deficits and building grain buffer stocks in various parts of the country.

Nature has blessed Sri Lanka with an assorted agro-climatic conditions ranging from semi-arid, sub-humid, humid and mountainous niches within a small area of 65,610 sq km which, potentially can support a wide range of crops and farming systems. We have been informed that findings from several land suitability studies across the country are gathering dust but, those who carried them out have no doubt that the country can produce most, if not all, of its food requirements by systematically managing crop combinations that matches the agro-climatic suitability of an area. A concerted effort that government started in the fifties and sixties was moving Sri Lanka towards substantial level of food sufficiency - for which the people of this country had to go through many years of food rationing, shortages and bread queues etc. – and, with the market liberalization policies of subsequent governments, the momentum of aggressive food production drive slackened. Possibility of importing food items of any sort at any time and manipulation of markets prices even worked against holding buffer stocks, and the grain storage facilities that once used to hold grain stocks were allowed to deteriorate.

Food situation and reason for concern: - Recently, close to 10 districts of Sri Lanka experienced relentless rains and flooding, particularly in the eastern province, displaced over a million people and damaged crop fields. Several thousand acres of sown paddy went under water, and it is feared most farmers lost a crop harvest. Usually farmers keep seed paddy from the previous crop and thus, without a harvest, crop farmers will be hard pressed for seed paddy for the next crop.

Likewise, other grain, tuber and pulse cropped areas went under floods. Grain stock in the country is low, and in the past, at times of emergency, Sri Lanka went to open markets for needed grains or attracted donor food contribution to make up deficits. Given the grain export restrictions imposed by some major food exporting countries, following drought or flood disasters on their soil, the rich non-food producing countries will outbid any other country to secure whatever food grains available from anywhere. Sri Lanka will be hard pressed to compete in this grain depleting world market. It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka could not generate the level of donor sympathy also this time around when it was struck by floods. It may be attributed to wider scale emergency needs around the world but, it could also be an expression of displeasure of some countries against Sri Lanks’s perceived geopolitical realignment.

According to a recent expose by a former civil servant then in charge of the Eastern Province, the country was able to effectively manage the 1957 flood disaster because it had food stocks, very efficient and dedicated people in the civil service and capacity for quick decisions (e.g. sowing a short term rice variety in lieu of the long duration rice variety in flood damaged fields) without political interference. Further, the country’s population was small, and food deficits were not as large and, compared to food habits of today that changed over the years even in the rural areas of Sri Lanka, people of that time were able to meet calorie requirements from other cereal or tuber alternatives. These are the conditions under which Sri Lanka now has to meet its food demands, and managing emergency will get further complicated.

Self reliance: a key to food security: Unfortunately, increased food production in this country is equated with liberal use of inorganic fertilizers. Sri Lanka, like many other countries, joined the band wagon when International Research Institutes for rice and maize introduced hybrid varieties which came up with a package of liberal use of different fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers. Such cropping patterns were encouraged in poor countries as an answer to eradicate poverty. Initial high crop yields could not be maintained as many countries failed to use recommended level of fertilizers (mostly imported into the country) as fertilizer prices went up, and introduced crop varieties became highly susceptible to diseases in a new environment leading to yield declines.

Many countries that adopted such technologies now suffer from noticeable and growing syndrome of unsustainability manifested by increasing (and not decreasing) poverty, land degradation, arsenic contamination, pollution of water bodies and, famers have to incur ever increasing cost to derive benefits from their rice crops. Food security of any country cannot be built on such unsustainable farming methods, and this has been amply demonstrated over and over again in Sri Lanka. No government can continue to sustain a subsidizing fertilizer policy but, as long as the policies are unreceptive to viable cropping alternatives, fertilizer imports and supplying them at subsidized rates will remain a major politically sensitive policy instrument of this country.

The Mahatma Gandhi Centre has been collaborating with technical agencies such as the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) and Bio Energy Association of Sri Lanka (BEASL) on possible strategies for food production self reliance. It is realized that technologies used will have to be simple and put farmer in full control of them to avoid dependency on others and, the communities using those technologies will have to understand, adapt and modify them for varying requirements. The communities also should be responsible to prevent adverse consequences of such technologies (as pollutants) to others. Therefore, a commitment by the technology user is required to respect rights of the fellow human beings as well as other living organisms which will ensure that resources used are replenished or renewed so that the community in which he/she is a member will not rely on outside help for such needs. Thus, any problem and solution should be with involvement of everyone in the locality.

Years of field research by MONLAR with hundreds of farmers in different parts of the country have indicated that cropping technologies tried out meet all the above criteria and contribute to self reliance. What these technologies do is simulate the growing conditions of a luxurious prime tropical forest which is characterized by fast growth, plant combinations of different architecture, biological decomposition of periodically added organic (through aging and dying) materials. The entire plant community grows and matures in harmony. Such nature simulation technologies involving in situ compost formation and nutrient release by enhanced bacterial breakdown of leaves from fast growing trees (e.g. Gliricidia sepium) laid on the soil surface are now used by over four million farmers in India, and many more are taking up to such farming methods which are sustainable and more profitable.

Food Security: strategies encouraged by the Mahatma Gandhi Centre: Mahatma Gandhi realized that pushing production levels through artificial means cannot be sustained, and today we face the consequences of our irrational use of resources that are kept at equilibrium by interconnected natural laws in the form of climate change, global warming etc... The Mahatma was right when he said that "… nature provides for everybody’s needs but not for everyone’s greed…". The Mahatma Gandhi Centre therefore believes our country’s food security should begin at the village level. Each village should know its needs, resources at its disposal, its production capacity etc. Also, each village should be encouraged to set up silos to hold food buffer stocks periodically replenished. This should be supported by:

(a) Simple and sustainable production technologies as propounded, for example, by MONLAR

(b) Producer being given more recognition and reward in the society than the consumer

(c) Changing food habits to include other grains and tubers in the daily diet

(d) Encouraging everyone in some form of food production wherever they live including those who lack land space and

(e) Setting up information networks on food production, surplus, deficit information across the country.

The Mahatma Gandhi Centre believes that Sri Lanka’s food security can only be attained if everyone in the country realizes the urgency of becoming self reliant in our methods of food production. Sri Lanka can easily become self reliant if every village is encouraged with this task. There is no dearth of goodwill or empathy when fellow humans are in need, and with food secure villages there may not be a role for any agency to rush food supplies in an unfortunate event of a mishap in a neighbouring village. That is the peak of Dharma.