Janaka Perera explains why agriculture needs to become commercially viable

Many agricultural policies since Sri Lanka’s independence were based on populist political movements that appealed to the rural masses whose vote was critical in the electoral process. This was seen in many policies such as the Paddy Lands Act No. 46 of 1958, colonisation and alienation of state land, fertiliser and other input subsidies, major irrigation development projects like the Mahaweli Development Programme and guaranteed price schemes.

After these captured mass attention, populist policies acquired a political existence of their own and connected the same to competitive party politics, making it very hard to reverse or amend these. And it needs immense political courage to deal with these objectively due to their high sensitivity.

We still import a variety of agricultural products and food including wheat, lentils, sugar, fruit, milk and dairy products. It is regrettable that even after 74 years of independence, Sri Lanka does not have a sustainable agricultural policy.

Consisting of a complex system of value chains, the agriculture industry currently faces several simultaneous challenges that may have short to long-term repercussions. We can’t ignore the fertiliser crisis that began with protests by farmers. Banning agrochemicals drastically reduced harvests and brought about bankruptcy.

It was ‘eco-extremists’ who triggered the ban by misleading the government into believing that traditional agriculture and organic farming were healthier and more bountiful.

According to experts, growing organic food for a niche market of elites and export while retaining agricultural practices that use agrochemicals for the rest of the populace is the correct scientifically valid model of agriculture we need. What’s essential is controlling the use of pesticides.

Prof. Chandre Dharma-wardana of the University of Montreal says that our Agriculture Department’s technical officers should issue permits for releasing optimal amounts of fertiliser and pesticide needed by each customer, depending on local conditions and cultivation cycles. They can advise farmers on crop rotation techniques and so on that could be used to reduce the necessary chemical inputs.

Dharma-wardana says that a rudimentary control system existed prior to 1977 but was axed at the altar of the free market when henchmen of local politicians began selling agrochemicals.

Matters pertaining to the plantation sector are more technical and trade-oriented whereas those relating to the food crops sector are a complex mix with technical, social and political dimensions.

Sri Lanka’s tea plantations have been producing output of the highest quality and meeting rigorous international quality standards for more than 150 years. This would not have been possible without the use of integrated agriculture practices.

An example of how this is practised is the way in which regional plantation company estates use various biological methods such as predators that consume and control the population of harmful insects, without relying exclusively on synthetic or chemical inputs.

Similarly, all activities related to cultivation, plant protection and so on use a combination of traditional practices, organic material and recommended agrochemicals in prescribed quantities.

The major factors that need to be addressed through agricultural reforms are the eradication of poverty, food security and sound ecosystem management. Policies on land, irrigation, technology transformation, marketing and climate change also need to be implemented.

Agriculture is the largest user of water in Sri Lanka and the country boasts a legacy of massive ancient irrigation systems built by kings in the dry zone. The words of Parakramabahu the Great – “Let not even a drop of rainwater go to the sea without benefiting man” – may have inspired professionals in the water sector to develop the island’s irrigated agriculture further by harnessing high rainfall.

Since the construction of the Senanayake Samudraya in the 1950s as the island’s largest reservoir, organisations in the water sector have completed many new large-scale reservoir projects.

Lunugamwehera, Weheragala, Deduru Oya, Kalugal Oya and Yan Oya are some of the achievements aimed at promoting irrigated agriculture. And the contribution by the Mahaweli reservoirs to irrigated agriculture is indispensable.

Modernising systems of agricultural technology should focus on farmers’ livelihood improvement, rural economic and infrastructure development, food security and improving agro-based industries.

The purpose of the reforms should be to transform traditional practices into commercial agriculture, which can face global challenges with private sector participation. In the long term, agricultural subsidies are fiscally unsustainable and economically inefficient. The fertiliser subsidy should be gradually released for more productive agricultural investments.