Compiled by Savithri Rodrigo


B. R. L. Fernando addresses the main concerns surrounding food security

Q: In terms of food security being a priority, how do you view Sri Lanka’s agro industry?

A: Food security has always been a priority. Sri Lanka never suffered from famine although malnutrition remains an issue impinging on food security.

The agro industry is in a nascent stage where value addition to agricultural production is minimal. For example, Sri Lanka exports about 50 percent of tea produce in bulk form and only the balance as tea bags.

Paddy milling remains the only viable basic agro industry due to an adequate and continuous supply of paddy.

Q: Which agro industry model is the most productive?

A: CIC Holdings and Hayleys created vibrant commercial models – they deviated from the Department of Agriculture’s extension model, which lacked a market link. CIC employed scientists in regions with specific targets and goals, introducing value addition in concurrence with the government. This is what the agro industry is all about.

Q: Are there local examples to be emulated?

A: With CIC Golden Crop, laboratories were set up for rice and vegetable seed, launching a local seed generation facility in Dambulla. A public-private partnership with the Department of Agriculture witnessed the flagship big onion seed project.

Q: What lessons has the agro industry learnt from COVID-19?

A: Whereas the rural agriculture sector was far removed from Colombo centric US$ 4,000 per capita earners, supply chains and distribution channels were decimated by the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID-19 has been a game changer – people need food and there’s no alternative but to fall back on the agriculture sector. We must identify opportunities and restructure agriculture with greater vigour. The sector requires investment and a paradigm shift to generate adequate returns.

There has to be a rethinking of land fragmentation and the consolidation of water resource management, revenue per acre and litre of water, labour productivity and mechanisation, which will disrupt rural labour by recognising underemployment.

Q: So what are the priorities in this context?

A: Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, physical distancing, hygiene and utilisation of protective equipment will continue.

Diets must change to build resistance. This means consuming vegetables rich in antioxidants. Paying heed to Ayurvedic food classifications is sensible. There will be greater demand for leafy vegetables and local yams.

Given their medicinal properties, cost-effective cultivation models for ginger, turmeric and spices as preferred crops must be developed. The national land utilisation ratio in paddy should increase from 120 percent at present to 160 percent – this will free a substantial acreage of paddy land for more lucrative cultivation prospects.

Q: How can SME growers and home gardens be more productive?

A: Home garden cultivation is not
an all-encompassing solution and helps only marginally reduce demand. However, together with SMEs they can serve niche markets as an important contributor to reduce malnutrition.

SME cultivation is at a crossroads with most landowners not investing due to the risk of unstructured markets, thieving, high cost of inputs and low rewards. New laws for agricultural theft are vital and police action on complaints must be streamlined. These are economic crimes with far-reaching consequences.

Q: What basic technology should be introduced?

A: Technology is available on the internet although what’s needed is a delivery point accessible to growers. This can be achieved through District Agricultural Officers over the phone or in person.

The major inputs are water management, composting, soil management and net houses. Funding and markets for produce will remain key concerns.

Q: And finally, how do you envision the future?

A: Globally, there’s greater awareness of climate change, and the ensuing shortages of water and food.

There are concerns over the overuse of fertiliser, misuse of pesticides and traceability of food items entering the market. Environmental concerns will grow and correcting impacts on the biosphere would be costly.

All food and energy consumed arises from the sun’s energy, and efforts will be made to utilise biomass for food and energy requirements. At a research facility in the US, extra-large sweet sorghum was cultivated, and the biomass used to generate ethanol and a secondary crop of mushrooms.

Biotechnology will play a major role and we would be hard-pressed not to include biologically modified items in the food chain.

The interviewee is a former chairman of CIC Holdings