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Agri quandaries

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 22 January 2020 00:35

December inflation has spiked to 6.2% from 4.1% in November, driven largely by high food prices. While higher inflation is expected in festive months, such as Christmas and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, its disproportional impact on the poor means that the Government has to pay attention. 

When prices increase, the standard response is to blame the Government. This then provokes market intervention from the Government, particularly closer to a Parliamentary Election when public opinion becomes more relevant. The agriculture sector is also a key vote base for any Government as it contains as much as 27% of the country’s labour force and by some estimates as much as 70% of Sri Lankans have an indirect link to agriculture. 

Interventions are, however, short-lived and after a point markets have to be allowed to function independently, because sporadic interventions that are allowed to continue long-term, can create market distortions. Unfortunately the conversation the Government rarely focuses on is supply chains and how the agriculture sector is frequently undermined by their dysfunction. 

One of the oldest complaints about supply chains in Sri Lanka is that they are dominated by middlemen who profit significantly at the expense of both the farmer and the consumer. Most vegetables, fruit and coconuts struggle under the iron heel of the infamous middlemen who are accused of pocketing double what they pay farmers. 

Unfortunately the growers have little choice but to sell their products to middlemen, because there are not easy ways to access the market directly and it would require capital investment and other resources that producers usually do not have. The existence of oligopolies for key products such as rice also do not help matters and efforts to end this by releasing paddy to smaller mills has not run smoothly.

To resolve many of these matters Sri Lanka needs to invest heavily in infrastructure and technology. Other countries use cooled warehouses, data bases, vertical farming, new seed and fertiliser varieties to increase productivity and to produce year round. In Sri Lanka the dependency on rain is massive, which has left an entire sector and the livelihoods of millions of people exposed to climate change. In other parts of the world the expansion of new irrigation methods, vertical farms, and better transport systems are increasing productivity and sustainability of agriculture. These measures given farmers better ideas of what to plant, when and provide better market access and price security. It also reduces gluts that result in the market being flooded with one product, which has fewer buyers. Reforming the agriculture sector should also target an increase in exports as that would increase revenue and improve productivity. The agriculture sector is also struggling with an aging population with younger people preferring to work in other sectors. The brain drain is problematic as technology infusion and other reforms require training that can be better accessed when there is also a younger and more educated workforce available. 

Unless these and other challenges are fixed the spiking of food prices will never be adequately tackled. Traditionally, State involvement produces uneven benefits, favouring farmers with financial resources of their own, with access to more land and with some formal education. The majority of resource-poor farmers are excluded from public support for agriculture, with infrastructure and institutional frameworks designed for the minority to benefit. 

Bridging these gaps and making the agri sector competitive is a Herculean task but one that is becoming harder to put on the back burner.


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