A new survey by the Census and Statics Department has shown that as little as 1.7% of the agricultural household population has received formal training to conduct agricultural activities, giving a sense as to why reform in the agriculture sector could be challenging.
The Agricultural Household Survey 2016/17 released by the Department this week also showed that even then, the duration of the majority of training was limited to less than a month. Additionally, only 3% of the agricultural household population over 25 years of age had degrees, while 46% had passed grade six to 10, 17% had passed Ordinary Levels, and only 12% had passed Advanced Levels.
Over several decades Sri Lanka’s major milestone achievement was rice self-sufficiency but the country fell behind its fight to infuse technology and competitiveness into the industry. Agriculture is heavily dependent on Government hand-outs such as the fertiliser subsidy and price control that comes at significant cost to public finance and consumer affordability.
The share of the population employed in agriculture has remained at about 27% over the past 10 years, even as the share of the sector in national GDP has continued to decline to 7%. This implied and persistent inequality adds to the urgency to rethink the strategic direction of future agricultural development – how to sustainably increase rural incomes and promote the development of a modern agriculture sector that meets the needs of an upper-middle-income country that Sri Lanka aspires to be.
It is widely-known that smallholder farmers in developing countries use too few modern inputs and technologies, which often results in low yields and poor quality crops. There’s a myth that labour is abundant and cheap, but the constraining factor for agriculture growth and profitability is labour availability and efficiency, especially given Sri Lanka’s battle to increase labour to the industry and services sectors that have fewer employees but higher productivity.
Mechanised technology, drought-resistant crops and other innovations are a huge need in the local agriculture sector. Products that can be exported, such as organic fruits and vegetables, need to evolve so smaller farmers can also benefit. Open access technologies are an essential principle, especially seed, where all recent technological advances are based on 10,000 years of collective experimentation and sharing.
Post-harvest mechanisation can also make a major impact in product quantity and quality. More productive use of land, water, fertiliser and labour can increase productivity. Sri Lanka also has high levels of post-harvest losses, about 40% of all fruits and vegetables that are grown end up in garbage dumps because there are few competent storage systems and links to the market.
Sri Lanka also lacks regulatory mechanisms and labs for research and development in agriculture including getting patents and meeting regulations for export to developed markets like the European Union (EU).
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. Modernisation and food security requires traversing this challenging environment.