As the cost of living increases in Sri Lanka, it is time to consider supporting smallholder farmers and focusing on food security. While the Government has supported smallholder farmers and plantations by providing a fertiliser subsidy and other smaller impetus through the Divi Neguma programme, there is a need for a more concentrated approach.
The Government cannot, for instance, talk of sustaining production levels if it continues to depend solely on rain-fed agriculture. In order to break the cycle of drought and high prices that afflicts large parts of the country, Sri Lanka will have to intensify irrigation while managing water resources better.
It is equally important that farmers have access to essential inputs like fertilisers, improved seeds and professional advice, as well as markets for their produce. Similarly, there is need to invest more in research and new technologies to raise production and for value addition, especially to staple food crops. At the same time we must make available sufficient resources to strengthen rural financial systems for farmers.
It is gratifying to note that there is a growing number of success stories of smallholder farmers in countries in Africa and around the world. This means that there is a future for this kind of agriculture and, crucially, that it is possible to eliminate the unacceptable tragedy of malnourished and starving people or unaffordable food prices.
The countries that have made progress in these areas have done so because they have the right policies, ensure participation of citizens and enjoy the support of development partners. It is clear that this support has been beneficial where it has come in to reinforce national priorities. Partnerships that respect the choices people make and produce results should be encouraged, strengthened and emulated.
For sustained production, agriculture needs to go beyond food security and grow into a profession that is recognised and respected. This would enable the sector to grow in a sustainable manner and rural poverty will be minimised as people chose to stay outside of cities because it is more profitable for them. This would solve many problems in the cities as well.
Finding seeds and plants that can withstand climate change is another challenge for Sri Lanka. Already arable land is becoming less fertile and while the country can grow enough food for itself, unwise policies that have concentrated mostly on rice without consideration for other agriculture together with reduced strains of rice and inadequate market space have made for a complicated situation.
Providing sustenance to smallholder farmers can play a crucial party in equitable development by providing incomes to rural communities as well as for women who are often sidelined in the development process in agriculture. The possibility of excess exports is doubtless another reason that can speak for organic farming in smaller communities. Conservation can be better implemented among smallholder farmers and it can only be hoped that the Government understands that development means more than highways and airports.
Ultimately, long-term solutions to investment in agriculture will come from a greater involvement of the private sector – in technology, production, marketing and research.