Funding the rice bowl

Monday, 1 July 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

AGRICULTURE is still the backbone of livelihoods for millions of families in Sri Lanka. So steps by the Government to slash the fertiliser subsidy by 25% need to be viewed with a serious eye. There is also a grave need to broaden Government intervention and support in agriculture beyond unsustainable handouts to make farmers independent. The fertiliser subsidy costs the taxpayer Rs. 26.5 billion and the current plan will save Rs. 7 billion annually. The Agriculture Ministry insists that their decision to reduce the subsidy is not as a result of fund shortages but rather because studies have shown the fields to be over-fertilised. They argue that over the last seven years farmers have used excessive chemicals on the soil and therefore it is now time to return to a healthier growth pattern. Farmers, predictably, disagree and insist that high levels of fertiliser are needed to gain the yields that make their farming marginally profitable. This tug of war has serious repercussions for everyone. The Government, struggling to maintain a lid on public expenditure, will be glad to find a reason to reduce the draining subsidy, but for most of the farmers, this is falling from the pan into the fire, as is going to be the case for consumers as well when fertiliser has to be purchased at higher prices. Even though the Government has promoted organic fertiliser, it is questionable whether this was done in an efficient manner. Therefore switching over and getting the same results will be difficult for most farmers. Yet, it is clearly an issue that 1.7 million farmers need to concentrate on. On the part of the Government, it is imperative that it uses the Rs.7 billion savings that it will make from slashing the fertiliser subsidy to train and equip farmers. These people need training in organic farming, they need to have direct interaction with the top layers of the agriculture policymaking bodies and they need effective marketing strategies. This means that Sri Lanka’s entrenched ideas of rice self-sufficiency now need to reach beyond their current mandate and look at ways to bring profits to farmers. Land reform is also an urgent need so that paddy farming can be made more environmentally sustainable. Research and development is another aspect that needs stronger attention from the Government. Acknowledgement of climate change demands drought resistant varieties of rice that can result in high yields and require fewer expensive chemicals. Providing nutrition to soil, crop rotation and increasing productivity are all dimensions that the agriculture sector has considered inadequately. Used to obtaining low cost chemical fertiliser and depending on a few varieties of seeds Sri Lanka’s rice industry has become weak in its biodiversity. Sadly, Sri Lanka’s rice farmers have lost the rich heritage that was evolved over hundreds of years ago when millions of acres of paddy were grown under the shadows of the massive wevas. This inheritance needs to be revamped to fit modern needs, so that with technology, training and new ideas fresh solutions can be found for old problems. A few private sector companies are already doing this in Sri Lanka and they have been met with considerable success. They export under the “green” tag, have introduced gourmet rice varieties and evolved new ones such as the red basmati rice that is patented by Sri Lanka. These are efforts that deserve support and in expanding them, millions of farmers will find their prayers answered.