Australia’s rice miracle: Should Sri Lanka learn a lesson or two from it?

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Nimal Chandrasena

Sri Lanka, a rice country for many millennia

People of Sri Lanka from time immemorial have been cultivating and eating rice. According to Sri Lanka’s Great Chronicle, Mahavansa, when Prince Vijaya and his retinue landed at Thammanna beach some 2,500 years ago, fully exhausted and famished, they were treated with a meal of cooked rice by Princess Kuveni using the rice procured from the wrecked ships. 

Though Mahavansa is silent about whether that rice was being exported from Sri Lanka or being imported to Sri Lanka, a probable inference is that rice would have been in short supply in the local markets, and it was a common practice of natives to procure rice and other valuables from such wrecked ships. So, rice had been connected to the lives of Sri Lankans inseparably like the bark to a tree. Yet, for thousands of years, Sri Lanka had not been able to produce a miracle in rice compared to its peers as well as the newcomers to rice cultivation.

 

Aussie rice miracle

In this connection, the Sri Lanka born scientist, Nimal Chandrasena, formerly a Don at the University of Colombo and presently at the GHD Water Sciences in Australia, has documented Australia’s miraculous rice story along with three other scientists. The other three scientists have been Malcom Taylor of Agro Praisals of Australia, Gulshan Mahajan, and Bhagirath Singh Chauhan of Queensland University, Australia. The paper has been published as a chapter in the book titled Weed Management in Rice in the Asian-Pacific Region and edited by A.N. Rao and H. Matsumoto.

 

Necessity makes Aussie farmers efficient growers

This is what Chandrasena and his co-authors have said in their Australian rice story. The medium grain rice was introduced to Australia in 1914 to diversify its grain production and is being cultivated only as a summer crop. Since Australia is a dry continent, the driest in the world for that matter, rice is grown in southern New South Wales and northern Victoria, mainly by using irrigated water complemented at times by rainwater. Because of the dry conditions, water supplies and land availability are strictly regulated by authorities. 

In fact, rice is cultivated on an annual permit system implemented by authorities considering the availability of water and the suitability of soil conditions. This itself has become a blessing and it has forced rice farmers to go for efficient water use, innovative farm management, highest value addition and effective marketing, four basic strategies that ensure farmer sustenance, viability, and long-term success. 

The milling of rice was done through Rice Growers’ Cooperative Mills in the initial period but later they were all amalgamated to a

large cooperative which does its business under the brand name SunRice, a world-known brand for quality rice. Its role is to receive, store, mill, package, and sell rice locally as well as in international markets under its own brand name. It now possesses an export market covering more than 60 countries spread throughout the globe. That includes the Middle East, Japan and Hong Kong, large rice eaters in the world. 

 

Australia: World’s highest rice yield

Growing rice is costly in Australia compared to a crop like dryland wheat because of the high use of water for which the farmers have to pay, and the need for converting soil to be suitable for paddy farming. Accordingly, to establish and grow rice, a farmer has to incur a cost of approximately $ 780 to 1,600 per ha depending on whether water is readily available or not. The corresponding cost for dryland wheat is about $ 200 per ha. Hence, farmers are very cautious when they decide to grow rice in any given year. Hence, rice is grown in rotation with other crops like cereals, oilseeds, and pulses and pastures for livestock farming. 

Because of the labour shortages, Australian rice farming is completely mechanised. With improved varieties and the use of fertilisers and pesticides in correct amounts and at the correct time, supported by efficient water and farm management, Australian farmers have created a world record by having the highest yield level in the world. The average yield of world’s rice farmers is about 5,400 kg per ha. But Australian farmers have more than doubled it by achieving a yield rate of 9,000-11,000 kg per ha. 

 

Rice, the notorious water guzzler

Rice is a notorious water guzzler. According to the estimates of the Manila-based Rice Research Institute, on average, to produce 1 kg of rice, about 2,500 litres of water must be used. However, because of the constraint of water shortage, Australian farmers have over the years improved the water use efficiency in rice farming. Over the last decade, the water use efficiency was improved by Australian rice farmers by about 60%, while improving yields by 30%. Accordingly, with an average yield of 10,000 kg per ha, Australian farmers use only 1,200 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice. 

 

Highest per worker rice production

In Australia, rice is not given a priority treatment when water is allocated for different purposes. Hence, the extent of cultivation and therefore the total output have crucially depended on the water availability. In a good year, Australia may produce about 1.4 million metric tons of rice. But on average, its rice production has been about 763,000 metric tons of rice. In comparison, this is about a fourth of the rice produced in Sri Lanka that amounts to about 3.1 million metric tons, after allowing, out of paddy produced, about 10% for seed paddy requirements and waste in the milling of rice. 

Australia’s output is about 100,000 kg per direct worker, whereas in Sri Lanka, it is about 2,000 kg per direct worker. Thus, the mechanisation of rice farming has enabled Australia to produce a bigger output by using a lesser number of workers. The higher productivity in Australia has enabled the workers employed to enjoy a bigger share out of the increased total output. Sri Lanka’s rice farmers do not enjoy such a luxury. It therefore explains the cause of the perennial problem of poverty among Sri Lanka’s rice farmers.

 

Adoption of scientific methods

How has Australia performed this miracle? It is by adopting scientific methods for rice farming. One advantage which Australia has, and which Sri Lanka does not have is that it started its rice farming as a new crop at the turn of the 20th century. Therefore, there was no old knowledge which was transferred from one generation to another. 

In the case of Sri Lanka which has been producing rice for many millennia, there is this old knowledge passed from fathers to sons preventing them from going for new discoveries. If the father had inundated the paddy field with water up to about 12 inches to keep the weeds from growing and rodents away from the field, the son too was following the same without questioning. 

 

Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Department too recommends scientific methods

But Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture in its website (available at: https://doa.gov.lk/rrdi/index.php?option=com_sppagebuilder&view=page&id=42&lang=en) has recommended the Integrated Weed Management Practices to farmers as follows: “Weeds are most efficiently and economically controlled by the simultaneous application of a variety of practices. These practices including preventive, cultural, manual, mechanical, biological, and chemical. Integrated weed control practices (IWP) combine these different practices. If any single control method is used for a long time, weed species resistant to that method may build up and eventually the control measure will fail. So, the objective of IWP is to create conditions unfavourable to weeds while maintaining suitable condition for crop”. 

Preventive control measures recommended are as follows: Use clean seeds; keep seed bed weed free; keep leaves, bunds, and irrigation canal clean; keep tools and machinery clean; keep livestock out of field; prevent weeds from seedlings; prevent vegetative reproduction in seed bed. the cultural control measures are the following: proper land preparation; cultivar selection; crop establishment; water management; control of fertiliser application. The use of rotary weeders has been recommended for mechanical weeding, while manual weeding for hand weeding. In addition, chemical and biological weed control measures too have been recommended. For controlling weeds chemically, a large number of herbicides has been recommended by the Department of Agriculture. 

 

Use of different herbicides

In the table containing these herbicides, farmers have been given the information on the type of the herbicide, how it should be diluted, how it should be sprayed and at what stage of the crop it should be used. For biological control, what has been recommended has been what is presently used in Australia in rice farming. One is the covering of soil to preserve its moisture through a process known as mulching. In addition to using natural mulches like leaves and straw, farmers in dry countries use synthetic mulches like polythene or plastics. 

The other biological mean of controlling weeds is the activation of allelopathic effect – inhibiting the growth of neighbouring plants. These are standard weed control measures used elsewhere globally and specifically in Australia. However, what is missing is translating them for actual use in the field and educating the farmers of the need for using them. Hence, Sri Lanka’s rice farmers have been using the traditional methods which they had learned from their fathers to control weeds by inundating fields with excess water and wasting much precious water in the process. 

 

A variety of rice for every taste

One of the contributors to the success of Australian rice farming is the use of the high yielding varieties of rice, appropriately fertilised at the correct stage in correct amounts. According to Chandrasena and his co-authors, “The primary focus of rice breeding in Australia is to develop stress tolerant varieties that use less water, whilst enhancing grain yield; quality, palatability; and speciality attributes, such as grain appearance, flavour and aroma”. 

These new varieties, according to authors, are developed to attain the following four main objectives:

  • Stress tolerance – breeding for tolerance of cold, heat and drought; breed and/or select for varieties with aerobic potential (e.g., a vigorous root system able to ‘pump’ water in the same way as wild rice types). Augment stress tolerance breeding with the search for shorter season varieties. 

  • Meeting specific market requirements – breed varieties that meet high-value, niche markets, e.g. medium grain for the Middle East (i.e. ‘Reiziq’), fragrant, long grain (i.e. ‘Topaz’), Sushi (Cvs ‘Koshihikari’ and ‘Opus’) and low Glycemic Index (‘Doongara’) types for both overseas and Australian consumption.

  • Developing rice varieties suitable for tropical Northern Australia, where water supplies and agronomic conditions have been assessed as favourable for establishing a new rice-based industry. 

  • Maintenance breeding to stop genetic drift; breed for disease and pest resistance; ensuring the breeding program has access to molecular assessment skills that permit rapid selection for multiple traits.

 

Drive for precision rice growing

The continued research on increasing farm productivity-crop inputs, crop protection, and farming system have also helped Australia to keep its rice farming updated. This is necessary to maximise the efficiency of farm inputs, cut costs, and improve yields. One such area where Australia has excelled is the precision farming, the use of high-tech tools to generate greater yield with less resources, while minimising any potential harm. In an environment where arable lands are depleting, while populations rising, precision farming is the way out today for countries to save themselves. It requires agricultural policymakers to move from macro to micromanagement of farms. 

At present, water, fertiliser and herbicides are managed generally at macro level according to the general needs of the rice plant. However, at micro level, these have to be done by reference to the specific needs of the plant when it is producing tillers or initiating panicles. This can be done just by looking at the field but by measuring and assessing the needs of the rice plant. To do so, sensors are being used by modern farmers to release the exact amount of water and the correct type of fertiliser.

This is not a complex technology that can be used only by farmers in developed countries. Sensor technology is in common use today and therefore can easily be accessed by farmers in emerging economies as well. If the farmers could minimise the use of inputs and use them by reference to the need of the plant, its effectivity is to increase yields and consequently their incomes as well. This is the effective protection that can be given to farmers who are being harassed by vicissitudes of markets, weather, and adverse government policies.

 

Development of sensor-driven weed chipper 

Australian universities are competing to come up with the next best technique of precision farming. Since there is a growing global concern about the use of herbicides in agriculture, scientists have been focussing on herbicide-free weeding methods. In this connection, agricultural engineers at the University of Western Australia together with those at the University of Sydney have invented a weed-chipper that uses sensors to detect weeds and remove them from the fields without damaging the plant or the upper soil of the field. 

It uses commercially available sensor-fitted arms similar to tines in a fork to scrape the weeds and then bury in the field to provide additional organic fertiliser to the plant. A Western Australia based manufacturing company is to produce and supply these weed-chippers to the market soon (available at: http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/2020022411870/australian-farmers-reap-rewards-weed-chipper). This is a breakthrough technology and once its benefits are known by farmers and consumers, it is inevitable that it would soon be caught-up in a world now wary of hazardous health effects of the use of herbicides in agriculture.

Should Sri Lanka learn a lesson or two from Australia?

Sri Lanka is planning to improve its agriculture solely by denying it chemical fertilisers and pesticides and introducing organic fertilisers to take their place. As Australian rice farmers have proved to us, it is not a simple task. It needs much concentrated integrated planning. In this connection, Sri Lanka can learn a lesson or two from the Australian rice miracle.


(The author, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com.)


 

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