Sri Lanka which was known in history as “The granary of the East” has turned into a dump yard for foreign food today. At the time of independence, Sri Lanka was a flourishing prosperous agriculture producing country. The main foreign exchange earner was primary agriculture produce-tea, rubber and coconut. The country was self-sufficient or near [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Agriculture: Food for thought


Sri Lanka which was known in history as “The granary of the East” has turned into a dump yard for foreign food today. At the time of independence, Sri Lanka was a flourishing prosperous agriculture producing country. The main foreign exchange earner was primary agriculture produce-tea, rubber and coconut. The country was self-sufficient or near self-sufficient in rice, fish and dairy products. Table 1 provides details of food imports in year 2012.

Sri Lanka has spent Rs.380,968 million on consumer goods imports. Food and beverages alone has taken 40 per cent (Rs. 166,003 million) of that. Import figures include tea imports from unknown destinations to mix with Sri Lankan origin tea rich in aroma and taste. We import rubber to feed the local rubber manufacturing industry. We import oil and fats worth Rs.2.5 billion.

All imported varieties of edible oil are branded as vegetable oil and cholesterol free while our own coconut oil is being discarded as unhealthy.

At the time of gaining independence, agriculture contributed more than 50 per cent to the Gross domestic Production. It has now come down to around 12 per cent today. Economists would argue that this is a sign of development as the importance of the manufacturing and services sectors grow along with development of a country. This is factually correct for developed countries.

But, it is the relative picture measured in percentages. By neglecting agriculture a country can achieve similar percentages. It does not mean that developed countries have neglected or allowed a decline of agriculture. All sectors including agriculture sector grow in those countries. But manufacturing and services sectors grow at a faster rate than agriculture as they reach higher degree of development.

From time to time dialogues and discussions emerge and solutions are proposed to develop (or is it to rescue?) agriculture in this country. There are several agriculture faculties within our university system to accompany a large number of ministries (not to mention the nine ministries at the provincial level), departments and other statutory bodies for agriculture research, extension, promotion, marketing, etc. In fact each major crop is bestowed with several institutions to promote production. Accessibility to the farmer is another question.

Many remedies (perhaps worse than the malady) are being proposed for development or rather revival of agriculture. One among them is reverting back to traditional agriculture. I am confused what one means by traditional agriculture. Is it getting back to traditional paddy varieties or traditional farming systems (manual and animal power with shared labor) or is it traditional marketing system (barter system) or using local organic inputs (manure) or is it sustainable agriculture or is it all or some of them? I am not certain whether one can put any form of agriculture which is not modern into one common basket. Anyway, I am only one in a population of 20 million.

No doubt traditional agriculture has many virtues. Traditional agriculture is socially, economically and environmentally beneficial. Traditional agriculture will preserve and improve the natural environment and aesthetic appeal. It is very close to nature. It promotes the bio-diversity. It promotes sharing and caring. We still cherish the memory of a traditional agriculture plot filled with a shoal of fish, surrounded by a flock of birds and ploughed by a pair of buffalos (not political). It is eye soothing. No one would argue against traditional agriculture. But, unfortunately it is the past; it is the history. Traditional agriculture was prospering at a time the population was small; at a time there were not many alternatives for rice available; at a time farming was economically viable; at a time farming was socially recognized; at a time being a farmer was a prestige.
Robert Knox said “The farmer is fit enough to be king once you wash off his mud.”

But this is all history. Agriculture has failed to attract youth; it is not economically viable; it is not socially recognized; there is a social stigma attached to it; with the industrialization, urbanization and expansion of service sector land has developed many competing needs; the liberalized economy has opened up a host of other forms of occupations in both formal and informal sectors. In such a background traditional agriculture is fighting for its survival. Farmers protest when the fertilizer subsidy (mind you inorganic fertilizer) is deprived or delayed. Farmers complain at the end of every harvest season of their inability to fetch a reasonable price for their product and the government spends millions of rupees on highly unsustainable marketing arrangements. The market price of traditional paddy varieties is nearly three times of other varieties. The ordinary consumer cannot afford to buy that. It will have a limited niche market of those who are overweight and looking for healthy food. Such overweight is a common sight in pleasure parks and jogging tracks which are mushrooming in cities as it is the urgent number one priority. The traditional farmer’s sons are struggling in such parks to get their calories burnt while the traditional farmer himself is struggling in his field in hot sun for survival.

Further, organic fertilizer is not freely available in sufficient quantities. There is no organized system for production, storage and distribution of organic fertilizer. There is no monitoring of the quality or standard of organic manure. The preparation of organic manure is erratic, irregular and unsystematic. Sometimes it is contaminated with hospital waste, e-waste and many other non bio degradable materials.

Traditional agriculture is something we can dream of and talk of but hardly possible to reintroduce on an island-wide mass scale. May be it is possible and viable to maintain a few plots for research and experiments and also to cater to the niche market. It cannot be revived as an economically viable and socially acceptable source of livelihood. Riding in the countryside, you would notice farmers in loin clothes and in the hot sun tilling the land.

When they bend down their sun tanned backs would shine at you symbolizing “we are toiling and sweating to feed you fellows who enjoy the city luxury and comfort” reminding Nanda Malinie’s famous song “His Minisun Kus Purawana” (The empty people who fills their bellies).

While driving on the Colombo- Kandy Road one would notice that all greenery paddy fields have disappeared. They are replaced by vehicle yards and junk food restaurants. The green patches of paddy fields on both sides of the road have become havens for “Car Traders”.

The Minister of Agriculture has recently stated that Sri Lankan paddy varieties are only suitable for local consumption as a majority of paddy is brown rice which has no international demand. Most importers prefer long grain varieties with stickiness. There are many agriculture graduates waiting to join graduate training schemes. Most of them are engaged in non-agriculture activities. Agriculture needs modernization to be appealing to the educated youth, to enable using modern science, technology and IT, to make economically viable and to make it competitive in this commercialized world. It was not long ago a President of Sri Lanka remarked “Sri Lanka has been doing agriculture for more than 2500 years but, is the only country where the farmer gets into the mud up to his waist and wears a loin cloth for farming”. Perhaps the answer lies in blending traditional agriculture with modernization.

(The writer can be reached on

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