It was a field research in Balangoda area carried out by a team of researchers and assisting students. One of the researchers, Chandini and her two assistants were waiting to interview a farmer. It was their first interview planned in the early morning hours of that day. The farmer who had a piece of cloth [...]

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Beans from Balangoda


File photo of a farming couple working on parched land.

It was a field research in Balangoda area carried out by a team of researchers and assisting students. One of the researchers, Chandini and her two assistants were waiting to interview a farmer. It was their first interview planned in the early morning hours of that day.

The farmer who had a piece of cloth around the head covering his nose and mouth, was spraying pesticides to his early morning harvest of beans before it was loaded for transporting to the wholesale market. The visitors stayed away from the pesticides-spraying vicinity, also covering their nose and mouth with saree corners and handkerchiefs.

After finishing the pesticides-spraying, the farmer removed his cloth mask, came closer and, gave a warm welcome to the team. Chandini asked: “Beans are just plucked from the farm and, about to be taken to the market. Why does it need pesticides?”

The farmer answered: “Madam, if there is just one worm in a bean, even a tiny one, then by tomorrow or day after my whole bean stock is destroyed; I will fall down from the pan to the fire. I have borrowed from the wholesale buyer in the Manning Market, and hope to get rid of my loans by selling this harvest to him.”

He continued: “Besides that, with this spray even after a week these vegetables will look so fresh as if they are just plucked from the farm and brought to the market.”

Poisonous food

Chandini said: “But you are feeding poison to people, aren’t you?”

He answered: “Yes madam, I know. All those diseases that Colombo people are suffering nowadays are just because of eating these poisonous vegetables. But, what can we do?”

After seeing some children playing a little far away, Chandini asked again: “How do you feed your own children with this poison?”

He replied: “Oh no madam, we don’t eat these things”. He stretched his hand pointing to a small plot of farm a faraway which was covered well with coconut branches. “For us and our children, we grow them separately!”

Who should be blamed?

The message of the above story is, however, not an uncommon or unusual one. Everyone knows and talks about agrochemical contents of the agricultural produce they buy and eat, perhaps excessively beyond the prescribed quantities. The question is whom to blame and how to stop?

If we try to answer the question, we may find that at least there are three parties to be blamed for: Farmers, consumers and the Government. Let us examine one by one and, then see if there is a solution that we can suggest.


Someone might argue that why on earth should farmers behave in such a cruel manner, feeding the nation with poisonous food just for money; they must be sued for this criminal act. However, the farmer in the above incident already explains why he has to make use of agrochemicals in such a manner.

It is very much related to his livelihood; he wanted to get the maximum monetary gain on the one hand and to avoid any negative repercussions of market risk on the other hand. His main concern is about his short-term risk-free monetary gain so that he can pay off his debt.


Another argument is that if consumers already know what they consume, why not they refuse to buy agricultural produce that contained agrochemicals. Consumer resistance is the most effective movement against the use of agrochemicals.

Even if the consumers have some knowledge about the agricultural produce with harmful agrochemicals, they simply don’t remember it at the point spending for them. Their focus is on the price rather than quality – an inevitable feature of the “poverty markets” in developing countries. They are also conscious more about their short-term monetary gains than about the long-term health hazards.

In urban supermarkets there is an “organic” product corner. This is exactly a rational market response to the widespread “non-organic” products.

Naturally, the organic agricultural produce is for the high-income and health-conscious consumers so that the low yield and the high price premium keep average consumers away from the organic products. Average consumers are, after all left with no option other than buying poisonous products.


We can also ask the Government to adopt tough measures to stop agrochemicals. In fact, we can argue that it is the government which has the legitimate responsibility about the “safety” of the citizens and it is the citizens who have elected the representatives for the government.

But it might be interesting to find that, on the contrary it is also the Government which supplies agrochemicals at a subsidised price to the farmers, while showing its concern about “food safety” to the consumers. While the supply of subsidised agrochemicals keeps the farmer’s cost of production low, it encourages the farmers to use them excessively even beyond the accepted norms.

Overuse of agrochemicals

China is, perhaps, one of the largest agrochemical users in the world; it alone uses 30 per cent of the world’s fertilizers and pesticides just on 9 per cent of the world’s crop land. A study at the University of Melbourne has found that it is because China has the world’s most, smaller farm plots and “smaller farms tend to overuse agrochemicals”.

Out of 220 million farm households, the estimated average farm size per household in China is 1.5 acres (or 0.6 hectares), which is less than half of the average farm size in neighbouring Japan and South Korea – the two other countries which also have smaller farms. However, it should be noted that the average farm size in China varies vastly among the provinces. Towards the more developed eastern coastal areas farm size becomes much smaller and towards the hinterland it is relatively bigger.

In the US the average farm size is more than 450 acres, while in Europe it varies between 45 – 170 acres in different countries.

If you wish to compare the average farm size in Sri Lanka with countries mentioned above, it is little more than 1 acre and, therefore even less than the average farm size in China. There are 3.3 million small farm holdings in Sri Lanka.

If smaller farms tend to overuse agrochemicals more than the larger farms, then it applies even more to the Sri Lankan farms than to Chinese farms.

Too many, doing too little

Now we have a question to answer: Why do smaller farms tend to overuse agrochemicals, as the case may be in our opening story?

It is because the farm size is too small to increase productivity and to introduce new technology. By implication, farmer income remains too low so that the farmers attempt to maximise the yield with excessive use of agrochemicals.

The main economic issue in Sri Lankan agriculture is that “too many people produce too little”. As a result, naturally and rationally there is tendency to overuse agrochemicals to increase yield and income. And the government too supports that attempt with subsidised prices for agrochemicals.

Farm fragmentation

By the way, there is another problem: While the average farm size in most of the countries has increased over time, in Sri Lanka it has been declining further! As people move away from the agriculture sector, finding occupations in non-agriculture sectors in urban areas, farms get more and more consolidated and become larger.

But in Sri Lanka, what we have seen is that farms get fragmented into smaller units from generation to generation, because they have been divided among the children. This means that farm production and productivity become more and more uneconomical.

You might ask the question, what then is the solution. The solution is not only within agriculture, but also outside agriculture. In a nutshell, it has much to do with long-term policies that allow farm consolidation alone with non-agricultural development.

(The writer is a Professor
of Economics at the University
of Colombo and can be reached

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