Laughing aloud, the trio watched as a boy down the lane was being chased by a dog. “Balagena malli (watch out little brother),” said Serapina, as the 14-year-old ran away, after initially provoking the dog. Later under the Margosa tree, I heard Kussi Amma Sera raising the issue of a severe drought that has affected [...]

Business Times

Changing economic patterns


Laughing aloud, the trio watched as a boy down the lane was being chased by a dog. “Balagena malli (watch out little brother),” said Serapina, as the 14-year-old ran away, after initially provoking the dog.

Later under the Margosa tree, I heard Kussi Amma Sera raising the issue of a severe drought that has affected crops and many villages. “Apey pradesaye vishala wathura prashnayak thiyenawa (there is a major water shortage in our area),” she said.

“Ape pradesaye goviten walata haani vela (in our area, farming has got affected),” added Mabel Rasthiyadu.

While they continued the conversation about the drought and its impact particularly on rice farming and other crops, the phone rang. Who was it this time? I wondered.

Ironically, it was Pedris Appo, short for Appuhamy, who is a retired agriculture expert and involved in farming, on the line at a time when I was getting absorbed in Kussi Amma Sera’s conversation on agriculture issues.

“Hello, how have you been,” asked Pedris Appo. “Fine … fine,” I responded, telling him that it was interesting that he was calling at a time when agriculture was on my mind.

“That’s why I wanted to talk to you after listening to a recent presentation by eminent Sri Lankan-born economist Dr. Howard Nicholas on where he believes the country’s economic future should be,” he said.

Pedris Appo, quoting Dr. Nicholas who is attached to the Netherlands-based Institute of Social Studies, said that the eminent economist had said Sri Lanka’s future lies in producing exportable manufactured goods, neither agriculture nor services.

While Dr. Nicholas’s assertion to a large extent – insofar as agriculture is concerned – is correct, it is interesting that the Netherlands – where he is based relies on commodity exports, particularly through greenhouses.

The Netherlands is said to be the world’s largest exporter of potatoes and onions and the second largest exporter of vegetables overall in terms of value. More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands, according to official data.

The renowned National Geographic in a recent article titled ‘How Netherlands feeds the world’ states that new technology is helping the country prosper.

In a potato farm in the Netherlands, the average yield is 20 tonnes compared to the global average of nine tonnes. Water usage has been reduced by 90 per cent and no chemicals or pesticides are used in greenhouses. “Climate-controlled farms (greenhouses) enable a country located a scant thousand miles from the Arctic Circle to be a global leader in the exports of a fair-weather fruit: the tomato,” the article said. Holland has extraordinary greenhouse complexes, some of them covering 175 acres.

“80 per cent of the cultivated land in the Netherlands is contained in greenhouses, which makes every ‘field’ into its own little eco-system where every aspect is controlled, contained and used to the best of its ability. Farmers are now agricultural scientists, monitoring soil health, air, and yields with drones and monitors as though farming on a futuristic spaceship,” the article said.

While there are a few greenhouses here, Sri Lanka is a long way towards developing a greenhouse community of farmers but that is also the future where large extents of rice fields can be transformed into this modern art of agriculture and growing food for the world.

While agriculture as it is today in Sri Lanka is a losing proposition, the doors should not close on farming in place of other economic activity on rice fields. We need to develop fast greenhouse technology as food is becoming a sparse commodity with droughts and climate change affecting food production across the world and where food security becomes important in a country’s future.

For the record, according to the Central Bank’s 2018 annual report, agriculture – once the main activity in Sri Lanka – as a percentage of the GDP was 7 per cent, while industry represented 26.1 per cent and services 57.7 per cent. Compare this to 20 years ago (in 1999) when agriculture represented 21.7 per cent, coming down to 12 per cent of the GDP in 2009. In 2018, rice represented just 0.7 per cent of the GDP.

Statistics show that every year the input of agriculture to the GDP is coming down but the ratio of workers in this field is still high and represents an uneconomic and non-feasible future.

(On a related note, I was amazed at the quick response of the Central Bank when I called its Communications Department for data on the bank’s annual report for 1999 which was unavailable on the bank website. The response was swift and within seconds it was emailed to me. Much appreciated).

Going down memory lane, I recall how the late Kingsley Wickremaratne, Trade Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga-led government of the late 1990s, ordered the import of eggs from India which were sold at less than half the price of locally-produced eggs during one Christmas season. However, a hue and cry from local farmers and political pressures led to imports being halted, much to the dismay of local consumers.

While protectionism benefits local farmers, it should not stymie the right of consumers to have access to cheaper products, whether local or imported.

Over the years, there has also been a debate about Sri Lanka and the high cost of production of its food requirements, at the expense of the consumer. While local production is unsustainable and leads to a situation where consumers pay far more for their food than imports, particularly from India and mass-production countries, which is cheaper even after adding all the taxes, the economic future may lie in the production of high-value food for export and importing our requirements from cheaper sources. This trade-off will also ensure agriculture is preserved albeit as an exportable commodity, if production costs continue to rise. The reliance on agriculture can then shift to an exportable commodity rather than only production for local consumption. There have been some recent strides in agriculture as an exportable commodity which should be encouraged.

While Sri Lanka has the sun throughout the year favourable for agriculture, water resources because of unpredictable rain are affecting production. In this context, greenhouses – as the Netherlands has shown with new technology that thrives on the limited use of water – is a way out, to restore agriculture to its former glory.

Having said that, Dr. Nicholas’s practical approach of shifting gear to producing exportable manufactured goods needs to be explored seriously while having an agriculture base that could focus on exportable commodities.

While I wind up a topic that has engaged this country for many decades, Kussi Amma Sera brings in my usual second cup of tea, humming the tune of a popular 1970s Dharmaratne Brothers song: “Ho Wassa Wahinawa (It’s raining)”.

“Balaporottuvenava, balaporottuvenava (Hopefully, hopefully),” I laugh, convinced that greenhouse farming with little rain required will become another missed opportunity if we don’t embrace this farming technology.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.