According to Prof. Sirimal Abeyratne’s (SA) piece titled “Old wine in new bottles” in the Business Section of Sunday Times last week, we need to ensure a significant number of people in the rural agriculture sector leave so that the average farm-holdings could expand to an economical size of 10 acres in order to make [...]

Business Times

Old Wine in new bottles? A response


According to Prof. Sirimal Abeyratne’s (SA) piece titled “Old wine in new bottles” in the Business Section of Sunday Times last week, we need to ensure a significant number of people in the rural agriculture sector leave so that the average farm-holdings could expand to an economical size of 10 acres in order to make it a viable farm land. There are nearly two million people in the agriculture sector and if this is reduced to 500,000 as indicated by SA, what is the balance going to do? Become security officers or 3-wheel drivers? If the two million farmers can be engaged in more productive farming and agro-industries it will enable the agriculture sector to increase its contribution to the GDP, and reduce our annual foreign exchange expenditure on food imports which at present is around Rs. 300 billion.

File picture of a farming couple in Sri Lanka

Prof SA’s piece in the Business Times indicates that the contribution of agriculture to our GDP is US$7 billion a year. This value perhaps includes the contribution of the plantation and non-plantation sector and could be raised substantially by increasing the productivity of the two sectors.

Production of tea, rubber and coconut sub-sectors has declined, and this could be increased substantially by replanting and adapting better management practices. Total domestic sugar production and sugar recovery rate, which are considered as indicators of the productivity in the sugar sub-sector has declined during the last few years. Developing and planting high yielding sugarcane varieties and carrying out better management practices would increase the productivity of this sector. Our average rice yield is around 4.2 t/ha which could be substantially increased as the potential yield of some of the rice varieties which are presently cultivated is around 8-10 t/ha. Productivity of most crops cultivated in the country remain at a low level due to many factors such as low quality seeds/planting material, bacterial and fungal diseases and also insect attacks. Better management practices would increase the productivity of these crops.

Soil degradation

Soil degradation is a factor which causes low productivity in most of our farms. Land degradation is of common occurrence in many parts of the country and is due to many factors such as soil erosion, soil compaction, nutrition depletion, development of salinity or acidity, loss of bio-diversity, etc. During the last few decades attempts have been made by successive governments to control land degradation. There are many ministries, departments and other institutions which are expected to take appropriate measures to control land degradation. A large number of seminars, workshops have been held on this topic. In spite of all these, land degradation continues to take place evident by the common occurrence of landslides, depleted top soil, siltation of tanks, and reservoirs, causing low productivity.

The low productivity of most of our farmers is due to a number of factors. Most farmers have to face droughts which seriously affect production.

There are nearly 12,000 tanks in the dry zone which collect rainwater to be used for crop and animal production and various domestic activities.

These tanks play a dominant role in the socio-economic and cultural aspects of villages. Water shortage which the farmers in the dry zone face frequently can be partly attributed to the decreased water holding capacity of these tanks as a result of silting. It is estimated that around 60 per cent of rain water received is not retained although we often speak of the famous dictum of King Parakramabahu I – “let not even one drop of water that falls on the earth in the form of rain be allowed to reach the sea without been used.”

Chronic kidney disease

Around 50,000 people, mostly farmers, in a number of districts are affected by the kidney disease called Chronic Kidney disease of unidentified etiology (CKDu), and on an average three or four people die daily because of this disease. The families of those affected by CKDu are desperate. In some families both parents have died and their children are helpless. Inability of the farmers to attend to farming activities due to CKDu tends to have a negative effect on crop productivity.


A large number of crops cultivated in Sri Lanka, including rice, have considerable potential in various agro-industries. However, only rubber, coconut and a few fruit crops are used in industries. Crops such as cassava, horticultural and floricultural crops, medicinal herbs, cane, bamboo, sunflower, castor, ayurvedic herbs, etc have a considerable potential in the field of agro-industries. Development of agro-industries will also increase the contribution of the agriculture sector to GDP, enhance export income and also provide employment opportunities among rural people. The private sector can be involved in such projects for which appropriate technical assistance need to be given by the relevant public organisations. However, there appears to be no proper long-term plan to develop agro-industries, except for some ad-hoc projects. The Ministries of Industries and Agriculture and other relevant organisations such as Export Development Board should implement an effective Agro-Industrial Development Programme, in collaboration with the private sector.

Prof.SA has compared the agriculture sector of Netherlands with that of our country. Production of high value crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, cut flowers, and houseplants in Netherlands contribute to the GDP to a much greater extent than that of Sri Lanka where a considerable portion of vegetables and fruits produced in the country are thrown away due to many factors.

Thus, low productivity of most of our farms is mostly due to inability of the relevant authorities to take appropriate action. What should be done is to increase the productivity of the agriculture sector so that their contribution to the GDP is increased and not get the farmers to leave their profession and making them redundant. After all farmers are fit to be kings if the mud on them is washed away.

(The writer is former Professor at Ruhuna and Rajarata Universities and can be reached at <> )

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