Avoiding a food crisis, a national priority
Prof. Ranjith Premalal de Silva
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Observer, Prof. Ranjith
Premalal de Silva, Professor of Agricultural Engineering, University of
Peradeniya and former Director of Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research
and Training Institute expresses his views on the issue of food
production that has arisen due to the unprecedented floods that hit the
country in the recent past and the measures that the authorities should
take to avoid a possible food crisis. Professor de Silva, has also
worked as a Consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, World
Food Programme and UNDP.
Q: Self-sufficiency in rice which is our staple diet was a popular
theme for blowing our own trumpet in the last year. We endeavoured to
look for overseas markets for our produce of rice. Do we continue to
have the same status today?
A: Agricultural production is variable since it depends on several
factors which cannot be controlled by stakeholders in the agriculture
sector. Climate is one such factor. We have been steadily marching
towards self-sufficiency in rice in the last decade, mainly due to
enhanced productivity. In 2005, we achieved the highest rice production
ever recorded in Sri Lanka and again we improved it further in 2008
reaching a surplus of rice of more than 16 percent. We then engaged in
overseas markets to export rice and rice based products. Even before we
reached self-sufficiency and also while importing rice for our own
consumption we managed to earn foreign exchange tapping some niche
markets with high quality rice or organic produce of rice. However,
serious discussions took place to export rice and rice based products
for foreign markets after we witnessed a bumper harvest in 2008.
However, we must realise the fact that agricultural productivity
could vary in a changing climate and varying agronomic and management
practices. This year, particularly, we will experience a considerable
deficit in production, even when large swathes of abandoned paddy fields
are put under cultivation in the Northern Province under paddy
cultivation beyond 770,000 ha.
Q: What sort of reduction in rice yield would you anticipate due to
the recent flooding in the country?
A: Various agencies including the Department of Agriculture, UNDP,
Disaster Management Centre have conducted rapid assessments to have
realistic estimates on the loss of production due to floods. Inundation
assessments by field level officers are reasonably accurate and can be
conveniently conducted with high precision, using satellite data sets
acquired during a period of flooding and by overlaying them with paddy
area maps. Here paddy cultivation extents in Batticaloa and Trincomalee
districts derived using satellite data can be clearly viewed.
These field assessments based on information from Grama Niladaris and
other officials provide statistics indicating the area inundated and
accordingly, the loss in yield has been estimated.
Q: What is the basis for you to conclude that the rapid assessments
conducted are meaningless?
A: The reason for this is that the total yield or total production of
rice is determined by a number of factors. Inundation or deposition of
sand and sediment in paddy fields can cause the entire area to be lost
to cultivation. In order to obtain a good harvest, weather in the last
two months of cultivation is very decisive. The penultimate month of
crop growth is called the reproductive phase and the final month is
known as the maturity phase. Depending on the length of the vegetative
phase which is one month for the three month variety and two months for
the four month variety can be a buffer depending on the length of time
available. But the last two months of crop growth would make the
difference between no yield and a good yield. During the reproduction
phase, panicle initiation occurs and about two weeks later, flowering
commences. Self pollination should take place within four weeks of
During this Maha season, more than six weeks of continuous gloomy
weather prevailed and the entire reproduction phase was adversely
affected resulting in poor panicle initiation, less flowering, wash out
of flowers and pollen preventing successful pollination.
Moreover, during the maturity period (the last month of crop growth),
grain filling takes place. For paddy grains to fill, there should be
sufficient Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) available. Because
of continuous rainfall and the presence of extensive rain clouds
producing sporadic rainfall, most of the paddy growing areas of the
country did not receive Photosynthetically Active Radiation for
photosynthesis to take place. Hence, there is no production of
carbohydrates and even if grains are present, they are empty. Due to
this a much higher loss of production is expected in the Maha season,
even in areas which were not subject to flooding.
Q: If that is the situation, when do you foresee the impact hitting
A: The main rice growing areas in the East start the harvesting
period somewhere in mid February and end in mid March. Mid December to
mid January is the period for the reproduction phase and mid January to
mid February is the maturity phase irrespective of the duration of the
vegetative phase of the variety. Manual labour for harvesting in these
areas is not available and would further delay the available harvest
thus enhancing the loss of grains further.
The Maha harvest is in the market after the Sinhala and Tamil new
year. Large scale millers and traders release old stocks to the market
during this period. Shortage of rice will be noticed in the market only
in early June unless traders and millers hide stocks to gain additional
profit and escalate prices creating an artificial shortage. During the
UNP regime, PMB warehouses were privatised and destroyed and some of
this destruction should also be reflected in JVP accounts. At present,
the PMB does not have rice stocks for more than 10 days. Therefore,
unless measures are not taken immediately, a major food crisis is
inevitable within the next 4-5 months.
Q: What sort of solutions do you propose in order to avoid a crisis?
A: The options available for us are very limited. A person consumes
an average of 150 kg of grain per year. Rice being the staple food
contributes for 115 kg or more while wheat consumption is 30 kg and the
rest is from other grains. During 2005 to 2009 rice consumption improved
from 106 kg to 115 kg, while reducing wheat consumption from 39 kg to 30
kg due to favourable policies implemented by the Ministry of
Agriculture. Undoubtedly, the Minister of Agriculture Maithreepala
Sirisena deserves credit for this.
In such a situation, one option would be to encourage consumption of
wheat based products by regulating market instruments. In view of the
serious health hazards associated with wheat consumption, Minister
Maithreepala Sirisena would not support such a policy, trading off the
health of the nation with economic gain which puts the health of the
nation at stake.
The second option is to promote the intensification of the
cultivation of food crops that can replace rice in the diet. The most
practical option is to import rice. The quantity should be in the range
of 25-30% of the expected Maha yield at the beginning of the season.
Since the adverse weather conditions prevailed all over rice growing
areas in Asia, the import provision should be made immediately to avoid
price hikes in the international market.
The average price of rice is 530 USD per metric ton and increased to
558 USD a few days back in the Thai market. Within the next four to five
weeks, most probably India would reimpose the ban on rice exports, even
now rice export exemptions are only granted if it fetches more than 850
USD per metric ton. Meanwhile, exporting rice from Pakistan is out of
the question because of civil strife in the country, in addition to
adverese weather conditions. Other asian countries from where rice is
being imported were also hit by adverse weather conditions. The FAO has
recently issued a warning to adopt policies to help avert a crisis.