Agriculture sector challenges and reforms | Sunday Observer

Agriculture sector challenges and reforms

We say Sri Lanka is an agricultural country. In a sense, that is correct: 95 percent of the domestic requirement of our staple food - rice - is grown here. Tea is cultivated in the central highlands and is a major source of foreign exchange. Vegetables, fruits and oilseed crops are also cultivated in the country.

Although Sri Lanka is a fertile tropical land with the potential for cultivation and processing of a variety of crops, issues such as productivity and profitability hamper the growth of the agricultural sector. There has been low adoption of mechanization in farming.The lack of private investment in agriculture due to uncertain policies limits the expansion of the sector.

The share of agriculture in GDP is around 7.8 per cent although the sector provides livelihood and security to 32 per cent of the population. This is a serious mismatch. The Government, on its part, has re-introduced the fertiliser subsidy program to help the farming community. However, the subsidy schemes will not make our farmers prosperous though they may save them from suicidal deaths.

Almost every year natural disasters, such as, floods, droughts and wild animals challenge agricultural production. Such natural events and disasters can be devastating to farmers and their families.

Implementation

The biggest impediment to agricultural development is not at policy level; the government often comes up with good policies, the flaw is at implementation level. Another impediment faced by the agricultural sector is the weak functioning of our agricultural research and development programs. It appears, many research programs are confined to laboratories and do not adequately reach the farm lands.

Agriculture is an applied science, and no research is worthwhile unless it primarily finds its way to the farmer. Also, most of the agricultural scientific fraternity does not have an academic or practical background in agriculture. Modern agriculturists confirm that crop improvement is not possible from any quarter of the agricultural sciences, e.g. biotechnology or entomology, without a proper understanding of the agronomy and physiology of the crop.

Extension

We also lack a responsible agricultural extension system. This writer spoke to three young agriculture officers, all of who agreed that our academic system neither showed the path nor gave any clue about the destination.

As students, they were not equipped to respond to the requirements of changing times and national aspirations. Their syllabus did not reflect the real picture of the scene they had before them. They were taught only the aspects of how to produce, without motivating them to search for answers to crucial questions such as, how much to produce and at what cost? What are the requirements of the nation now and 10 years later? What are their obligations towards the Government, the farmers, the public and international organisations? What is their role in the national Agricultural Plan?

The solution lies in the restructuring of the entire agricultural system, including the education, because the infection here is not a localised one to treat on the spot; it is systemic. It is time the Government seriously considered that its agriculture policies should change from farming-centric to farmer-centric. It makes a big difference to farmers.

Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector today is dualistic, comprising an export-oriented plantation sector and a domestic food crop production sector. The matters pertaining to the Plantation Sector are more technical and trade-oriented, whereas those relating to the food crop sector are a more complex mix, with technical, social and political dimensions.

However, the problem at present is deciding on reforms to effectively contribute to sustained growth, while mitigating existing constraints and future challenges.

Sri Lanka still imports a variety of agricultural products and food, including wheat, lentils, sugar, fruit, milk, and milk products. The importation of food and beverages increased by almost 9 percent in 2017. It is regrettable that even after 70 years of independence, Sri Lanka does not have a sustainable agricultural policy.

The major factors, which need focus in any reform effort, relevant to the sector are, eradication of poverty, food security and sound ecosystem management. Among reforms that should be given attention are policies regarding, land, irrigation, technology transformation, marketing, and climate change.

Sri Lanka has a liberal economic environment. Therefore, agriculture reforms should be directed towards transforming traditional subsistence agriculture to one which maximizes productivity.

The Government needs to give priority to improve processing, marketing and down streaming activities to increase value addition for agricultural products, and thus provide more employment opportunities in rural areas. This would eventually lead to increased food security and lower rural poverty.

Priority should be placed on achieving a broad-based shift from traditional low-value to modern high-value agriculture. This needs to be accompanied by sustained improvements in productivity and competitiveness through policy reforms. If these two reforms are properly implemented, it would help the agriculture sector to achieve higher growth.

Transformation

Modernizing the systems of agricultural technology is important. The reforms must focus on farmers’ livelihood improvement, rural economic and infrastructure development, food security and improving agro-based industries.

The purpose of the reforms should be, the transformation of traditional agriculture to commercial agriculture to face global challenges. This has to be done with Private Sector participation. It is common knowledge that, in the long term, agricultural subsidies are fiscally unsustainable and economically inefficient. The fertilizer subsidy should be gradually released for more productive agricultural investments.

The participation of farmer organizations and the Private Sector as partners in agriculture development is essential for equity-based development. Enhanced youth involvement in agriculture should be sought through promoting scientific agricultural entrepreneurship training, encouraging scientific farming and promoting agro-enterprises. Improvement in diversification, is also essential for transforming agriculture into a sustainable industry.

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