Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 February 2011





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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 panicle initiation.

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 rice consumers?

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.


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