Grow More Food
Posted on May 30th, 2022

 Sugath Kulatunga

The Prime Minister is predicting a severe famine by August this year and has proposed an urgent food production drive. There have been many such drives previously which fizzled out quickly. This time it could be different. There will be real hunger and it will not be possible to import food stuff from abroad as the food shortage is global and the opposition is unlikely to sabotage such a drive. If the peak of the famine conditions is in August, we need to plant now. It is good to see that the Prime Minister’s warning has awakened a number pf University academics to come out with their professional advice to overcome the crisis

In the past, there were a few serious attempts to increase food production. The first one I remember was the grow more food campaign launched by Dudley Senanayake, with an emphasis on the production of rice. The campaign was personally led by Dudley, who had a genuine love for agriculture and was following in the footsteps of the Father of the Nation, DS Senanayake. Regrettably, there was credible evidence that the statistics of production were inflated. This permitted the Attha newspaper edited by that intrepid journalist B.A.Sira to stick a sobriquet of pachabahu on poor Dudley. The campaign faded out thereafter.

The next prominent campaign was launched as a cultivation war (waga sangramaya) by Mrs. Bandaranayake. At that time there was a grave shortage of food- mainly rice, so much so, people were requested to skip a rice meal on one day of the week and were encouraged to eat manioc and pulses. The UNP went to town against the consumption of manioc. They invented reports of manioc poisoning and people dying of eating manioc. Today manioc consumption is recommended even to control cancer.

It is unfortunate that our Agriculture authorities have not done much research on foods other than on rice of which they have excelled. For example, Manioc as a food has been overlooked whereas it is the staple food of around 800 million people in the world. Manioc is not only a food but an industrial raw material. Countries like Thailand have introduced new varieties and even tissue culture for rapid multiplication. There are so many varieties of local yams which are not seriously promoted. Particularly in the Philippines and Vietnam there are popular varieties of yams which could be introduced here. In this country, even a temporary shortage of food items is used as a platform to denounce the ruling government. There is never a national approach to rectify the perennial problem. As a long-term solution jak and breadfruit could play a useful role. Breadfruit trees are one of the highest yielding food plants known. A single tree can produce between 50 to 150 fruits per year  can be propagated through tissue culture. But the Agriculture authorities do not think  it important. Today a fruit is Rs150 plus.

To make an immediate impact in vegetables we can adopt greenhouse technology which has been implemented successfully by the EDB for vegetable cultivation from a few years back with the cooperation of leading exporters of vegetables. Idle land around cities could be leased out to Super Markets to grow vegetable under green houses.Micro irrigation is another technology to save water and deliver fertilizer. Government must encourage the domestic production of material and equipment needed for Green houses and micro irrigation.

EDB missed out on an opportunity to introduce the technology a good five years earlier with the assistance of the UN. An ITC (UNCTAD/WTO) project proposal for the implementation of a pilot project with components of greenhouse production, foliage, and coconut fiber was rejected by the EDB Board of Management on an objection raised by a Board Member representing the private sector allegedly on the ground that it is a regional project where our production secrets‚ will be exposed to other countries in the region. The greenhouse module was for a nucleus farm/out-grower module. UNDP Colombo was amused and shocked. UNDP was very impressed with the Sri Lanka proposal they offered to match the ITC funds.

A strategy that has tremendous potential to increase the production of vegetables and fruits is home gardening. It has been promoted in fits and starts but not on a continuous and comprehensive scale. One does need a vast space of land to grow a few papaya trees or a few chili and brinjal plants which can be grown in pots. Of course, it is not as dramatic as exhibiting the exorbitant price of a single chili in Parliament. There is no efficient system for the supply of seeds and providing instructions. The present government had a program for the distribution of quality seeds, but it has fizzled out. The well-run seed farms of the Dept. of Agriculture were privatized. Seeds could be delivered on request by mail.

Railway land, in the centers of  production of fruits and vegetables could be used with cooling facilities ,as collection and packing centers of fruits and vegetables. Thereafter the products could be transported in crates to wholesale distribution centers in  consumption areas in refrigerated wagons. Railway also has the advantage of transporting back the empty crates. It is suggested that the Railway learn from the Assam Rail which uses Reefer wagons to transport perishable products all the way to Calcutta. GMR is perhaps the biggest landowner of developed land in the country. All that idle land from Dematagoda to Fort could be used for a central wholesale center. It will be a profitable venture for the Railway.

Village Fairs have been the centers of exchange of rural products. At present they lack even the basic facilities. They need to be improved.

There are 24 agro-ecological regions in the country which represent combination of particular characteristics of climate, relief and soil and farming systems (C.R.Panabokke). This advantage should be made use of to get optimal results. There has to be ground level planning to prevent gluts in the market. Media should give more space for dissemination of information on agriculture. It will be useful to make home gardening a compulsory subject in Schools and have school gardens. It is also useful to introduce new crops popular in other tropical countries.  To add value and to absorb surplus production during periods of gluts processing facilities must be installed.

In other countries, there are financial awards at the District level to reward the best gardens and farmers. In Thailand, there is a special farmers‚ radio service. Authorities should also take a look at the model of integrated farming in Thailand where crops, livestock, and fish culture are combined in the same land which benefits each other. It is noticed that poultry production which can give very rapid results is now concentrated in large-scale farms. There was a time when many households had a few birds under the deep litter system. This could be revived. When we were children, we had about 10 hens under a deep litter and a stall-fed cow meeting all our needs of eggs and milk. Before 1960 Sri Lanka imported eggs from India. In1960 when Philip Gunawardhana was the Minister of Agriculture importing eggs was banned overnight. A concerted and holistic program was introduced to produce the country’s need for eggs and poultry meat. This included a special loan scheme for loans by the Peoples Bank, import of parent stocks of improved breeds, increase of incubator capacity, system for the distribution of day old and efficient veterinary services. There were no large-scale battery type poultry houses at the time. Most production was from the deep litter system where the feed was mostly kitchen refuse. Even in a limited garden space in Ratmalana we had a goat giving us at least one liter of milk.It is reported that child malnutrition is becoming a serious problem today. With food scarcity it will become critical. Eggs are today the cheapest protein. Deep litter poultry could make a quick contribution to alleviate the nutrition crisis.

Fish has become expensive and scarce and with the fuel shortage it will become worse. Sri Lanka is blessed with numerous inland water bodies where inland fisheries can be developed. In fact the good work done by the Fisheries Dept to establish fingerling nurseries was cut short by a typical fiat of Premadasa. But now the scheme has been revived and freshwater fish like Tilapia have become popular. One wonders why catfish which is so abundant in countries like Thailand and is the most consumed freshwater fish in USA is not cultivated in Sri Lanka. Catfish is a hardy fast breeding fish which can survive when water bodies dry up should be bred in ponds and tanks to supplement protein needs.

It has been estimated that the post-harvest loss in fruits and vegetables is over 40 percent which is due mainly to faulty packaging and transport. It is not an uncommon sight to see workmen seated on jute sack of vegetable transported in lorries. As the transport cost is based on the number of bags they are packed tightly. Some time back the government made an attempt to encourage farmers and middlemen to use nestable crates but was abandoned due to lack of interest. One problem in this system is the cost of transporting the empties back to the production areas. This can be eased if the Railway system is used as a collection, packing, and warehousing facility. They have the land and cheap transport. The empties can be transported back in open wagons to the collection centers.

There is copious lip service given to food security and self-sufficiency in rice. Our self-sufficiency in food is dependent on the increasing import of wheat flour. The free supply of wheat flour/grain under PL 480 has changed our food habits and made us addicted to wheat flour products. The problem has got aggravated with the entry of the Prima project where we provide them with the grain which is milled by them and sold to us minus the wheat germ. Prima investment was perhaps the best investment by Singapore on a BOT basis for twenty years. It was to be transferred back to Sri Lanka during the time of CBK. But Sri Lanka sold it back to Singapore for a paltry sum making Prima a dominant duopoly in the supply of wheat flour to Sri Lanka. Food security in Sri Lanka of staple cereals is based not only on rice but also on wheat flour which contributes over 40 percent of the requirement. That is now in the hands of Prima.

We can learn from the integrated farming system popular in Thailand where mutually supporting farming of cereals, livestock, poultry and fish and fruit trees is practiced in a limited area. We also had the same mix in the old villages other than cereals and fishponds.

As a child I lived in a village where in our small garden we had a stall-fed cow and a deep litter enclosure of a dozen hens. We grew our own herbs and secured fresh vegetables from the nearby ‘koratuwas”. One serious problem that livestock and vegetable growers had was petty thefts. This could become a major disincentive to farmers at a time of food scarcity.

There are at least 15 field officers attached to each Divisional Secretariat. This personnel and Samurdi officers should now be mobilized along with Agricultural staff to launch a comprehensive Food Production Drive The should every household and advise on what could be grown and provide advice, seeds etc.

 If we are to avoid the predicted apocalypse the grow food campaign must start now.

 Sugath Kulatunga

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