Whither Horticulture in Sri Lanka
Posted on June 13th, 2024

Sugath Kulatunga

I have recently had a disappointing experience with my former department of Agriculture. Being aware of the acute protein malnutrition among our children and having read about the use of dried and powdered murunga leaves (which is around 25 % protein) as a protein supplement in the food of children in India. Murunga is said to provide 7 times more vitamin C than oranges, 10 times more vitamin A than carrots, 17 times more calcium than milk, 9 times more protein than yoghurt, 15 times more potassium than bananas, and 25 times more iron than spinach. Murunga leaf powder market is estimated at 10 billion USD. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8373516/)

 I browsed the internet for more information and discovered that India has developed a number of hybrid varieties which could be harvested for both leaves and pods in less than 8 months. I was able to persuade an investor to try out the hybrid varieties in his land. I wrote to the FAO in Colombo to help me get hybrid seeds of murunga from a reliable source. They replied promptly advising me to get in touch with the Department of Agriculture (DA) which I did indicating that I need only a small sample. DA had endorsed my request to the Horticulture Division on September 19 on which I received a reply on November 21 after a lapse of two months quoting the quarantine regulations governing import of seeds. 

I have no grouse about strict restrictions on import of seeds. They are essential to protect our agriculture. Of course, a cynic would say that if strict regulations were there in the past none of our principal plants like tea, rubber, breadfruit and many others would not have come to the country. While applying strictly the regulations a primary responsibility of the DA should be to introduce new and improved varieties of horticultural products. It is well known that the upgraded verities of Rambutan, Guava, Papaw and new plants like Dragon Fruit were smuggled and established in the country by private parties.

India has developed a number of hybrid varieties of Murunga. For example, a variety developed by a Chennai University has the following properties.

Propagated by seeds, it yields around 400-500 fruits/plant annually. The fruits are 25-30 cm long. Harvesting is easy as the plants are like shrubs. After first harvest, the plants are headed back leaving 1 m above the ground and used as ratoons. Ratooning is done for 2-3 years. It starts bearing from 6th month onwards.

India has done research even on our Jaffna and Chavakaccheri varieties as well. India exports Murunga to a number of countries. But our authorities refuse to learn from other countries and neglect to do any homework on their own.

A study by HARTI has revealed that Sri Lanka has 46 agro-ecological zones with a wide variation in soil and climate. Each zone is characterized by specific climate and soils making it possible to cultivate number of different types of fruit crops. Sri Lanka’s per capita consumption of fruits (88.2 grams) remains far below the required average daily intake (200 grams)”

There is a demand and a potential, but the DA has not delivered.

When I was at the EDB I invited the Chief Horticultural Officer of Thailand (CHO) to advise us on Horticultural exports. At the end on a one-month consultancy assignment he told me that he will make his report once he gets back to Thailand. I agreed to this but asked him whether there are any comments which he does not include in the report but would like to share with me. He said that having observed the well managed Tea plantations in the country if Sri Lanka went into horticulture with the same management excellence Sri Lanka would have been a leading horticultural exporter in Asia and would have earned much more foreign exchange that from tea. He reminded me of our visit to a small pomelo farm closed to Bangkok and said that in that farm at a minimum harvest of 100 fruits per tree and with 200 trees per hectare and at 1dollar per fruit the return is over 20,000 US dollars. He said coconut can never give such high returns. (Even with today’s farm gate price of Rs 80 per nut and 5000 nuts per hectare the return in coconut will be only Rs 400,000 which at current exchange rate would be less than 1500 US dollars). (in 2024 Vietnam was exporting pomelo at VNĐ85,000-100,000 (US$3.5-$4.1) per fruit. It is reported that with the use of cutting-edge farming techniques, each orchard in Vietnam is expected to yield up to 20,000 fruits per hectare per crop worth VNĐ2 billion ($82,000).

He said that SL should covert coconut lands, where irrigation is available, to the cultivation of crops like pomelo which also has a good export market due to long shelf life and resistance to impact during long-distance transport. It is noted that pomelo has a huge market in USA. In 2021,value of US imports of pomelo was 20 billion dollars. In Sri Lanka some work has been done of Jambola and Grapefruit and not on the Red Pomelo which has a growing world market.

I met the Thai CHO during a study misson I had organized to Thailand to observe their developments in horticulture. The mission comprised of the Director Genenal of Mahaveli Authority , Additional Secretary Ministry of Agriculture and led by the Deputy Minister of Trade.

In one of our visits to a research orchard the Chief Horticultural Officer took me to a corner of the orchard and pointed at a mango tree and asked me whether I could identify the variety. It was a Karatha Kolomban. He said that he brought the seeds from Sri Lanka 15 years ago. He also said that he has been collecting seeds of fruits from Sri Lanka for many years as it is an isolated island where rare varierties are found found, There were more than 10 more varieties of mango trees of Sri Lankan origin there. I mentioned this to show how dedicated public servants serve there country. That application and dedication is rare in our Horticulture Division.

In this visit we also identified a few prospective investors. I followed up with one who was interested in a mixed farming (integrated farming) in a 100-acre nucleus farm and 1000 acre out grower project in the Mahaweli area. They proposed to introduce, baby corn, button mushroom, bamboo shoots as new crops. The project also envisaged a canning facility, livestock and fishponds with catfish and fresh water big head prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii).

Man proposes but God disposes. In this instance it was the JVP which was the evil god which destroyed every agricultural extension facility in the area in the NCP which were earmarked by us for the project. The uncertainty created by the JVP in their second adventure in 1987 and the Indo/Sri Lanka Accord kept away that project as well of another Thai investment for cultivation” of clams off Mannar/Puttalam coast. They assumed that any area which was good for pearl fisheries should be good for clams.

Now that the Sri Lanka is developing a close relationship with Thailand it will be good if these ideas are taken up with Thailand. Their experience in integrated farming where number of activities like horticulure, fisheries, prawn culture are blended together and supported by processing opereations like canning.

There were many useful and practical recommendation in the report of the Thai consultant. The last few years of the decade of 1980 with the JVP miliancy and Indian military intervention was perhaps the worst time for innovative action of development. But the recommendations in the Thai report could have been taken up in later years. Unfortunately this report and a valuable report by the Fundamental Research Institution on the resources of semi precious stones in the country have disappeared with the mindless application of the Seiri Step of the Japanese 5S System by a later Chairman who indiscriminately destroyed all old documents. Even good intentions of some can be very damaging. 

India is the biggest consumer and grower of Arecanut. India has developed a number of high yielding dwarf hybrid varieties and made them available to cultivatores from the year !972. I have not heard of any upgrading of our arecanut trees other than cutting them down for pandals. It is another area which can bring us export earnings but not neglected by DA.

Sugath Kulatunga

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