A drive for prosperity and food security | Daily News

A drive for prosperity and food security

The National Harvesting and Cultivation Programme Saubhagya is aimed at making Sri Lanka self-sufficient and ushering in an age of agricultural prosperity.

It is a well-known fact that the lands of the Dry Zone, the rolling plains of North and North Central and the South Eastern region of ancient Sri Lanka were excellent for agriculture, but there was a problem in diverting enough water to their cultivation. Hence, the magnificent irrigation schemes were built to overcome this problem. Those were the golden days of agriculture in Sri Lanka. There were kings who realized the potential of agriculture and its necessity.

One of King Parakramabahu’s most significant achievements was the construction of the Parakrama Samudraya to provide water for agriculture. Parakramabahu I (1153–1186 CE) famously said, “Let not even a drop of rain water go to the sea without benefiting man.” We are told that since the first century AD, kings such as Vasabha (67–111 AD), Mahasena (276–303 AD), Dhatusena (455–473 AD) and Agbo II (575–608 AD), built numerous reservoirs and irrigation systems that fed vast expanses of paddy fields in the Dry Zone. The establishment of reservoirs and irrigation systems was considered a great meritorious act in accordance with Buddhism, which was the faith of the leaders and of the large majority of the people.

The current Government’s Saubhagya programme has four main long-term goals. They are improving household food security with a nutritious and healthy diet, increasing household income, stemming the outflow of money that is going out of the country (in other words reducing dependency on imports) and import substitution and increasing the farmers’ income.

The Daily News spoke to the experts and discovered the plans the Government has for the agricultural sector.

Secretary of the Agriculture Ministry Major General (Retd) Sumedha Perera said the programme is aimed at making sure that the future of our food is secure.

Major Gen. Perera pointed out that in Sri Lanka, food security is of paramount importance. With the arrival of Covid-19, it is not only Sri Lanka that learnt firsthand the importance of food security, but the whole world. It was a worldwide phenomenon. All Sri Lankans realized the necessity of food security. Major Gen. Perera also said that our exports were affected very badly by Covid-19.

“We must be self-sufficient in food. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that food security is essential for our economy. Because of Covid-19, the Government lost a lot of revenue. So the main objective of Saubhagya (a programme planned much before Covid-19) is to strengthen the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka. We also want to concentrate on the export market. There is huge potential here because we have very good climatic and soil conditions,” he said.

Sri Lankans have been involved in agriculture for over 1,000 years. Now the Government wants to take the agricultural sector to the next level.

Empowerment with technology

“The contribution of the agricultural sector to the GDP in 1977 was something like 37 percent. But quite unfortunately it has come down to seven percent. Maybe because of the open economy we were concentrating on other areas, but sadly, the agricultural sector has not got sufficient exposure to grow.  The aim of Saubhagya is to empower villagers and small farmers by giving them sufficient technology, knowledge, planting material and seeds and enhance their capacity,” said Major Gen. Perera.

He also stated that the government wishes to use all the arable land available in Sri Lanka for cultivation. The small farmers, if given knowledge, technology and planting material, will produce something of value to the economy and their livelihoods will also improve (which is one of the goals of Saubhagya). To a great degree, the problem of poverty will be addressed.

Another aspect is commercial farming and large-scale farms. Especially in the estate sector, there is a huge land base which is not being used properly. Thus the Government intends on using this land to develop agriculture through technology.

“In agriculture, the most important factor is productivity. You need to use new techniques used by other countries and you need to use proper fertilizer. You also need proper seed and planting material. We also need to have a proper system in place to find export markets.”

“When you talk about exporting vegetables and agri-products there are a few factors to consider. One is branding. Most of our products except for tea, rubber and coconut, do not have that branding system. We need a proper Sri Lankan branding system. We also need to produce good quality agriculture products that are accepted by the international community. The consistency is also very important. You have to produce crops throughout the year if you are really concentrating on the export market. That continuity is very important. Also, you need to produce in sufficient quantities. So that is something we in the agricultural sector are really looking at,” explained Major General Perera.

He added that they are looking hard at the organizational structure. In Sri Lanka, there are many institutions involved in agriculture. There are so many departments in the Agriculture Ministry. A plan has been set out to enhance their capacity by bringing in modern technology and improve the existing system. There are research stations, laboratories, seed and planting material producing farms and livestock development. One of the President’s ideas is to be self-sufficient in milk and stop imports of powdered milk (which is another goal of Saubhagya).

The idea is to get all the institutions to improve their capacity with modern technology and then disseminate information to the farmers. This model has been tested and proven to be successful in India. In India there are farms established by Israel. They have given their technology to all the farmers. They use the correct seeds, the correct planting material, the right fertilizers and the harvest and yield is at a very high level. We too want to get expertise from outside, improve our institutions and disseminate the information to the farmer. So that is one area we are concentrating on.”

“Our land mass is very small. We need to make maximum use of the land which is available. The government cannot do this alone. We need private sector participation. They are already engaged in some projects but we want them to expand those projects and start commercial farming. Also, there are certain crops that have been there for decades, like rubber, coconut and tea. There also we do not get the sufficient or desired results because of ad hoc agricultural practices that have been adopted. So, we want to introduce good agricultural practices with technology and get the productivity increased to a great extent,” said Major Gen. Perera.  

He added the country is moving in a systematic way. To improve Agriculture in the country, you need a holistic approach. You cannot improve just one area. It has to be a holistic approach. We lack data, we lack information. We do not have proper information about the land that is available, the suitable crops that can be grown in the land and we do not have sufficient information about the weather. Our knowledge of soil conditions is very poor. These are areas need to be addressed.

“We want to create a data system where all these details will be available. This is important for planning. When it comes to taking care of the farmer and the agriculture industry, there are many officers. If you take village and district levels, there are a lot of officers. We want to bring them under one umbrella and have a proper organization, so that everything will be streamlined. Everyone will have a task. Then you can get the maximum out of them. The idea is to motivate them and get them involved,” added Major Gen. Perera.

“There are more than 550 Agrarian Centres, most of which are neglected. They are not being given due attention. The idea is to get them functional. There will be village-level teams operating from those Agrarian Centres in the future. They will be given an area of responsibility. Planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation will be undertaken from the Ministry through those teams who will be located in those centres. So that will be the focal point of the development. So the expectation is a better dialogue between all the relevant parties. There is a need for a close dialogue with the farmers. You have to reach out to the farmers.”

“The President has said that we have to get involved in the field. Even if we introduce modern technology and even if we do research, there must be a system to take it to the farmer, which we lack. It has to reach the farmer,” The Agriculture Secretary said.

The value of home gardens

The Daily News also spoke to the Agriculture Ministry’s Additional Secretary (Agriculture Technology), Dr. Ajantha De Silva, who pointed out that in Sri Lanka there are about 5.2 million households and one of the main goals of Saubhagya is to achieve household vegetable security.

Dr. Silva said that the programme was of special value during Covid-19 lockdown when people were confined to their houses. Being self-sufficient through your home garden has many benefits. It helps stimulate the mind and it is a guarantee that the food you consume is fresh and healthy. It also brings the family together as household members are able to engage with each other through cultivation. It also minimizes household expenses – one aim being to minimize costs. There is also the added advantage of being able to sell any excess produce to the market.

This is a great relief to the breadwinner of the family, as a well-planned garden with a variety of crops can add variety to the diet and ensure that there is a continuous source of food for the family – a continuous source of healthy tasty food that saves money for the family.

“The Saubhagya programme is timely as it reduces the dependency on imports and saves foreign exchange. Expanding and promoting the cultivation of certain high priority crops will achieve self-sufficiency,” said Dr. Silva.

Sri Lanka was self-sufficient in turmeric cultivation, but over the years, its production fell. Sri Lankan farmers should be encouraged to grow turmeric. As a home gardening initiative, people are being encouraged to grow turmeric for their daily use.

Long-term goals

Speaking about long-term goals, Dr. Silva pointed out that the programme is also an adaptation measure for climate change issues (due to heavy rains and droughts in the conventional vegetable growing areas) which create price hikes of vegetables. Weather extremes increase prolonged droughts and flash floods. These changes directly and indirectly affect the agriculture sector and thus pose greater consequences on the economy and national food security. Climate change can disrupt food availability, reduce access to food, and affect food quality. 

“Another long-term goal is to increase the income from agriculture and reduce the foreign exchange flow for import of essential food items. This production programme aims to strengthen local agricultural production and to encourage local farmers to cultivate crops which can be grown locally to meet the consumer demand,” said Dr. Silva.

He said that the programme that began fairly recently will have long-term benefits. We will certainly reap these long-term benefits once the country becomes truly self- sufficient. It permeates many levels from the home garden to large-scale farms.

“With the production drive we will have an opportunity to improve the living standards of the farmers as well as to reduce the dependency on imports for essential food items. The home garden programme was launched aiming at urban and semi-urban households to improve their domestic vegetable security,” added Dr. Silva.

The Daily News also spoke to Director General of Agriculture, Dr W.M.W. Weerakoon who shared his views on the Saubhagya programme. Dr. Weerakoon pointed out that the Saubhagya food production drive was planned early this year. Here there were two programmes: National Home Garden Programme and Saubhagya Crop Production National Programme.

 “First the Home Garden programme was started in line with the President’s manifesto.  We wanted to improve household food security by providing a nutritious as well as a healthy diet through home gardens. The original aim was to give a packet of seeds and seedlings to every household to be planted at the auspicious times at the New Year. With the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, the home garden campaign was accelerated to accommodate more households. The Agrarian Services Department, Samurdhi Department, Mahaweli and other organizations joined the programme.  The Department of Agriculture supplied all good quality seeds and seedlings in pots. Others also joined in packeting seeds, seedling production and distribution. Each household was given five different varieties of seeds and seedlings mostly targeted towards urban housing,” explained Dr. Weerakoon.

He said that the government has announced achieving self-sufficiency in 16 crops to reduce the import dependency. These eligible crops are maize, chilli, green gram, cowpea, black gram, soya bean, big onion, red onion, gingelly, potato, groundnut, finger millet, kollu, turmeric, ginger and garlic.

 “The long- term goals of Saubhagya programme are improving household food security by providing a nutritious and healthy diet. There is the added advantage of increasing the household income. By local production we can easily reduce dependency on imports because these imported crops can be grown easily in Sri Lanka. By import substitution we can increase the farmer’s income. So, the farmer and the householder both stand to gain a lot by Saubhagya. You can also feel safe that the produce from your home garden is fresh and healthy. Householders may also make a profit by even selling their produce. With our fertile soil these crops can be grown easily with the right technology,” said Dr. Weerakoon.

He added that this programme will continue under the leadership of former Minister Basil Rajapaksa. This will be coordinated by his office. All state agencies such as Agriculture, Livestock, Plantation (coconut), Mahaweli, Irrigation and Samurdhi are now involved in this effort. The home garden programme was expanded not only to seeds, but all other important items to boost household food security as well as to empower farmer women with agriculture and related activities.

The initial planning was done by the Agriculture Department and the Agriculture Ministry. Minister Chamal Rajapaksa was in charge and Basil Rajapaksa directed the national programme during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The Home Garden programme directly helped the household vegetable supply. The crop production programme was aimed at all levels of stakeholders. The farmer of course will boost his production which will reduce the import bill. The consumer will receive a high- quality harvest for his or her consumption. With the price guarantee and stopping all imports the farmers will get a better price,” added Dr. Weerakoon.

He stated that with the crop production programme launched in the Yala season 2020 with provincial Agriculture Department, the cultivated extent increased by more than two or three times. “With the coming of the Maha season, 20/21, if everything goes well as planned, we will be self- sufficient in many crops which we have imported in the past.”