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Monday, September 22, 2008

Increasing domestic food production

Increasing domestic food production

I received my baptism in ‘green revolution’ agriculture at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in the mid 1960s. It was an exciting time. IRRI had just released the rice variety IR8, which was widely hailed as "miracle rice"by the world’s media. It was a truly outstanding rice variety yielding 8-9 tons per hectare. Scientists had finally found the missing link- a rice variety with the desired plant type (short, stiff-strawed and non- lodging); high fertilizer response, desired growth duration (120 days), and non-sensitive to day length. This variety was believed to be the key ingredient in the recipe for filling the empty rice bowls of over two thirds of the World’s people. The other ingredients- inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, assured supply of irrigation water, farm machinery and correct cultural practices could easily be found (so it was thought!). All that was now required was to transfer this package (high yielding variety, other inputs and a ‘prescription’ describing the correct cultural/agronomic practices to be followed) to any one who needed it.

Spreading the gospel

Scientists from Asia, Africa and Latin America flocked to IRRI to observe what was going on there and to have themselves trained in the development and application green revolution technologies. They were to be the ‘missionaries, entrusted with the responsibility of spreading the gospel leading to bountiful rice supplies. On returning to their home countries, these Scientists would test the performance of IR8 in their specific locations. They also provided valuable feed back to IRRI scientists.

Cracks begin to appear

Before long, the first cracks began to appear. Many farmers in South Asian countries did not like the taste of IR8. Some claimed that being short strawed, this variety of rice was inferior to their traditional varieties in thatching their roofs. Others said weed control was posing to be a more difficult problem in their paddy fields. Still others found the variety to be more susceptible to fungal diseases (such as ‘rice blast’) and insect damage (‘brown plant hopper’, stem borers etc) in their specific locations. There were even more serious weaknesses – IR8 lacked seed dormancy. This meant that its seed would even germinate on the panicle (ear) itself should rains occur at harvest time. Traditional and indigenous rice varieties did not suffer from this weakness. Perhaps the most serious weakness of all was that the package of inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, assured supply of irrigation water etc.) so essential for IR8 to perform well (produce high grain yield) was proving to be very costly and difficult to provide.

Improvements

Over the years IRRI researchers created many new rice varieties which did not have the weaknesses of IR8.

Even more significant, was the ability of local scientists in the various rice growing countries to correct many of the initial weaknesses of IR8 themselves by breeding new rice varieties that were better adapted to their specific regions. Sri Lankan plant breeders have had an outstanding record in this respect. Some rice varieties bred by our plant breeders at the Batalagoda Rice Research Station have been able to out yield even many of the best varieties produced by IRRI. All these efforts have had an undoubted positive impact on overall availability of our staple food.

Concerns and Explanations

Conventional science-based research and extension activities have focussed on ‘modern’ agriculture with high levels of external inputs, e.g. hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and fuel-based mechanization. Technologies have been developed on research stations and experimental farms in better endowed areas, and attempts have been made to transfer ready-made technology packages to farmers. The primary aim of these efforts has been to increase production of specific commodities (rice, maize, wheat etc.). These efforts have mostly benefited ‘better off farmers’, but have brought little benefit to the majority of small holders, and have sometimes worsened their situation. When resource poor farmers were reluctant or slow to adopt recommendations emanating from research stations, they were blamed for their ‘laziness’ and ‘ignorance’. " In the 1950s and 1960s, non-adoption was often attributed to ignorance, and extension education was the prescribed solution. In the 1970s and early 1980s, non-adoption was more often attributed to farm level constraints; gaps in yield between the research station and farm were analyzed; and the prescription was to try to make the farm more like the research station. In the1980s, however, a new interpretation, more challenging to the agricultural profession and to science, has gathered support. It is that the problem is neither the farmer nor the farm, but the technology; and that the faults of the technology can be traced to the priorities and processes which generate it" " (Robert Chambers, 1989.)

High external input (‘modern agriculture’) has also resulted in environmental degradation and exploitation of natural resources ( soil, water). Nitrates and Pesticides have contaminated soil, ground-water as well as streams and reservoirs resulting in harm to wild life, disruption of eco-systems, and possible health problems to man.

Farmers can overplough and overpump with impressive results in the short run, but the short run is fast running to a close. In the Anuradhapura district, ‘agro-wells’- open dug wells which exploit shallow groundwater for the cultivation of high value cash crops like Hybrid Corn, B-onions and Chilli during the dry (‘yala’) season, had already reached the ecologically permissible limit (15,000) in Sept-Oct (2000), according to the Provincial Director Agriculture. Scientists (based at the Mahailluppallama research station) warn that exceeding the above limit is likely to seriously deplete ground water resources, and may even subject perennial tree crops to serious moisture depletion.

Another worrying concern is the realization that consecutively mono cropped ‘modern’ cereals appear to be unable to maintain their initial yield levels, whether fertilized or not. At IRRI, the yields of the highest yielding entry rice variety in long-term fertility trials have fallen steadily between 1966 and 1988. (Pingali, 1991 ; Ponnamperuma, 1989). Similar yield reductions have been observed in Thailand and Indonesia. At Patnagar in India, rice yields have fallen from 6.4 to 5.2 tons per hectare (Gaur and Verma, 1991). Indian researchers have also reported wheat yields to have declined from 4.4t/ha to 3.3t/ha over a 16-year period. Some of these yield reductions have only been corrected by a 50 per cent increase in fertilizer applications. Why this is happening is unclear though pests, diseases, chemical toxicity and certain trace element deficiencies, changing soil carbon-nitrogen ratios are all believed to be possible explanations. Peter Kenmore, an IRRI scientist sums it up: " The degradation of the paddy environment, whether by micro-nutrient depletion, atmospheric pollution, pest pressure or accumulative toxic change in soil chemistry, is greater than the capacity for genetic improvements in yield potential that breeders can select".

It is against this background that our government is spending over 40 billion rupees in fertilizer subsidies to farmers. Next years’ budget is said to increase the fertilizer subsidy to 60 billion rupees. Let us not forget that all this fertilizer has to be imported! Worse still, how much foreign exchange are we squandering in importing inappropriate agricultural machinery into our country at the present time? It has taken our policy makers well over 30 years to realize that a considerable amount of the bountiful rice yields produced by high yielding rice varieties, subsidized fertilizer, costly pesticides, irrigation water etc. was being wasted on the threshing floors for want of effective threshing machines. This problem was brought into sharp focus early this year (February-March 2008) when incessant heavy rains lashed the rice bowl (see ‘The neglected Social Dimension’, on page 11 of ‘The Island’, Monday, 15th September 2008). Suddenly, barely six months later, we see a flood of harvesting and threshing machines (many of them highly inappropriate, and imported) all over the country. The captains of big business may even be tempted to complement the private sector for its efficiency in running to ‘help the poor rice farmers’!

Who benefits?

Are massive, fuel guzzling harvester combines needed by small farmers who rarely cultivate more than one hectare of paddy land? We also need to realize that in most cases, the ‘liyaddas’ are small (stamp sized). Worse still, one shower of rain, and these heavy machines will get bogged down in the muddy fields. Witness the damage caused to the levees (niyara) by these enormous machines, and the shattered grain scattered all over the fields. These machines that were presumed to help the rice farmer, are in many instances driving the small farmer into deeper debt (to the Mudalalis who own the machines). Barely two weeks ago, a Mudalali was charging rupees 17,000 to harvest one hectare of paddy in the Dehiattakandiya area using a harvester combine. Farmers saw the waste, and damage done to the ‘niyaras’, they still felt compelled to use this machine because the rains were threatening, and they were scared stiff by last season’s bitter experience (when some of them lost over 50 percent of the harvest due to rain). How much did the machine (Combine harvester) cost? Over 4.5 million rupees.

There were many other stationary threshing machines (‘Sunami’ machines) also operating on the threshing floors (‘Kamatas’), or out in the fields where a threshing mat or canvas could be laid out. These threshers were operated by 4- wheel tractors. These were said to consume 5-6 liters of Diesel per hour. They would take about 3 hours to thresh a hectare of paddy (yielding approximately 5 tons of grain). They too were owned by ‘Mudalalis’. The Mudalali charged the farmer 6,000 rupees to thresh his one hectare crop. These threshers cost rupees 750,000 to 800,000. They were imported from Thailand. The Agri-business Company which imported these machines, boasted of having sold over 1000 such machines all over the country during the past few years.

A Crying Shame

In August this year, we spotlighted a ‘Multi-grain threshing machine’ manufactured by a Sri Lankan technician (see page 4, ‘The Island’, August 11th 2008). This machine was operated off a 2-wheel tractor (Kubota type). It had a threshing capacity of 800 kg per hour, and consumed only 1 liter of Diesel per hour. It cost only 150,000 rupees. The local manufacturer/technician had obtained a national patent (patent No.13341) for his innovation in 2005. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had purchased 25 of these machines for distribution in the Mannar, Trincomalee and Ampara areas. Some local farmers in the Thambuttegama area (where the technician had his workshop) had purchased this machine. They found it to be useful and cost effective. But our local manufacturer could only produce 2 machines per month in his little workshop employing 4 skilled workmen. He couldn’t raise the capital necessary to increase his production because he lacked the collateral (security) demanded by our Banks. Isn’t this a crying shame?!

Whither ‘Deshiya Arthikaya Naga Sitawamu?’

1 comment:

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