The army worm waging a war on the rural economy

By Dr. Priyanga Dunusinghe

The national economy has operated far below its potential output level for several years now due to a number of policy failures coupled with political instability. Step-motherly treatment in tandem with the prolonged drought has also gradually brought the rural economy to its knees, which has contributed significantly towards the state of the national economy.

In something akin to Murphy’s Law, the fall armyworm, or Sena Dalambuwa as it is widely known, invaded rural crops with devastating effects on farmers – particularly in Ampara, Monaragala, Anurudhapura, and Kurunagala Districts – who were about to breathe a sigh of relief owing to good weather experienced during the last six months.

Mercifully, the scale of the devastation coupled with impending provincial and national elections has resulted in politicians taking notice of the issue.

Both the governing party and the Opposition debated the issue in Parliament, and the Government explored alternative solutions to contain the situation, and offered immediate relief to farmers as well.

The main Opposition, led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, accused the Government for its inaction, while the Minister of Agriculture P. Harrison assured the farming community that the Government was doing its best to bring the situation under control.

Meanwhile, last week, the Department of Agriculture requested farmers to avoid engaging in maize farming during the next three months in order to effectively control the growth and the spread of the worm.

According to the Department of Agriculture, approximately 50-60% of maize production of the current period (Maha Season) has been affected.

The Department of Agriculture stated that the farmlands that delayed cultivation due to lack of rain were severely affected by the Sena caterpillar, while farmlands that were cultivated earlier escaped the Sena threat.

Let us examine the possible impact of the Sena caterpillar on maize production and the local economy.

What is the fall armyworm or Sena caterpillar?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) (FAW), is an insect pest to more than 80 plant species, and causes damage to crops such as maize, rice, sorghum, vegetables, and cotton. It is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas and is the larval stage of the insect that causes the damage. FAW reproduces at a rate of several generations per year, and the moth can fly over a distance of 100 km per night.

Recently, FAW has been detected in a number of Asian countries including China and India, and maize cultivation in a number of Indian states was affected by FAW last year.

In Sri Lanka, FAW was detected for the first time in the Ampara District last October. However, at the time, no series attention was paid to prevent the spread of the moth. Both, the Government and Opposition members were preoccupied with determining the source of the infiltration of FAW into Sri Lanka, instead of taking the appropriate action.

Some ministers claimed that the FAW moth flew from neighboring countries, while opposition parliamentarians suspected that FAW was in imported seeds.

However, these claims are yet to be substantiated with solid evidence.

Maize production, consumption, and imports

Although the National Food Production Programme was launched in 2015, propelling a production drive to increase productivity and land extent aimed at reducing imports, Sri Lanka failed to be self sufficient in maize so far.

In 2017, Sri Lanka produced around 275,000 MT of maize while it imported maize-related products – including seeds for planting – valued at around $ 55 million (see figures 1, 2, and 3).

In line with the National Food Production Programme, Sri Lanka’s maize production was expected to reach 500,000 MT by 2018, in order to record a steady growth of maize products for human and animal consumption.

Maize imports account for nearly 4-5% of the total food import bill in Sri Lanka, and in recent years, the imports of maize-related products have increased. This is partly due to the reduction in local production and the growth in demand, for human and animal consumption.

Meanwhile, the number of hectares of land used for maize cultivation increased rapidly in the recent years due to a relatively higher level of financial returns in comparison to other field crops (OFC).

The total land extent declined in the 2015-2016 Maha season due to prolonged drought in the country. Since maize production in Sri Lanka is largely a rainfed cultivation activity, around 60,000 hectares are cultivated in the Maha season. In terms of land extent, maize comes second only to the land extent used for paddy cultivation.

A recent study conducted by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) found that maize was one of the OFCs that have a higher level of sustainability – in terms of economic, social, and environment returns.

In particular, farmers – both peasant and commercial – in Ampara, Monaragala, and Anuradhpura are very willing to engage in maize production due to its higher profitability. A number of firms in the food and beverage industry use locally produced maize for producing various foods, catering to both human and animal consumption. Maize is one of the main feeding products in the local poultry industry.

However, in recent years, local farmers have been largely dependent on imported seeds. This can also be attributed to higher levels of productivity.

According to the Department of Agriculture, maize cultivation is a labour intensive production activity where labour costs account for nearly half of the total cost of production. It is estimated that around 20-25 man-days are required, for a given season, to cultivate an acre of maize and this number differs across different districts.

Unfortunately, official data is not available on the number of people engaged in maize cultivation. However, based on cost of production data of the Department of Agriculture, it is possible to estimate that the total number of people engaged in maize production, both directly and indirectly, amount to around 100,000-150,000 people per Maha season.

Most seasons, family workers contribute to maize production activities while hired labour utilisation is limited.

The economic impact

The impact of the Sena caterpillar may have a number of socio-economic implications on the Balance of Payments (BOP), the livelihood of the farming community in the affected districts, and the costs of future farming.

According to the news reports, the Department of Agriculture has already instructed farmers to refrain from maize cultivation for a three-month period.

As a result of negatively affected maize cultivation and barring farmers from engaging in production, local production could drastically decline, resulting in an increase in maize product importation, at least, in the next one to two years. Such an increase will certainly put additional pressure on the BOP and on the Sri Lankan rupee as well, both of which were severely battered in recent years.

The livelihood of the farming community in the affected districts could be severely influenced through a number of channels.

As mentioned earlier, even before the Sena attack, the farming community was under severe economic pressure due to lack of policy intervention and prolonged droughts experienced. The effect of the Sena caterpillar will certainly exacerbate those economic woes of the farming community.

In addition, a sizable portion of the workforce which usually engages in maize production-related activities in the affected districts may find it difficult to get hold of alternative employment opportunities, resulting in severe hardships to the farming community.

District-level land extent (of maize) data shows that maize is largely grown in lands that were previously utilised for chena cultivation.
The loss of cultivation followed by a three-month cessation of production could severely diminish the purchasing power of the poor farmers in those areas. More importantly, the level of debt, which was relatively higher due to prolonged drought, could increase further, thereby increasing the default rate among farmers.

The Government has allocated money in terms of compensation for the farmers. However, the proposed amounts certainly fall short of farmers’ expectations.

In addition, a number of small entrepreneurs hire various machines for cultivation activities as maize cultivation is highly mechanised as of late. The Sena invasion could have a sizable impact on these entrepreneurs.

It seems that both, the Government as well as the Opposition are attempting to utilise this situation to their political advantage, rather than finding a workable solution to the menace. In fact, the Government is drawing excessive public attention to the Sena caterpillar, as if it is the only socio-economic issue faced by the country.

The relevant agencies have come up with various solutions to bring the situation under control, however the success of such approaches are yet to be witnessed. Moreover, the possibilities of the worm spreading to other types of crops including paddy and vegetables, is very high. Even in the current context, the Sena worm has severely affected the rural farming communities in the affected districts, thereby warranting a permanent solution.

Let us hope that this bleak picture I’ve drawn for the rural economy does not come to pass, and that a solution to this problem is found immediately. The farming community has suffered enough.