Focus/Spotlight

No maize shortage, no imports

By Skandha Gunasekara

Despite various media reports to the contrary, the Government firmly asserted that there would be no shortage of maize in the country.

It also claimed that though local production had been affected by the spread of the agricultural pest, the fall armyworm, and the damage to crops was far less than reported.

Department of Agriculture Director Agriculture Technology Hemantha Amarasinghe, speaking to The Sunday Morning, said that several media reports indicated that maize cultivation in the country had been effected badly by the spread of the fall armyworm, and that such reports were inaccurate.

“While it is true that the fall armyworm decimated maize crops in various parts of the island, the truth of the matter is that the affected crops constitute an extremely small percentage of the entire harvest.”
He said that only around 2% of the harvest had been affected by the infestation.

“There has not been as widespread damage as claimed by some media reports. In fact, only around 2% of crops have been affected. We are still carrying out surveys to assess how much damage has been done,” he said, adding that the damage would not prompt them to declare any sort of maize shortage.

Taking Anuradhapura District as an example, he said that the usual harvest for the district would be 3.5 metric tonnes per hectare and that this year, even with the damage caused by the fall armyworm; the harvest increased to 5 metric tonnes per hectare.

He went on to say that the total islandwide yield of the harvest for February, 2018 was 250,000 metric tonnes.

He said that in other years when there had been shortages of maize, the Government would import a total of 150,000 metric tonnes.

Ample stocks in store

“However, it is highly unlikely we will need to import maize this year. We have ample stocks already in store,” Amarasinghe said.

The fall armyworm pest has been infesting vast swaths of maize cultivation across the country since the latter quarter of 2018.

Various media reports indicated that the damage done would cause a severe shortage in maize supply in the country.

Maize is a staple grain used by numerous food production processes as well as by various industries such as the farming industry, where it is used as animal feed.

Ministry of Agriculture Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra said that a ban was imposed on importing maize into the island.

“We have restricted the importation of maize to Sri Lanka for the time being. This is mainly to encourage and develop the local maize cultivation industry,” Ruwanchandra said.

Contradicting media reports once again, the Sri Lanka Thriposha Ltd. Chairperson B.G.S. Gunatilake informed that maize would not be imported to produce Thriposha packets.

“We have enough locally produced maize in our stores for the production of Thriposha. Therefore, there won’t be any need to import maize to produce Thriposha for the foreseeable future,” Gunatilake confirmed.

Questioned on the possibility of fall armyworm infestations affecting maize stores, Gunatilake said that there were stringent quality control measures in place to ensure high standards.

“We have strict quality control measures. Our quality checkers are extremely vigilant and carry out regular tests on raw materials as well as the production processes.”

However, the Chairperson noted that the process of importing maize for Thriposha would take a minimum of three months.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture Director General Dr. W.M.W. Weerakoon said that the Government had not issued any permits to import maize into the country.

Explaining the process, Dr. Weerakoon said that the Government did not import maize directly and instead had the private sector do so.

“We give various quotas to private companies to import maize when there is a shortage. However, we have not issued any permits thus far to import maize in an effort to develop the local maize cultivation industry.”

Mitigation in progress

He also pointed out that reports of the fall armyworm transitioning to paddy were false.
“The situation with regard to the fall armyworm is now coming under control. It has not spread to paddy cultivation,” the Director General said.

He stated that several measures, such as the use of specific pesticides, had been successful in mitigating the spread of the pest.

“We have notified all farmers of the measures that have worked against the fall armyworm. These include the use of special pesticides and fertilisers as well as the use of ash,” Dr. Weerakoon said.

“Various types of caterpillars are seen in crops by farmers, and they are quick to label them as the fall armyworm and are using pesticides unnecessarily.”

He said that reports that the fall armyworm had been found in banana cultivations were untrue and that the caterpillars were not fall armyworms.

He also warned that the excessive use of pesticides could harm crops and have negative effects thereafter.

Government to consider biological solution from USA

The Government is considering bringing down a special virus from the US to combat the fall armyworm menace.

Horticultural Crop Research and Development Institute Additional Resident

Entomologist/Nematologist K.M.D.W.P. Nishantha told The Sunday Morning that they were going through the documents pertaining to the use of the virus to battle the pest.

“We are still in the process of evaluating the documentation on the virus and its effectiveness against the fall armyworm.”

He said that the virus had been successful in controlling the spread of the pest in the US as well as other affected countries.

Furthermore, Nishantha said that a strain of bacteria named “Bacillus thuringiensis”, which can be found locally, can also be used against the fall armyworm.

“Bacillus thuringiensis has been found to be extremely effective against Lepidoptera species and it is being used in other countries for this purpose. However, we have not begun isolating it in Sri Lanka at this time,” he said.

Additionally, Nishantha said that they were carrying out surveys to identify the natural enemies of the fall armyworm, such as its natural predators.