Yala cultivation: Farmers warn of rice and vegetable shortages
- Govt. pushes cultivation drive while farmers continue to face issues
- Farmers lament over lack of fertiliser despite Govt. assurances
- Vegetable farmers also facing seed shortage
- Food scarcity and rising inflation affect consumers, raise concerns
By Maheesha Mudugamuwa
Somapala, a father of three and a paddy farmer in the southern District of Hambantota, is eagerly awaiting the delivery of fertiliser, as he had commenced cultivating his paddy land this Yala season despite warnings given by his fellow farmers.
Like many others, Somapala is pinning his hopes on the arrival of fertiliser from India under the Indian Line of Credit (LOC) facility which was offered to Sri Lanka.
Somapala, desperately in need of the necessary fertiliser stocks this season to avoid yet another crop loss, had reached out to the ‘Govi Niyamaka’ (agriculture officer) of his village last week seeking fertiliser, but to no avail.
“I can’t afford another loss. Last time I put organic fertiliser, but it was a failure. I didn’t get the expected harvest. I was told not to commence this season until I get fertiliser in my hand. My fellow farmers didn’t cultivate this season, but I had to, because I have no other option,” he lamented.
Somapala is not only providing for his family but looking after his parents too. “This is a tough time for us. I have to spend a huge sum for my mother’s medicines and at the same time I’m spending for the education of my children. All three are still studying. The eldest one is studying at Colombo University,” he told The Sunday Morning.
The two-acre paddy land he cultivates is Somapala’s only source of income. “I have a loan to pay off. Also, I couldn’t cover up the expenses of last Maha season as I didn’t get the expected harvest. I had to get some money from a friend of mine to commence Yala. There was a place where fertiliser was being sold, but I couldn’t afford the prices. I’m waiting for the Government stocks to come in,” he added.
Like Somapala, many other farmers in his village as well as in other parts of the country are facing similar consequences as the Government had failed to provide the necessary fertiliser for cultivations in spite of the warnings issued by a number of local and international agricultural experts of a possible food crisis.
Thilakaratne, a farmer from Yakkalamulla who had to make several trips to the market as well as to the village-level Government representative in search of seed paddy, had similar worries. “The price of a kilo of seed paddy has now skyrocketed. The Government used to provide seed paddy earlier but now we have to buy seeds from outside. We don’t know about the quality of these seeds,” he stressed.
“I went twice to the agriculture officer and asked what I should do if I couldn’t find seed paddy. He didn’t have an answer. Why do we have such an officer if he doesn’t know anything about agriculture? Isn’t he supposed to provide us with information?” he questioned.
Thilakaratne, a retired State employee, said it should be the duty of the village agriculture officer to coordinate with the farmers and encourage them to engage in cultivation.
While paddy farmers’ woes deepen, vegetable farmers are also badly affected by the ongoing seed shortage as they are struggling to find quality seeds at an affordable price in the local market.
“It seems like the Government has stopped bringing down vegetable seeds. There is a huge shortage. The seeds available in the market are not high quality seeds. The harvest from these seeds is unpredictable,” Kusumsiri Banda, a vegetable farmer from Nuwara Eliya, told The Sunday Morning.
Severe shortages in the offing
With the country’s agriculture sector facing a host of uncertainties, farmers are warning of severe shortages of essentials such as rice and vegetables in coming months.
Sri Lanka became self-sufficient in rice since 2010 and has been producing an average volume of 900,000 MT of fruits and vegetables per year. As a result, the food availability of the country was ensured and in a range of affordability – until now.
According to the National Fertiliser Secretariat (NFS) of the Agriculture Ministry, the country’s total paddy cultivation extent in both Yala and Maha season in 2020 was 1.3 million hectares with 97,120 hectares of other field crops.
However, a controversial policy decision taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals in a push for ‘organic agriculture’ in May 2020 resulted in a serious threat to the country’s food security, due to the reduction of harvest and drop in cultivation as there was no mechanism or transition strategy to produce sufficient organic fertiliser or develop home-grown options to stop pests and insects.
The decision was taken at a time when the country was lacking sufficient organic inputs, technology, and substitutions to cope with the issues in the fields. Therefore, farmers lost their harvest due to poor crop productivity, coupled with pest and disease attacks, compelling many to switch to minor jobs in the industrial/construction sector. The country experienced around a 40% drop in paddy production and around 35% drop in fruit and vegetable production during the period of 2020–2021.
Although the agrochemical ban was lifted in November 2021, the effects of the ban continue to persist and will do so in the foreseeable future as well. The impact of this decision is currently being experienced amidst skyrocketing inflation, making food inaccessible.
Soaring food inflation
Currently, the country’s food inflation has reached an all-time high of 57.4%, threatening its food security. Sri Lanka also lost its first-place ranking in 2017 on the Food Security Index for South Asia, dropping to third place by 2021.
As a result of surging food inflation, millions of Sri Lankans are struggling to make ends meet.
The urban population has been severely affected due to the current food shortages. As of last week, many supermarkets had limited the amount of rice a consumer could purchase at a time to five kilos per bill as a solution to minimise severe shortages.
Meanwhile, prices of all food items are rising daily.
“This is unbelievable. I don’t know how long I can provide food for my family,” Priyalal Perera, a private sector employee, told The Sunday Morning. “I have to manage the money I have in hand. We can’t purchase the items we used to purchase. Earlier we used to buy groceries weekly, but now I’m buying goods daily because I can’t afford my weekly bill all at once,” he stressed.
Food scarcity and inflation have affected not only poor communities, but all levels of society.
Ayesha Fernando from Kotte shared that she had to stop buying her 10-year-old daughter her favourite chocolate brownies last week as she could not risk spending even a small sum for anything except the daily essentials.
“I used to buy her brownies whenever I went grocery shopping, but now the prices have doubled. It’s just too expensive,” she said.
Being a single mother, Ayesha has to look after her daughter and her mother while paying for her accommodation along with all other expenses, including food, electricity, water, telephone, internet, and fuel. “Earlier we had a comfortable life but now everything has turned upside down,” she lamented.
“Usually, I go to a supermarket to get whatever I want for the week, but now I have to go and collect essentials because on most days the supermarket shelves that contain essentials such as milk powder, rice, dhal, etc., are empty,” Ayesha, a banker by profession, told The Sunday Morning.
As the cost of living mounts, millions of Sri Lankans are now struggling to make ends meet as wages are failing to keep pace with rising prices. The prices of most of the high-demand commodities are now increasing on a daily basis and most Sri Lankans who are in the middle-income category are experiencing the impact of rising food, fuel, and other commodity prices.
“This situation will get worse in the coming months,” All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation (ACFF) President Namal Karunaratne told The Sunday Morning.
He noted that paddy production would decline severely this Yala season as many farmers had not commenced farming yet due to the fertiliser shortage. At the same time, as he went on to explain, vegetable farmers too are waiting for fertiliser as well as seeds.
“As the fuel crisis has also affected cultivation and the fertiliser shortage is yet to be sorted, we don’t see any solution for the food crisis at present – things are only getting worse day by day,” he emphasised.
Furthermore, commenting on the poultry industry, Karunaratne highlighted that the cost of animal feed had increased by around 150% and therefore the prices of eggs and chicken would rise further in the coming months.
“People will be facing severe difficulties in securing rice, vegetables, and other essentials such as eggs and chicken,” he warned.
The lie of the land
Despite the fact that Sri Lanka is endowed with a favourable climate for agriculture, including fertile soil and higher biodiversity and gene pool, most of the inputs such as seeds, agro-chemicals, machines, and technology are currently being imported. Due to its dependency on imports, the existing financial crisis had disabled the supply of these inputs for cultivation, especially urea.
Urea is the only synthetic nutrient needed for crop growth. Unavailability of urea affects the entire crop production, leading to crop failures. As per the global price index, the price of a 50 kg urea sack increased by six times from $ 16 to $ 140 from 2021 to mid-2022, making cultivation a challenge.
As per Government statistics, Sri Lanka imported a total of 574,705.9 MT of fertiliser last year at a cost of over Rs. 36 billion. Annually around 1,260,053 MT of fertiliser is imported to the country by spending over Rs. 56 billion. The annual fertiliser demand for paddy and other crops is respectively estimated at around 383,000 MT and 877,053.5 MT.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, there has been an increase in the number of lands that have commenced cultivation compared to last month.
As per statistics, cultivation has now commenced for a total of 475,000 ha of paddy land for Yala season. The total land extent for Yala that commenced cultivation in early June was 248,000 ha. Therefore, the Agriculture Ministry expects the harvest to also increase in parallel. The Ministry also expressed confidence that a stock of 65,000 MT of fertiliser would arrive in the country on 6 July.
Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said once the fertiliser stocks arrived, they would be distributed among the farmers immediately. Accordingly, the Ministry had already requested the Power and Energy Ministry to provide 125,000 litres of fuel for the fertiliser distribution programme and has already assigned 2,000 lorries for fertiliser distribution.
Further, the Minister assured that the required fertiliser stocks for the Maha season would also be purchased on a loan provided by World Bank (WB). Accordingly, a total of $ 110 million is expected from the WB to purchase paddy fertiliser for Maha season next year.
Fuel crisis increases wastage
Pradeep Nissanka, a 38-year-old vegetable farmer from Irudeniyaya, was forced to throw away a stock of radish after waiting almost a week for the truck that collects the vegetables from his village, which had failed to arrive.
“This week the truck didn’t come. Months of my hard work and money have now gone to waste,” he told The Sunday Morning.
Nissanka, who looks after his parents and his sister’s family, has now run out of money as he has not been able to sell his harvest for two consecutive weeks.
“I had a good income as I supplied vegetables weekly. We cultivate radish. Last week I took the stocks to Dambulla in my own three-wheeler, but this week I don’t have petrol. I have waited two nights at a shed, but couldn’t fill up. Even though we took the harvest to Dambulla last week, we had to throw it there and come home. The centre didn’t function as usual because of the diesel shortage,” Nissanka revealed.
Nissanka is only one among thousands of farmers facing similar difficulties at present due to the ongoing fuel shortage.
One of the main reasons for the soaring vegetable prices in the market is disruptions in the supply chain. Many farmers in Sri Lanka have not been able to access diesel for weeks and as a result they are unable to transport their crops to the economic centres. Many wholesale traders now find themselves idling at economic centres on a daily basis, awaiting the arrival of a tractor load of fresh crops to be sold elsewhere, All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation (ACFF) President Namal Karunaratne explained.
Consumers are experiencing the brunt of this situation with the shortages felt in markets in urban areas, causing the prices of vegetables and fruits to skyrocket. Some consumers said they found it difficult to add the usual curries to their meals due to the high cost of vegetables.
According to Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) statistics, the retail prices of vegetables including beans, carrot, cabbage, tomato, brinjal, pumpkin, snake gourd, and green chilli at the Pettah market on Wednesday (23) stood at Rs. 550, Rs. 280, Rs. 280, Rs. 550, Rs. 300, Rs. 240, Rs. 350, and Rs. 500 per kilo. The prices of the same vegetables on the same day in 2021 stood at Rs. 300, Rs. 150, Rs. 160, Rs. 140, Rs. 180, Rs. 90, Rs. 180, and Rs. 300 per kilo.
Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera last week said a total of 147 fuel stations around the country had now been allocated to supply fuel required by the farmers for their farming purposes. The Ministry had taken steps to provide an uninterrupted fuel supply to the farmers and to make sure that their farming and harvesting processes would run smoothly, he said.
However, according to Karunaratne, farmers are still waiting in queues to get fuel and most of their farming activities have been halted due to the extreme shortages that prevailed in the last few weeks.