Support for agriculture – A great opportunity

24 January 2017 10:12 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Dr. U. Pethiyagoda
A news item (Island, January 19) gave the welcome news that the World Bank has signed a credit line to provide Sri Lanka with US $ 125 million to make the sector “more efficient and attractive, more responsive to consumer demand and more environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change”.
This is a massive and unique opportunity. As loan funding, it is imperative that the investment should furnish adequate returns. Examples from past projects which have failed, should provide us with ample knowledge on what to avoid. Other country experiences where such projects have been successful should furnish useful pointers.
While the current expertise would help us to flesh out a programme worthy of support, I crave indulgence as an old hand who has some experience, to attempt some prioritization.
First, what to avoid. One has to be very careful about programmes to “develop policy lines” and “institution-building”. Admittedly, a certain amount of this might seem necessary. But being ultimately responsible for paying back the loan, fancy investments should be held to a minimum. Aid agencies are generally fond of such areas. Their benefits are generally not quantifiable. They also provide an opportunity to offload a population sometimes of “experts” who are nearly unemployable in their home countries, on hapless borrowers. 
After over a century of building our research and extension capabilities, we must have the necessary expertise among our own. They have the added advantage of knowing local realities. With outside experts, by the time they assimilate the needed background, they may be up for the next extension!
Aid programmes are understandably wary of requests for vehicles and buildings. When it comes to equipment justified by viable objectives, they are more generous. While leaving the final decisions to the current officials, I would like to make a few suggestions that fit in with the stated objectives of the assistance.
(1) As the frequency of climatic disturbances are expected to increase in frequency and severity, an active promotion of “protected cultivation” of short-term crops, is warranted. This has the advantage of meeting several of the project objectives of being “more efficient” by economizing on water use and therefore being “more environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change”, reducing pesticide use and thus being “efficient and attractive and responsive to consumer demand”. The advantage of better quality produce would improve the chances of developing a thriving export trade.
A deterrent to greater use of the technology (already well developed elsewhere, Israel being the best example) is the initial capital cost. The availability of UV-resistant plastics, capable of withstanding our tropical climate, avoids the need for expensive glass and support structures. Evolving methods appropriate for us will enable bringing into production areas now excluded as being too dry or too wet.
Arrangements for financial assistance to pioneers could be included.
(2) “Supply-chain enhancement”. Losses of perishable products between farm and table are very high -       estimated in some cases to approach 40 percent. A combination of poor harvesting methods, losses or damage during storage, packaging and transport, are remediable constraints that can be mitigated by improving extension services. An ancillary need is the development of “cold chain facilities” (including at the airport if export is intended), to reduce losses and improve presentation.
(3) Marshalling the prospects for “Agroforestry” combined with attention to developing such neglected but promising fruits like wood apple and ‘beli’ fruit combined with enhanced processi facilities, would be an attractive proposition.
(4) Beekeeping - a neglected area, which in addition to direct income, would enhance the yield of crops by increased pollination. Rows of strategically placed beehives are even reported to be effective in discouraging invasion by wild elephants.
(5) Improvement by introduction of genetically superior strains, varieties and new crops. Spectacular examples of successes in other countries should be explored. Agricultural exhibitions should be used as means to identify promising varieties and to source material for propagation.
The above is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative but merely indicative. The arrangement entered into with the World Bank should be used to our best advantage.

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