Sri Lanka, once identified at a time known granary of the East, is now almost reliant on imported food items. The unfolding problematic situation arose due to the considerable decline in domestic food production. As the global food crisis deepens due to various reasons, including armed conflicts, macro-economic collapses and natural disasters like droughts, many countries have started focusing on domestic food production. Sri Lanka’s agriculture-still being considered the most important yet- is a less encouraged sector that needs to undergo a transformation. Senior Social Scientist and Former Head of Sociology Department of the Colombo University Prof. Siri Hettige described this transformation as a ‘Green Revolution’. During an interview with the Daily Mirror, Prof. Hettige outlined the importance of taking the necessary actions to improve the productivity of the domestic agriculture sector. He said that this should be backed by investment on research, new scientific methods of farming and appropriate policy changes with the ultimate goal being known as the granary of the East again. Further, he aired his views on the significance of replacing non-bio degradable materials with bio-degradable materials which he said will solve the long-standing waste management issue and create a healthy environment.
In the 1960s, the green revolution was a major policy response of many developing countries like Mexico, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. This was their response to a number of serious issues in traditional agriculture including low productivity, vulnerability of farmers, poverty and malnutrition. Consequently, agricultural scientists and others were exploring various ways to improve the small scale agriculture sector and the quality of lives of rural farmers. The change was made by introducing a range of new agricultural technologies.
Following decolonization, the population increased in many ex-colonial countries where there was stagnation of traditional agriculture. These countries faced a need to improve the conditions in rural areas since people were moving away from these areas, making the cities unmanageable. The Governments of such developing countries advocated certain interventions which were quite different to techniques used in large-scale industrial agriculture in countries like the United States. The new package that was introduced by the Governments included new seed varieties, new agricultural techniques like planting and mechanical type technologies. All these new methods gradually improved productivity of the lands. Consequently, the people had a much bigger yield whilst poor living conditions of farmers and issues caused by scarcity were addressed. The green revolution was backed by research conducted by newly established research stations.
Sri Lanka and other countries need a new type of green revolution in response to a much bigger challenge we face at present; unsustainable development and unsustainable consumption. Development is taking place almost everywhere, but not in a sustainable manner. Correspondingly, there is unsustainable consumption. Both have resulted in major issues that are prevailing in the world such as climate change and the increasing disaster situations.
Slow onset disasters like floods and droughts appear to be sudden events. Nevertheless, they are part of a long- term trend. Accumulation of toxic waste is another problem. Some industrial products contain harmful substances. Such toxic materials end up in our food chain, water ways and even in the ocean. Some of the materials, that we have got used to, pose huge challenges in terms of disposal, pollution of the water ways, soil structure and the environment.
The main reason for this situation is the expansion of the industrial civilization, beyond the boundaries of traditional industrialized countries. The expansion of the industrial civilization has affected production and consumption of goods and services at an unprecedented rate.
Owing to the fact that Sri Lanka has been moving away from rural agriculture, there are thousands of acres of abandoned lands in all parts of the country. These lands can be used to produce raw materials for new income-generating industries that can produce substitutes for things that we have to replace like plastic bags, containers and many household items. Farmers should be encouraged to produce biodegradable material and be given science and technological know-how to do so. Once rural industries are initiated and developed, a large portion of imported items can be produced within the country. This way job opportunities will also be created. In other words, a whole new value chain can be established involving a whole range of public and private institutions. A significant part of the local population can get involved in this endeavour.
It will also eventually help to minimize rural-urban migration. Sri Lanka can’t continue to add more people to the cities. Cities are already over-crowded; people have lost open space. They should live in a healthy environment with clean air and open space. Development shouldn’t be confined to one place, but be dispersed.
In the 1960’s, many developing countries focused on how to improve the rural agriculture sector. In fact, traditional agricultural methods were not very productive. The seeds used weren’t high yielding. The output of grain that was produced on a unit of land was very low. Later, fertilizers and agro-chemicals were introduced. In India, a green revolution made a huge impact thus improving the living conditions of millions of people. But it also led to population increase.
Labour migration can also be addressed through the green revolution. In fact, some people will anyway migrate for personal reasons. At least people won’t migrate just to make a living if job opportunities are created within the country. If the country provides social protection, decent working circumstances and favourable living conditions, Sri Lankans will be better off here and wouldn’t have to find employment abroad.
In such a circumstance, the labour within the country can be made use of. Sri Lanka doesn’t have a labour surplus. It’s just that Sri Lanka has an artificially created labour problem which has existed since the time people weren’t deployed in a reasonable way. This problem is attributable to the mismanagement of public finances. This issue exists not because people are leaving the country, but due to decision makers in the country being short-sighted.
The country at present has so much inequality as it doesn’t effectively re-distribute income. What do the rich people do with their money? Are they responsible? If they are socially responsible entrepreneurs, they should create more employment opportunities. They can do this using their surplus of income for the purpose of contributing to the development of the country. There is no reason to have inequality in a country where we have seen economic growth and decreasing unemployment. On the other hand, globalization can’t continue unchecked. It has to be balanced by some degree of localization. In other words, both production and consumption have to be localized as much as possible. When it comes to the whole problem of globalization, everyone in the society has a role to play.
Industrial products weren’t used for household needs in the past. Hundred years ago, there were few industrial products in this country. However, we are worried about such products today. Cleaning utensils like brooms and many other things were all made of natural materials. To begin with, Sri Lanka has to identify the things that can be easily replaced.
Excluding paper and cardboard which might be harmless in the long run, plastic and other synthetic materials could pose huge threats unless they are recycled in an effective manner or replaced by products made of natural material. In fact, plastic is very convenient and durable. The challenge for Sri Lankans is to move away from some of these materials and replace them with bio-degradable materials.
The question is whether it’s possible for scientists to do their experiments and come up with bio degradable materials which are as good as plastic. But, what exists is a much bigger process starting with a national policy, institutional development and the facilitation of the development of an entirely new value chain; production and processing of raw materials, design and manufacture, distribution and marketing and use and safe disposal.
If the Government is going to ban plastic, they need to find alternatives. The Government can’t simply ban plastic and ignore the consequences. Options should be suggested when getting rid of something. However, everything can’t be replaced. We don’t have to eliminate some materials, but such products can be reduced, reused and recycled.
No one can have 100% percent control over the use of non-biodegradable materials. Instead of using plastic bottles, why can’t we use glass, ceramic or stainless steel bottles? Why can’t people use bags made of natural fibres, clothes or paper instead of polythene? People give priority only to convenience, not to what is healthy.
This is a challenge which should be taken up by everyone including the educational authorities. There are urgent things like curriculum development, training of teachers, skill development and the creation of opportunities to acquire new knowledge. Everybody should fulfill he/she responsibilities to overcome these issues. This is an area where public and private partnerships can make a huge difference.
There are problems of affordability in Sri Lanka as many people struggle to meet their basic needs. If things made of bio-degradable materials are quite expensive, the solution is to make them affordable. This can be done through large scale production, because then the price of a unit will drop. As Sri Lanka is a country with twenty million people, theoretically, this nation can produce anything in millions, even for the domestic market.
If people get familiar with alternatives to plastic like clothe, reed and paper, there will be a continual demand for such products. This shift will ensure that production will rise, reducing the price of a unit. If production takes place in large volumes- targeting the entire population of the country- the demand will bring the price down. Even a Pettah market vendor knows this theory. Nonetheless, there is a need to strengthen a whole range of institutions which will facilitate production and encourage the use of bio-degradable materials so that there won’t be any scarcity.
Farmers who are struggling to make a living can’t survive with their own devices. They need to be assisted by specialist institutions led by the leaders of innovation. There should be cooperatives and organizations that can assist farmers. Many rural women, who are left behind, will be able to play a major role in the new green economy for their own benefit as well as that of the country and the environment.
At present, children are pushed by the system only to graduate through regular schools and universities. Eventually, many of them don’t come up with useful ideas for their future. This is the result of responsible adults not getting the children to start thinking from the early childhood. If they do, they will have innovative minds to meet global challenges by the time they graduate from schools and universities. Computer assisted design is one area that can open up many opportunities for youth.
Unfortunately, Sri Lankans are far away from innovation. Instead, they are using whatever materials they have and contributing to the problem. However, many other countries have often played their roles. It’s high time that Sri Lankans stop sitting and relaxing. East Asian countries, as a result of their pragmatism and entrepreneurship, have always come up with new products because they have allocated substantial public finances for education, research and the science sectors.
The main point is that the country has to move towards a greener economy which demands people to produce and consume responsibly. The potential change can be revolutionary or transformative and unprecedented. To meet these challenges, we require a major shift in the way we think and live. We can’t consume things in the way we do right now. While getting rid of certain things, we have to start embracing certain new things, which aren’t widely used today.
A greener future will be healthier, sustainable, human friendly and more acceptable while also addressing prevailing social and economic imbalances. What we discussed today is a small part of the green revolution that is yet to happen here and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the new green revolution will be very creative, so it isn’t going back, but having a combination of what nature can offer together with scientific knowledge. This revolution will touch and enrich the lives of everyone in the country irrespective of differences among people.
The Government should take a policy decision in this regard in order to take the initiative and provide the necessary policy support. There should be consensus among all social groups to implement it. Other stakeholders should be in line to support the implementation of the policy. There is a role to be played by intellectuals who could bring people altogether and make them aware of the potential transformation. Scientists also have a major role to play in making the transformation possible. Basically, all should get together and take the necessary steps for a healthier and more sustainable future.
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