Program to educate farmers:
Proper use of pesticides vital
Agriculture Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said steps have to be
taken to educate the people that insecticides and pesticides are bad for
health and should be used in the proper manner.
The Agriculture Ministry has implemented a special program to educate
the farmers on how to use hazardous chemicals. The Minister in an
interview with the Sunday Observer said instead of doing that, harsh
conclusions should not be made as it would lead to a negative impact on
The Minister said compared with other countries in the region, agro
chemicals are used minimally in Sri Lanka. Pesticides have to be used in
certain areas. Otherwise it would affect production. If insecticides and
pesticides are not used, rice production will drop and shortfall will
have to be imported.
How can a guarantee be given that imported rice is free from arsenic
or heavy metals? That kind of vulnerability is there. We should not jump
into unnecessary conclusions and create unwanted calamity in the
country. The media should also play a very responsible role.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: What are your plans to develop agriculture around the
island, especially in the North and the East under the Apia Wawamu –
Rata Nagamu concept?
A:As you know this concept has been in operation for the last
four to five years.
The North and East are a new area that has been opened. Actually we
can’t say there was no cultivation in the North and East at all because
the LTTE had done some cultivation for their own survival.
But most of the farmers in the North and the East didn’t have the
freedom to engage in their cultivation due to terrorist activities. Now
there is peace. As a result, all the farmers have comeback to their
Nearly 80 percent of the lands in the North and the East that were
cultivated in the past are under cultivation at the moment. We have also
taken steps to develop the agriculture in other parts of the island as
That was how we became self-sufficient in rice. In addition, the 95
percent fertiliser subsidy is a massive assistance the Government is
doing at the moment. It has helped to reach the level of
self-sufficiency in rice.
Q: What was the effect of the recent floods and drought on
paddy and other crops?
A: At the beginning of the year, we were mostly affected by
floods, not by drought. According to our estimates, we lost about 40
percent of our production.
But still we are not facing a shortage of food items. Rice prices are
still coming down. Actually in January, we expected, we might have to
import a small amount of rice to replace the stock that we have. That
requirement has not arisen so far.
Q: What is the true situation regarding the arsenic issue?
A: It’s a baseless campaign that a certain section has carried
out. There is no arsenic or that kind of contamination of heavy metal
anywhere of the country. That is all a hypothetical analysis they have
done. But so far they have not told us the scientific method finding it
They believe that we are using excessive chemicals and therefore
arsenic should be there in our soil. I should say when we compare Sri
Lanka with other countries in the region, we are using agro chemicals at
a very low level. In China or any other country, they use agro chemicals
on a large-scale.
However, when we analyse food items in the world, some of the
countries like Bangladesh, have arsenic. Arsenic has been deposited in
the soil due to various reasons.
The standard that has been given by the Bureau of Standard for
chocolates, you can go up to one part per million of arsenic in it. That
is allowed and there is no harm to the human body. At present our rice
production is 110 percent.
If insecticides and pesticides are not used, production will come
down. For example, it will come down by 20 percent, then our production
will come down to 90 percent.
Then the balance 10 percent will have to be imported. But how can we
give the guarantee the 10 percent that is coming to the country is free
from arsenic? Who is going to check it? If every other thing in the
world is contaminated with heavy metals, from where are we going to buy
it? Until we make all those surveys and tests, can the people wait in
hunger? These are very non-practical things that some people are
They can go and smashed coconuts, but that is not practical. The fact
remains that insecticides and pesticides are bad for the health.
That is true and we also say that. What we do for that is to educate
the people. There is a special program under way at the Agriculture
Ministry. Dr. Kandegama of the Sabaragamuwa University is going
throughout the country and conduct one day seminars to educate farmers
how to use this kind of hazardous chemicals in agricultural fields.
Instead of that we should not say the rice is contaminated with
arsenic. This type of harsh conclusions have a very negative impact on
What we tell the people is don’t use chemicals excessively. Use it at
very minimum level.
Otherwise it will affect the production of the country. That is the
position of the Agriculture Ministry that we should not affect the
production because we are in a vulnerable situation.
As I mentioned earlier, if we suddenly import rice from a country,
the Government will have to go for the cheapest price based on a tender
basis. But who is going to give the guarantee that this rice is free
from that kind of impurity. This is what happened regarding petrol as
They went for the cheapest price, but it was contaminated. That kind
of vulnerability is there. We have to live with it and make a balance
between them. So we should not jump into unnecessary conclusions and
create an unwanted calamity. This is the thing that the media should not
Q: Do you have any plans to popularise organic farming and
A: The Government is investing about Rs. 500 million a year
for this purpose. The Government also made a Rs. 500 million allocation
for organic farming last year as well. This allocation is made not only
to make organic fertiliser but also to train farmers how to make organic
fertiliser and popularise organic farming.
Q: Are we self-sufficient in rice and what about the export of
A: At present we are self-sufficient in rice. We are in about
110 percent of our requirement at the moment. But I don’t think we can
boast about it and say that we can export rice. Because if something
goes wrong in the country owing to the vulnerable climatic situation, we
will be affected by it.
Therefore we don’t want to export rice on a large-scale. But we are
concentrating on selecting a few rice varieties that are available in
There is medicinal value in some rice varieties that are available in
Sri Lanka especially for diabetic patients. Our traditional rice
varieties have very low glycaemic index. Basmathi rice that is available
in the market contains about 65 percent glycaemic index.
It’s about 35 percent in our local varieties which is very good for
diabetic patients. So we want to develop that kind of rice varieties.
The yield of those local varieties is a little bit lower than the
improved varieties. Therefore people don’t like to go into these
varieties as they are not much profitable. We will come to an agreement
with farmers with a buy back agreement at a high price.
We intend to offer nearly Rs. 70 a kilo for that kind of paddy
At the moment, some companies which export these varieties sell a
kilo for about two and half Euro in the European market. Like that if we
can pay one or one and half Euro for them, they will go into that
We are going to have a special unit in the Department of Agriculture
to improve these varieties for export alone.
We want to get the private sector to export. We want to do the
production and produce it to suit exporter requirements. We are planning
to do it this year and it will be successful in the years to come.
We have also taken steps to popularise the rice flour based products.
The Local Food Promotion Board which functions under the Ministry is
doing a special program especially in the estate sector.
At present a kilo of rice flour is given for Rs. 65 to Rs. 70, but a
kilo of wheat flour is Rs. 85 to Rs. 90. Therefore rice flour has become
very popular in the estate sector.
The only thing is that we are not in a position to cater to their
demand at the moment. We have decided to set up a special flour mill in
Hambantota. Tenders have been finalized and the mill would be ready for
operation within the next six or seven months. We have a mill in
Kalankuttiya, Anuradhapura. But it can produce only about 10-15 tons of
rice flour a day which is not sufficient for us. So we have decided to
go for a mill with a capacity of 100 tons per day at Hambantota.
Q: Vietnam recently decided to enhance agriculture
cooperation. What are the benefits of this and are we planning to sign
more such agreements with other Asian countries?
A: Vietnam is a major rice exporter in the region. They have
highly developed varieties of paddy. We want to acquire that knowledge
from them. They need to exchange the expertise on tea plantation that we
have gathered for the last so many years as they are beginners to tea
plantation. We are going to develop that kind of agreement with them.
Q: A lot of foodstuff, raw, canned and frozen, are imported to
the country. What are the steps taken to protect the local farmer in
A: Most of those imported food items are the things that are
not grown in our country such as apples. There is a very good market for
apples and grapes. We produce a little amount of grapes locally but that
is not sufficient to meet the local demand. Therefore some of the
foodstuffs have to be imported.
Q: Have any steps been taken to improve agricultural research?
Are universities being involved in this research field apart from the
specialized research institutes?
A: Research had been going on right from the beginning in our
country. That is the reason we have achieved self sufficient in rice.
Our Bathalagoda Rice Research Station is on par with any other
research station in the region. We have produced very high quality
varieties of rice. Sometimes it may be better than what is being
improved in other countries.
The Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute is
coordinating most of the research. In addition, universities and
departments are involved in research. They have developed certain
varieties where we could bring very good production to the country.
Q: Likewise, what are the initiatives taken to attract the
younger generation to take up farming?
A: That is the question at the moment. The younger generation
in our country wants everything instantly. They want to make quick
money. But the agriculture is not an area where you could make quick
money. So it has to be proceeded with very patiently.
I think we should try to develop entrepreneurship even for
agriculture to make it into a business where they can make money. There
is a big market in the world for organic products. If we engaged in the
cultivation of organic vegetables, fruits, rice and other food items, we
can obtain a good price in the World Market. We want to develop a system
and get youth attracted into the agriculture sector.
But there are people who are doing it now by their own and we want to
promote them. Actually our target is to turn agriculture into a profit
making business. So some can grow, process, value added or export them
profitability. These are the things that we are thinking for the future.
Q: There is a lot of waste of foods during storage and
transport. Any steps being taken to improve this situation?
A: The post harvest losses are about 30 to 40 percent in our
country. It is a serious issue. We are loosing a huge amount of money
which can be attributed to the national GDP. As a remedy, we have
introduced plastic crates to transport fruits and vegetables.
These plastic crates have been given free of charge. But still the
people are not used to it. They put fruits and vegetables to gunny bags
and packed about 10-15 tons in a one lorry and transported them to
Colombo. A part of them goes as a waste at the Manning Market.
The Government has spent a huge amount of money to introduce plastic
crates for transport purposes. Some people don’t like it because they
can’t transport them in like they are doing now. If they put plastic
crates, it may reduce to maximum of 8 tons.
Then the cost will become double. But I think the profit will also
become double because we are bringing good quality stuff to the town.
The customers get the quality food items at a very reasonable price.
In addition to that, we want to develop processing systems in that area
itself. We have already introduced drying plants for vegetables and some
private sector companies are already doing it.
This kind of businesses are available in other countries as well
because they need dried and dehydrated vegetables for their products.
At present our private sector is exporting dehydrated pineapple,
vegetables and fruits. We have been extending our support to the private
sector in a very big way for this purpose. It is a private sector job
and the Government cannot be involved in that.
Q: What is the success of the Home Gardens project initiated
by the Government to counter the high cost of living and to introduce
pesticide free foods?
A: If you go to the market you can see the impact made by the
Divi Neguma and Api Wawamu – Rata Nagamu movement. The vegetable prices
have come down to the minimum level. At present the prices of green
chilly have come down to Rs. 50 to Rs. 60 a Kilo while the prices of
brinjal, carrot and bitter gourd have also come down to minimum.
That is the effect of this Home Garden Project. We inaugurated this
project on March 12 this year. Now we are in the third month of this
program. Normally it takes about maximum of two and half months to three
months to bare a vegetable plant. Now it is baring and the people have
their own vegetables in their home gardens.
As a result, most of the people don’t come to the market and the
market prices have gone down. But we should not allow a further
reduction of vegetables prices as the farmers have engaged in
agriculture for their livelihood and the business.
If they don’t make much profit, they will move away from the market.
Therefore we have to think about that aspect as well.
Those who have engaged in agriculture for their livelihood will have
to be protected. But those who have home gardens maybe Government
servants or businessmen who have some other source of income for their
Therefore the vulnerability of moving away from the business is very
high among these people, but the people who are doing it as their
livelihood will never move way. I becomes a losing business they will
definitely move out. That is the danger that we have to think about.
Q: What is the progress regarding the steps taken by the
Government to introduce a national policy on agriculture?
A: We have given top priority for it. The fertiliser subsidy,
economic centres and seed producing activity are also a part of this
national agriculture policy. Still this policy is not in document form,
but it is going ahead very well.
Q: How can the media contribute positively to the development
of agriculture in our country?
A: The media has a very vital role to play in this regard. I
would like to point out the coconut issue as an example. The last time
the price of a coconut went upto Rs. 60. It is the media which brought
it to Rs. 60. The market price of a coconut was about Rs. 30 or Rs. 40.
The price of a coconut may be Rs.60 in one isolated place. But when
the media says a coconut is Rs. 60, all the traders were compelled to
sell at at Rs. 60. The consumer market is highly vulnerable to that kind
of adverse publicity. So the media has to be very careful when they are
commenting on such issues.
The arsenic issue is also the same. But there is nothing alarming as
highlighted by the certain section of the media.
It was the media who made it. Some people who wanted to appear on
television and certain sections of the media who try to get quick
publicity created this arsenic issue. Nobody can say insecticide and
pesticide are good for health. So we should make use of it to meet our
own ends. What we have to tell the people is that these things are bad
for their health.
That is enough. If we stop using insecticides to combat the keeda
menace, that entire area will be effected in 24 hours. Finally
production will also get affected. We have to educate the people that
insecticides and pesticides are bad for the health and use it in a
Otherwise don’t use it. These are being used right throughout the
world. That kind of education can be carried out by the media.
There will be seven billion people in the world very soon. So they
will have to be fed. Therefore the production targets will have to be
made. People have to get used to modern techniques in the way that is
beneficial to the people. In certain areas, we have to use pesticides.
Otherwise we will have no production.