Why isn’t agriculture sustaining RURAL poor?
Efforts to improve agricultural productivity in Sri Lanka relies
primarily on policy changes to liberalize prices, exchange rates, and
trade. Important as they are, it is increasingly clear that price
changes alone are insufficient to stimulate agricultural production
without supporting improvements in research, extension, and marketing.
Agricultural research, in particular, is both critically important
but chronically underfunded and internal financial support for research
has also declined in the past.
Observers internationally agree that investment in agricultural
research has a high payoff in spite of problems in assessing its impact
and the fact that rate-of-return studies tend to indicate higher returns
than probably exist.
However, the Mahinda Chinthana has clearly identified this issue and
with the target to transform Sri Lanka to a strategically important
global knowledge hub, the government has understood that the country
needs to increase its overall investment on research and development.
Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy (SLCARP), in this
context, has a challenging mandate to become a center of excellence as a
research coordinating body in agriculture, similar to that of the Indian
Council for Agricultural Research.
The ‘National Priorities on Socio-Economic Research in Agriculture
2012 – 2016’ prepared by the National Committee on Socio-Economics and
Policy Analysis says:
“The rural agrarian nature of the Sri Lankan economy is characterized
by more than 70 per cent of the people still living in rural areas whose
main occupation is agriculture. Agriculture is the mainstay of the rural
economy that employs about 32.7 percent of total employed population in
the country. Rural poverty is, however, a widespread persistent
The report further states, “Agriculture has not been able to support
the rural poor who are vulnerable to natural calamities as well as to
global and localized economic strife.
The food expenditure ratio at national level had increased from 37.6
percent in 2006/2007 to 39.8 percent in 2009/2010. Food prices on the
other hand continue to rise and as much as 42.3 percent of the total
household income is spent on food by nearly 50 percent of the
This signifies the role played by the agricultural sector and poses
the question whether the growth in agricultural sector has been
sufficient to sustain the economic development.”
“It is also to be noted that agricultural sector has hardly been
competitive in the world market except for a few crops. The policy
environment and the given technology make the small farmer vulnerable to
sustain in a competitive trading environment. Therefore, the policy
makers have to take the challenges arising from the domestic and global
setting to bring the required changes to make the agricultural sector
more competitive in order to achieve a higher growth rate”.
The ‘required changes’ as indicated in the report pinpoint an
important message: that the challenge for our future is national food
security, which will require at least a doubling, of food production by
the year 2025 to meet the needs of the growing population. It brings us
to the concept of sustainable intensification. The term refers to the
process of increasing agricultural yields without adverse environmental
impact and without the cultivation of more land.
This concept underlines the approach required by agricultural
research to strive to develop new production technologies and approaches
that maximize the beneits of natural resources while protecting and
restoring these resources for future use. Agricultural research must
address the sustainability and competitiveness of those who depend on
agriculture for their livelihood.
Over the last number of decades, our country has made some advances
in the agricultural science area: for eg., increase in milk yields and
increase in crop yields. Such advances would not have been possible
without government investment and intervention. Further progress in the
area is dependent on continued and increased investment in order to
embrace the new challenges that lie ahead.
Research must provide cost effective technologies that enable
agricultural production systems to expand whilst conserving scarce
resources. And, there must be a broad multi-disciplinary approach to
addressing these challenges.
The development of an agriculture sector which is internationally
competitive is crucially important to Sri Lanka’s future development. In
addition, the sector must meet growing public objectives in terms of
enhanced food safety, improved natural resource management, biodiversity
protection, energy security and meet the demand for
environmental-friendly goods and services.
Sri Lanka, although a small country, can play its part in meeting
these challenges as our researchers have developed an excellent
Whether we like it or not, agricultural research and technological
improvements will continue to be prerequisites for increasing
agricultural productivity and generating income for farmers and the
rural work force.
This in turn will help to alleviate poverty, which is primarily a
rural phenomenon. Given that economic growth is the best antidote to
poverty, and that we, in Sri Lanka, have achieved economic growth
without much agricultural growth, it follows that agriculture, a
principal sector in our country, can contribute significantly to growth
and development and should be accorded a high priority.
The subject of Research and Development is still not in tour national
agenda. There is an urgent need to reverse this status, which, if left
unchecked, can threaten national food security.
Economists agree that there is a critical and essential role for the
government to address policy issues in agriculture research and to
implement technical programmes that optimize social welfare. However,
government should not view profit-driven private sector activities as
detrimental to the public good because these private sector activities
often are the most effective way to achieve national goals set by the
The collective goal must be to build partnerships that use the
comparative advantages of the public and private sectors to achieve
mutual goals. The government can use policy instruments to encourage and
stimulate private sector investments in joint venture programmes, and a
special independent committee can facilitate implementation of such
Forging these public-private sector partnerships would promote the
most effective use of limited national resources for the development of
sustainable agricultural systems.
In the last three decades, the governments in industrial countries
have encouraged increased participation by the private sector in
agricultural R and D, a trend that is now being mirrored in many
developing countries. During the 1990s there has been a growing
awareness, in both the public and private sectors, of the significant
benefits that can be derived from such collaboration.
The significant investment of the private sector in biotechnology,
perhaps more than any other single factor, has clearly demonstrated the
need for and substantial advantages associated with collaboration
between the public and private sectors in agricultural research and
Indeed, the requirement for a minimum critical mass in R and D,
particularly in biotechnology, has been the major stimulus for most of
the mergers and acquisitions in the private sector.
The development of biotechnology applications is capital intensive,
requiring substantial long-term investments, which often can be
mobilized only by the private sector. Thus, most investments in
biotechnology are made by the private sector. A major challenge for both
the private sector and the public sector is to find ways to collaborate
in sharing and transferring appropriate new and superior technologies,
which often are proprietary, from the private sector to the public
It is, therefore, vital that the two major players, the public and
private sectors, involved in agricultural R and D collaborate to address
the important and impending challenge of national and global food
security. The government must take the necessary and urgent steps to
initiate the building of partnerships.
(The writer is a senior corporate Director in the private sector)