Aug 15 (IRIN) While the government focuses on boosting rice production in Sri Lanka, the fresh produce industry, with its contribution of essential nutrients and potential for providing livelihoods, needs more support, say farmers.
"Take what we are faced with now - the [impact of] lack of water on paddy is being highlighted, [but] there is no such attention on vegetable cultivators because there is very limited focus from the government,” said W A Premadasa, a vegetable farmer in Moneragala District in the southeast.
There are a number of support mechanisms in place for rice farmers. Since 1962 the government has provided fertilizer subsidies to increase paddy, but no equivalent support is available for fresh produce farmers. A recently announced government initiative to help farmers in drought-affected districts has pledged fertilizer and rice seeds.
“Government banks have special [loan] schemes all the time for paddy farmers, and even special lending programmes - that is extremely rare for vegetable farmers,” Premadasa added. As a result, vegetable growers are forced to take high-interest loans from private lenders, with no government assistance for repayment.
Rice dominates Sri Lanka’s agriculture as well as its dinner tables. The government estimates that rice accounts for 45 percent of the average resident’s caloric intake.
According to a 2011 report by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, a body representing business in Sri Lanka, the daily per capita consumption of fresh produce is 94 grams - far below the World Health Organization's recommended 400 grams.
In 2010 the country produced 4.7 million tons of cereal compared to just close to one million tons of vegetables, while the production of oats and barley tripled in the preceding five years, but vegetable production stagnated.
The Department of Agriculture (DOA) estimates Sri Lanka’s rice production at 2.7 million tons of milled rice annually, which satisfies 95 percent of domestic demand.
Only 20 percent of the cultivable land is used for growing fruit and vegetables, with most of the rest planted to rice, according to2011 DOA data.
“The problem is that vegetable production is isolated to certain specialized areas [determined by rainfall levels]. The problem is very seasonal,” said Nimal Dissanayake, director of the Rice Research and Development Institute at the DOA.
Increasingly erratic weather patterns and lack of irrigation are only part of the problem. “Unlike paddy, vegetables can be very expensive to maintain. If the crop gets infected it can be lost very fast. The problem is that there is no official agency or research unit that deals with fresh produce, [whereas] there is one for rice, said Premadasa, the vegetable farmer. The little support vegetable growers receive from the government also often arrives too late, he noted.
Dissanayake from the DOA said the government promotes both rice and vegetable farming, but lack of knowledge about the need for the nutrients contained in fruit and vegetables means the demand for rice outstrips the consumption of fresh produce.
“Although food security in grains is important to alleviate hunger, nutritional security is the true goal,” said the Taiwan-based Asian Vegetable Research and Development Centre, known as AVRDC-The World Vegetable Centre, referring to the importance of addressing not only acute malnutrition, caused partly by a sudden lack of food, but also chronic malnutrition, which is caused by a shortage of nutrients in the diet.
“People may be fed, but that does not mean they are nourished with the vital micronutrients needed for good health that are found in vegetables.”
A national survey in 2010 found that one in five children under the age of five were stunted - too short for their age - a sign of lack of nutrients in the diet. This went up to nearly 47 percent for the children of tea estate workers, who are among the country’s poorest people.
The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce report noted consumption of fresh produce may increase along with the country’s economic growth and rising incomes levels, but the current supply of fruit and vegetables cannot meet any increase in demand.
Seeds and more
A P D Darmadasa, a vegetable farmer from Wallasmulla village in the southern district of Hambantota, says a lack of knowledge about seed quality is his main problem. “There is no one to advise us, and no one to assess the quality of the seeds that are available in private stores, which are the bulk suppliers. We get our advice from store owners, who will tell you what is good for their sales, but we have no option but to listen to them because we are not trained farmers.”
He recently purchased seeds advertising a success rate of 75 percent, but only 40 percent of the seeds grew. “I went back to the store and the manager said I had done the planting wrong,” he said.
“We are traditional farmers and we do things by [knowledge that is passed down]… We need experts to tell us how to do the cropping... We use fertilizer and pesticides to safeguard the crop, but that does not work all the time."
Adequate transportation, and the handling and marketing of produce, are other aspects requiring attention said the Rice Institute’s Dissanayake. And without storage facilities, farmers must sell their vegetables at whatever price buyers offer, as they cannot risk waiting on a higher price and losing everything.
Experts suggest cooperatives for fresh produce farmers as a way to promote the importance of their contribution to the nation and advocate for a more balanced agricultural policy.
“Vegetable production brings many benefits to rural and peri-urban areas. It creates many opportunities for employment, as vegetable production tends to require more labour across a longer growing season than grain production. This means landless people may be able to find employment in the vegetable sector. Vegetables can be good crops for rotation with grains.”