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Why so few vegetables in Sri Lanka?

A young street vender in Jaffna. Despite high levels of food insecurity, fruit and vegetables are plentiful in the city

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.

Cereal dominates

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 to 2011 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.

Nutrition security

A food handler in Sri Lanka where up to one third of produce is lost post-harvest due to precarious storage and transport

A food handler in Sri Lanka where up to one third of produce is lost post-harvest due to precarious storage and transport
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Cutting post-harvest losses
A food handler in Sri Lanka where up to one third of produce is lost post-harvest due to precarious storage and transport

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Poor handling and transporting of produce leads to high losses

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.”

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.”


''It is a constant game of trial and error.''

The Ministry of Agriculture launched an “intensive vegetable cultivation” project in January 2011 in the central district of Matale that is providing farmers seeds and technical expertise.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, until 1980, sweet potato was cultivated in rice fields during the dry seasons. Then the crop was introduced in minor irrigation projects in the Godakawela area of Sabaragamuwa Province in the south, which boosted production rapidly. This area now accounts for almost 20 percent of the national production of sweet potato.

A 2007-2010 National Food Production Campaign singled out fruits, vegetables and home gardens as areas to improve, pledging the introduction of new technologies like hydroponics (soil-less cultivation), high-quality seeds, government help to reduce post-harvest losses, new pest control methods and a fruit marketing network.

Fresh produce farmer Darmadasa said these programmes have yet to reach his district where more is needed to level the growing field. “When [our] crops fail we have no one to ask - it is a constant game of trial and error.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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