Rice is the single most important crop occupying 34 percent (0.77 /million ha) of the total cultivated area in Sri Lanka. On average 560,000 ha are cultivated during maha and 310,000 ha during yala making the average annual extent sown with rice to about 870,000 ha. About 1.8 million farm families are engaged in paddy cultivation island wide. Sri Lanka currently produces 2.7 million t of rough rice annually and satisfies around 95 percent of the domestic requirement. Rice provides 45% total calorie and 40% total protein requirement of an average Sri Lankan. The per capita consumption of rice fluctuates around 100 kg per year depending on the price of rice, bread and wheat flour.
It is projected that the demand for rice will increase at 1.1% per year and to meet the rice production should grow at the rate of 2.9% per year. Increasing the cropping intensity and national average yield are the options available to achieve this production targets. The current cost of production of rough rice is Rs. 8.57 per kg. The cost of labor, farm power and tradable inputs constitutes 55%, 23% and 23% respectively. The labor cost has risen at a higher rate than other costs over the last few years.
While the global demand for rice will increase at 1.95% the production will increase at 1.62% per annum making the tradable rice volume to be doubled in another 20 years’ time. As a result, the rice price would decline at 0.73% per year. On the other hand, the domestic price of rice on par with Thai A1 super (the cheapest in the world market) would be higher by 50 -70 USD per t than the internationally traded rice. This situation will place Sri Lanka under increase pressure to produce cheaper and high-quality rice in the coming years.
Chemical based paddy farming is geared towards achieving higher yields with new improved rice varieties and new farming techniques. Therefore, the popular argument against the adoption of organic paddy farming is that it does not generate enough yields and that might constrain the supply of rice for Sri Lankans. However, a majority of organic farmers defend their efforts guaranteeing same yields as chemical based paddy farmers. (Organic farming also provides additional benefits, mainly Ecosystem Goods and Services). If there is no difference in the yield, the question raises as to "why farmers do not adopt organic farming?". Perhaps, it may be the case that it is not about the yield that farmers are concerned, but about the cost that they incur in the production process.
As more and more consumers worldwide adopt a sustainable lifestyle that suits the global ecosystem, the demand for organic food products have increased by four-fold during the past five years, making once an unprofitable farming method lucrative and in demand. Despite the many environmental benefits associated with organic farming, it was once written off as impractical and economically infeasible for farmers. However, the increasing worries of drastic environmental pollution caused by agrochemicals and their effect on human health have changed the fortunes of local and global organic farmers, who grow their crops without synthetic and chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other ingredients.
Today, despite a comparatively lower yield, organic farmers across the globe makes more money than their conventional counterparts as the consumers are ready to pay a price mark up of 29% to 32% for food products that are free of chemical, genetically modified material and sewage residues.
The organic farmers also have to depend on alternative methods to control pest attacks that are prevalent in organic farming. These methods include traditional practices like using neem seeds and ash to control some species of pest and modern biological control methods like employing predators, pathogens, weed feeders and parasitoids to control the growth of harmful pests and weeds. In Sri Lanka, organic farming has been a long-practiced tradition. A Few centuries ago, local farmers trusted and employed traditional pest control methods and fertilizers to bring up their plants instead of pumping up them with numerous chemicals.
Among the most hardcore practitioners of organic farming are the heirloom rice cultivators, who stick to the old ways of agriculture. Sri Lanka boasts of a large number of heirloom rice varieties, which are richer in taste and nutrition. Sri Lankan rice farmers have been growing varieties like suwandal, kuruluthuda, kaluheenati and madathawalu for the past centuries. These rice varieties also show a strong resistance towards pest and drought conditions but adapt poorly to modern fertilizers and pesticides.
Many organic rice farmers have returned to the cultivation of traditional rice, which are in great demand locally and globally for their high vitamin and mineral contents. Traditional organic rice is gluten free and are high with antioxidants and is considered an essential part of the cancer patients' diet.
After changes in rainfall patterns wrecked rice crops in the country in recent years, with severe drought conditions experienced in 2016-2017 in particular, climate experts are finally hopeful that the forthcoming Yala paddy season will show good yields.
Farming communities, beaten down by consecutive droughts and flood situations, remain skeptical and unwilling to predict how good the next paddy harvest will be until the skies finally open, and the rain comes down in the sowing season.
Martin De Kegel Foundation organic rice farmers project
Martin De Kegel Foundation in 2016 involved with Bio Rice Project in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts. They started with grassroots among 75 farmers at the beginning. The drought destroyed their paddy fields and we had to look after their families. The challenge was hard, but farmer Hemapala took it to his shoulder to work against it. They didn’t get enough rains and few farmers set motors to tractors and supplied water to their paddy fields and challenged to the climate too.
Farmers who cultivate hybride rice seeds have to supply more water, chemicals, fertilizer and pesticides cost lot of money. Bio rice farmer wants little water only to cultivation period and use carbonic fertilizer Compost) and pesticides can make by them. Hybride farmers spend Rs 125,000 for one acre, but Bio rice farmer needs money for seeds, manure etc. The indigenous rice seeds like SUWADAL or BLACK HEENATY harvesting within two and half months and they can sell one rice kilo Rs 200 upwards.
In several areas we started farmers associations and every decision take by society. It creates united among farmers and better understanding among them. We organized 1500 organic farmers through the project. Once a month each society organize their meetings and once in three months, we evaluate their work. There is very high demand for organic rice and lot of newcomers want to cultivate this indigenous rice seeds in their fields. It is a very good sign of hope, and we would like to develop this attitude.
We would like to expand our program to other areas too. In 2019 we will start in Kurunegala District. It will help to develop this concept to other areas too.
Mr. Leo Brian Perera and Mr. Hettiarachhige Hemapala