Monday, 15 December 2014

Essential Factors in Bringing Back Organic Rice Farming: A Case Study from Nilwala River Basin

By Chatura Rodrigo

Paddy farming accounts for nearly 40% of the total cultivatable land in Sri Lanka. However, majority of this is under inorganic paddy cultivation and only around 5%  is under organic paddy cultivation . Organic paddy cultivation is largely for private consumption, therefore it is mainly for subsistence purposes . Most of the time, organic rice goes hand in hand with traditional paddy varieties .   Over the years, concerns over non-commutable diseases (NCDs), chemical free produce and environmental sustainability has persuaded many people to consume organic rice . While the government has emphasized its intention on promoting  organic paddy cultivation in the country through consecutive budgets of 2013 and 2014, encouraging farmers to practice more commercial organic paddy farming is faced with many issues that need considerable attention .  This article focuses on a case study of the Nilwala river basin in Matara. It highlights the issues faced by organic farmers and some farmer-driven initiatives to overcome them. 

Main constraints faced by farmers of commercial organic paddy production

Stand-alone cultivation has increased the cost of cultivation of organic paddy farming. Many organic paddy farmers do not have large land areas. The average paddy land size varies from 0.5 acres to 2 acres while the majority is around 1 acre of paddy land. Often these are marginalized lands, either abandoned after so many years of inorganic paddy farming or not cultivated for several years. Lands, especially in the Nilwala river basin are not very suitable to use machinery. Instability in the top soil layer prevents larger machines operating in the paddy lands and ploughing is done manually, which is very labour intensive. Moreover, these lands are located apart, individually, and there are many commercial inorganic paddy lands in between.  Therefore, unlike in the commercial chemical based paddy farming where the lands are cultivated as “tracks of lands”, organic farming is much more “plot oriented”. This has prevented farmers from getting the advantage of “economies of scale”. Furthermore, having inorganic paddy lands in between have increased the land preparation and water management costs significantly.  

Finding seed paddy is a major issue for organic paddy farming, especially if the farming is for commercial purposes. Even though there are many traditional paddy varieties involved with organic rice farming in Sri Lanka, few have attracted commercial attention. Usually, organic farmers practice broadcasting as a way of planting, while some are using methods such as “Parachuting”. Both methods demand more seed paddy. On average 1 kg of traditional seed paddy ranges from between Rs.90-Rs. 100. However these are for common varieties.  There are high yielding, nutritious varieties which are sometimes hard to find even if the farmers would like to buy. These varieties are distributed among farmers through their own networks.  There are organic farmers who cultivate organic paddy to produce seed paddy for the requirement of others. Unlike inorganic seed paddy, there are only few organic farmers who successfully produce seed paddy. Sometimes, organic farmers in Anuradhapura and Galle have to get their seed paddy from farmers in Homagama and Horana in the Colombo district, since these varieties are available only with farmers in those areas. Therefore, the cost of securing seed paddy for cultivation is quite high for most organic paddy farmers. 

Water management and labour discourages farmers a lot in engaging in commercial organic paddy farming. 

As mentioned earlier, majority of the commercial organic farming is concentrated on marginalized paddy lands. These lands do not have irrigation facilities and many farmers are dependent on the rainfall. For most of the commercial organic farmers in the Galle and Matara districts, the last two seasons were failures due to irregular rainfall patterns. They did not receive enough rainfall to start the land preparation, and heavy rainfall came just before the maturation and harvesting stages, destroying the harvest.  In Elipitiya of Galle district, out of 180 acres of paddy land, only 30 acres were cultivated during the last season due to low availability of water.  Some farmers do have access to nearby water ways, but they refuse to obtain water from these sources since it is already polluted with upstream inorganic cultivation. To make things worse, local authorities of many areas give priority to providing irrigation water for inorganic farming, ignoring the nearby organic paddy lands. 

Labour is becoming an inadequate and expensive factor of production for organic paddy farming.   In the early days, farmers used to share labour popularly known as “attam”. Groups of farmers would get together and move from one paddy land to the other in land preparation, planting and harvesting. However, over the years, labour has become an expensive component. With two meals and two teas, a male labourer would cost around Rs. 1500/day and female labourer would cost around Rs 1000/day. Even at that cost, it is hard to find labour for each season and farmers end up employing more and more family labour. Since the majority of the younger generation is moving away from paddy farming, the available labour is less productive, hence increasing the number of labour days and ultimately the cost of cultivation. Furthermore, in areas such as Galle and Matara, there is high demand for labour from  tea and cinnamon cultivators. In Matale and Kandy, it is by tea and export agriculture.  All these restrict the availability of labour for organic paddy farming. 

Organic manure is limited and costly and has created many constraints for farmers, limiting their productivity. Organic farmers use a combination of organic manure in their farming. There are animal based as well as plant based manure. An animal based 50 Kg fertilizer bag, which is called “Katu Pohora”, is around Rs.2,500. There is a plant based fertilizer mixture as well which is at the same price range. In addition, farmers use liquid fertilizers also which are most often manufactured by themselves with animal waste and plant matter. This requires farmers to buy the animal waste if they do not rear livestock, and require family or hired labour in manufacturing. Therefore, taken together, the organic commercial farmer has to pay a significantly higher amount for fertilizer compared to commercial inorganic farmer. On average, with the fertilizer subsidy, an inorganic farmer pays a price of Rs.7 per 1 kg for inorganic fertilizers which on average will be around Rs.1,200 per acre.  There are commercial organic farmers who do not apply all these organic manures and apply only a limited amount, but their production per acre is comparatively very low compared to a farmer who applies the required amount of organic manures. 

Weed and pest management and harvesting are also costly for commercial organic rice farmers. Traditional varieties in organic farming also have a tendency to attract many pests and diseases that attack the new improved varieties in inorganic farming.  Since the organic rice farming does not include any chemicals, pest and disease control needs careful and continuous attention from the farmer. There are many traditional and organic ways to deal with weeds and pest attacks, however it needs early detection and prevention most of the time. It is not that easy as applying a broad spectrum chemical like in inorganic farming. Most of the time, weeding is done by hand which requires many man hours ultimately increasing the cost of production. Planting methods such as broadcasting and Parachuting will limit the applicability of machinery in weeding.  There are methods of cultivation which are applied in organic framing that will enable weeding by machines. However, most of the marginalized paddy lands used for organic farming do not allow the use of such machinery. There are bio-pesticides in the market at a very reasonable price, but this effectiveness might not be high when the pest attack is dominant.  Therefore, unlike in the case of inorganic farming, both weeds and pests have the capacity to destroy the cultivation very easily. Sometimes, there are farmers who in the worst situation, ended up applying chemicals to save their cultivation, but then these activities would waste the entire effort of organic cultivation. Harvesting is again costly since some traditional paddy varieties in organic farming do not accommodate machinery with the height of the plant. Therefore, there are issues of mechanization in harvesting organic rice as well. Employing manual labour in harvesting means more cost to the organic farmer. 

Marketing channels of organic rice is still developing and the price is high for many consumers. On average, a 1kg of organic rice would cost between Rs.170-Rs. 200. However, there are varieties that would be priced above Rs.300/kg. On average, inorganic rice will cost between Rs.50-Rs.75 per 1 kg, which is accessible for the poor and lower middle income consumers. Therefore, the demand for organic rice is mainly by the upper middle income and the higher income groups of the country. These segments account only for a minority of the rice consumers in the country. Hence if the organic rice market to be expanded, the price has to go down. Obviously, the organic rice should attract a higher price for desirable characteristics of being healthy and environmentally friendly food and to cover the higher cost of production. Nevertheless, the current prices are beyond the purchasing power of majority of consumers and hence need to be brought down, preferably with incentives to reduce the cost of cultivation. 

Consumers who demand organic rice as explained above, are distinctive and are mostly residents in urban areas. Therefore, rice produced in the rural areas need to come to urban areas. However, marketing channels are not well established yet and only in few places in the main cities such as Colombo, Matara, Galle and Kandy sell organic rice, which is not sufficient to cater to the growing consumer base. Because of this there are many consumers who go directly to the farmer or the miller to buy the product rather than going to the market place. 

What are the lessons learnt from the Nilwala river basin farmers

Nilwala river basin farmers in Aththudawa, Matara are focused on cultivating a traditional paddy variety called “Maa-Vee”. This paddy variety has proved to be very effective with the soil type of the area, agro climatic conditions with proven resistance to weeds, pests and climate change impacts. Therefore, these farmers have selected an appropriate paddy variety that suits the local conditions. These farmers were inorganic farmers a few years back, but they made a voluntary decision to take up organic rice farming saving the government 22 million rupees in fertilizer subsidy. These farmers cultivate together. They share labour, machinery, seed paddy and organic manures thus achieving economies of scale in production. Since all the farmers are practicing organic farming, the water ways are not polluted by upstream cultivations. 

There are more than 60 farmers who cultivate on a commercial basis and they are closely linked with the local authorities. Agriculture extension officers and officials of the Southern Provincial Council are keen on developing organic paddy farming in the Nilwala river basin. Hence they enjoy favourable conditions, securing the government officials’ assistance as well as the political will for organic farming. Harvesting was an issue for these farmers as they only had a limited number of machinery. Rather than hiring machinery from outside, farmers took their own initiative to overcome this.  As a result, now there are dedicated harvesting machines in the area, providing secure and continuous employment for several people. Several farmers have got together and established a mill to process the paddy harvest. Initially they were buying paddy at a rate of Rs.50/kg. But with more supply from farmers and demand from wholesale buyers, the mill has been able to buy paddy at a rate of Rs.75/kg, which is a good opportunity and motivation for production. 

These farmers provide a very valuable example in addressing many issues discussed earlier regarding commercial organic farming. They act together, thus realizing economies of scale in production. Working as a group has reduced their costs of land preparation, water management, planting, weed control, pest control and harvesting. They have benefited from the institutional support and political will which enable them to secure water for agriculture, a market place for the produce and agriculture extension services to improve the farming practices. Furthermore, they work closely with the society, providing employment to others in becoming entrepreneurs such as mill operators, harvesting machinery operators, transporters and organic manure producers. Their example provides a light of hope for those who are keen to take into organic agriculture as a way of producing healthy and environmentally friendly foods.   

[1] Wanninayake, W,M, C, B and Shantha, A, A. 2013. Pricing Economic Value of Organic Rice Under Dichotomous Framework: An Environmental Perspective. Kelaniya Journal of Management, Vol 2, (2), 1-22.
[2] Rodrigo, C, 2013, “Traditional Paddy Cultivation in Providing Ecological Services: Resilience Against Climate Change and Many More”, National Conference on Livelihoods, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Colombo, Sri Lanka, pp 24-30.
[3] Chatura Rodrigo, 2013, “Use of Traditional Paddy Cultivation as a Means of Climate Change Mitigation”, September 19th 2013, The Island newspaper.
[4] H.P.S Somasiri, “Sustainability of Paddy Fields and Ecosystems Towards Society”, 4th INWEPF Steering Meeting and Symposium, Bangkok, Thailand.

[5] Small Organic Farmers Association of Sri Lanka, http://www.sofasl.orgvisited online on 5th May 2013.
[6] Chatura Rodrigo, 2014, “Is It Time to Go Back Where We Came From: Addressing the Debate Organic Vs Inorganic Rice Farming Through a New Research Approach”, February 3rd 2014, Daily Mirror newspaper.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Other Side of the Coin: Can Climate Change Bring in Positive Impacts?

By Chatura Rodrigo
Research Economist, IPS

Most of the global phenomenon has two sides to their story. They bring negative as well as positive impacts. Climate change is no different. Debate on the climate change impacts has a long history. Many talk about the negative impacts of climate change. However, there are also scientists who argue on the positives of climate change.  A major reason for not talking about the positive impacts is that the negatives are much more overwhelming than the positives. Negative impacts are easily visible.  Floods, heavy rainfalls, droughts, disease outbreaks, harvest losses, reduction in drinking water, threats on energy security, threats on food security and threats on bio-diversity, top the list. However, positive impacts are hard to convince and receive less attention from the scientific as well as policy making entities. 

Positive impacts of climate change: Argument of the other side

The first documentary on the benefit of climate change was released in 1992 produced by the Institute for Biosphere Research and was sponsored by the Western Fuels Association Inc. This was the era where there was a lot of concern about the CO2 emissions and George W. Bush, - President of the United States of America agreed to a voluntary reduction in CO2 emissions. In this documentary sponsored by the oil lobby group of the United States of America, soil scientist Sherwood Idso stated that the doubling of the CO2 levels will produce a tremendous greening of plant earth while increasing the agricultural productivity by 30%. Industrially elevated atmospheric CO2 has since increased to about 400 parts per million (ppm), nearly 90 ppm over 1950 levels(i). Even though this has resulted in some agricultural gains in recent decades, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the overall negative impacts are much higher than the increase in agricultural productivity. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Policy Challenges in Climate Adaptation in Sri Lanka: Identifying Major Gaps

Athula Senaratne
Research Fellow, IPS 

Being a tropical island located in a disaster prone region, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to impacts of climate change. The 2004 tsunami has indicated that a large extent of densely populated low lying coastal areas is vulnerable to a future rise in the sea level. The country has frequently been experiencing disaster prone weather extremes such as droughts, floods and cyclones.  Predictions by global studies on climate change suggest that both intensity and frequency of such extreme events are likely to increase in the future. As a significant population of the country is directly dependent on weather-reliant livelihoods such as agriculture and fisheries, adverse changes in weather patterns could lead to chaotic conditions. Among the community groups that are more vulnerable to climate change impacts are residents in coastal areas, rain-fed farmers in the dry zone, fishing community, workers in the estate sector and small-scale producers of export crops.

Climate change is a complex challenge and well-designed policies for adaptation are necessary to face the impacts of it.  Adaptation is a dynamic process of adjustment in response to changing conditions of climate. A pragmatic approach towards adaptation policy has to fulfil a few essential steps. They are: identify and evaluate likely impacts of climate change; assess vulnerability/adaptive capacity of key stakeholders; identify major gaps that affect effective actions against impacts; and, appraise alternative strategies for overcoming gaps so that the country can adapt to impacts in a successful manner.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Towards a Green Economy in Sri Lanka: A Forestry Perspective

By Nimal Gunatilleke
Professor at University of Peradeniya

Sri Lanka, having been elevated to a ‘Middle Income Emerging Market’ by the International Monetary Fund in 2010, is steadfastly striving further to enjoy even a higher level of growth,  and human well-being.  However, at this crucial juncture in its accelerated development drive, the economic growth of Sri Lanka  need to be steered along an economically as well as ecologically sustainable  path incorporating the ideals of  Green Economy advocated by the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20, 2012).  At this global summit, the member states including Sri Lanka decided to launch a process to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development goals and converge with the post-2015 development agenda (  

UNEP defines a green economy as one that is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive which would result in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. This means that in a green economy, growth and employment are driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and minimize the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The strategic objective in transition to a green economy is therefore, to facilitate economic growth and investment while at the same time taking measures to enhance environmental quality and social inclusiveness leading to sustainable development. According to an IMF  report in 2006, the world economy has quadrupled over the last quarter century, but at the same time on the flip side, 60 per cent of the world’s major ecosystem goods and services that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or used unsustainably. (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Is it the time to go back to where we came from: Addressing the debate Organic Vs Inorganic rice farming through a new research approach?

By Chatura Rodrigo
IPS Researcher 

Achieving food security continues to be a challenge for Sri Lanka. Increasing population, changes in lifestyles, changes in food preferences and emerging middle income class demand more production.  Therefore, governments need to make sure they are self-sufficient in their staple food, in our case, it is rice 1. Records suggest that Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice, which as a country we have to be very proud of 2. However, there is a burning question that we need to ask from ourselves, “Is chemical fertilizer and pesticide based intensive agriculture a viable option for the future?” Much is being discussed and debated on the topic of the harmful effects of chemical fertilizer and pesticide based intensive agriculture, especially issues related to health and environment.  Some argue that Sri Lanka should look into the possibility of having more organic rice farming and some argue that it might not be viable 3. Therefore, there is a clear ambiguity, among the scholars and policy makers in establishing whether a shift into organic rice framing is a viable option or not. Existing research is not strong enough to make an informed policy decision, and hence there lies a research opportunity as well as a responsibility to all the environmental and agriculture economists of the country.