Opinion | Why modern agricultural technologies fail in Sri Lanka!

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Scores of modern technologies are being introduced to the agriculture sector regularly to enhance agricultural productivity that is imperative to feed the ever-increasing population in the world as the available arable land area is a near constant leaving no room for expansion. Maintaining the balance between the forest cover and agriculture is ever more important with global warming threatening the sheer existence of life on the earth.

In such a scenario, it is of utmost importance for a country like Sri Lanka to embrace modern agricultural technologies to produce basic food requirements within the country at competitive prices and in sufficient volumes to mitigate the ever-increasing food import costs. The article intends to discuss the failures of adopting such modern agricultural technologies in Sri Lanka.

Seed Sector –

In the past three decades, the seed sector has experienced corporate concentration trends. This means more and more acquisitions and mergers and the world seed sector will eventually be controlled by a handful of conglomerates. The positive side of this development is the introduction of highly advanced seeds and planting materials during the past few decades. As a result of this trend, several Sri Lankan companies engaged in seed import business introduced new hybrid varieties to the farming community. Though this trend could have increased the productivity of crops by several folds, the absence of other advanced inputs such as second and third generation fertilizers, modern growing techniques, judicious use of proper agrochemicals and a host of other impediments have dampened the real potential of those hybrid varieties.

Unnecessary restrictions placed upon introduction of new crop varieties have slowed down the potential progress of the seeds and planting materials sector in the country. Strange though, there have been instances where progenies of hybrid seeds given for testing were used for selection of parent lines by local plant breeders.

Fertilizer Sector –

Use of proper, effective and nutritionally efficient fertilizer to any crop is a fundamental requirement to enhance the productivity. Sri Lanka spend forty billion rupees annually to provide the fertilizer subsidy to the farming community.

The subsidy scheme is applicable to fertilizer recommendations advocated mainly by the Department of Agriculture while Department of Export Agriculture, Tea, Rubber and Coconut Research Institutes recommend fertilizers to their respective crops. Recommendations of these institutions are based on first generation fertilizers, mainly Urea, Ammonium Sulphate, Triple Super Phosphate and Muriate of Potash. Poor quality of fertilizers supplied under the subsidy scheme does not provide the desired results by enhancing the expected yields. This situation prompts farmers to use extra volumes of fertilizers doubling the environmental damage.

More than 85% of Phosphorous Pentoxide (P2O5) in Triple Super Phosphate will get fixed in the soil and therefore, unavailable to the crop. 50-60% of Nitrogen (N) in Urea is lost by either evaporation or leaching. Potassium Oxide (K2O) in Muriate of Potash is met with the same fate.  One of the main pollution factors of surface water sources and groundwater is excessive, inaccurate and indiscriminate use of poor quality fertilizers.

The world fertilizer market is currently dominated by second and third generation fertilizers that have “slow release” and “controlled release” characteristics and “compound fertilizers”. As these types of advanced fertilizer formulae do not fall under the subsidy scheme, the market price of these high-quality fertilizers is quite high compared to subsidized poor-quality fertilizers. Therefore, the farming community cannot get the advantage of modern fertilizers available in the world market. Moreover, the importation of these quality assured fertilizers is hampered by regulatory blockades based on unscientific reasons.

Agrochemicals Sector –

Agrochemical imports are regulated by the Registrar of Pesticides in the Department of Agriculture and therefore, a great control of highly toxic products entering the country is in place. However, the usage of agrochemicals in the country is at extremely high levels mainly because of the poor extension and advisory services. The farmers’ advisor is the village level agrochemical trader who has none or very little technical knowledge of the products that he sells. Traders want more volumes sold while the farmers are of the view that using a mixture of two or more products (cocktails) to control a single pest or disease is a better option than using the recommended product.

Rather than clamoring for a ban, what should happen is to promote the judicious use of agrochemicals and improve the agricultural extension and advisory services to properly advice the farming community. Application of agrochemicals by unmanned aerial sprayers (drones) would be an ideal solution to prevent overuse.

Micro Irrigation Systems –

Drip Irrigation Technology that was invented in Israel nearly six decades ago was commercially introduced to Sri Lanka in 1996 by Netafim of Israel. This technology can save up to 80% of water used by row crops. However, it is ironic that this technology is not getting acceptance by Sri Lankan farming community. Why?

Filtration System is the “heart” of the Drip Irrigation system. Therefore, introduction of a proper filtration unit in the system after a thorough water analysis prior to designing the system is a fundamental requirement. Strangely though, none of the service providers do a proper water analysis prior to selection of the filtration system. They either use a simple screen filter or a disc filter for any type of water mainly to reduce the final price of the system to the end user and get the “business”. This is the best way to kill the “technology”! Use of media filters for highly contaminated water is never heard of in the industry. Instead, service providers have introduced an “openable dripper” that can be opened and cleaned by the end user. Imagine cleaning thousands of drippers even in a ¼ acre chili plot!

Another alarming situation is the promotion of “so called” drip irrigation systems of ¼ to ½ acre plot sizes by government sponsored projects. These systems mostly provided free of cost are of flawed specifications drawn up by some interested parties in the state mechanism who favor certain private companies. The so called “openable dripper” is the one used in the tender specifications of abovementioned projects. Such systems fail after a few months or even after a few weeks of use and thrown away by the farmers blaming the “drip irrigation technology” but not the unprofessional system design. Eventually, the “technology suffers and will die a natural death”!

Greenhouse Agriculture –

A proper greenhouse for growing vegetables was introduced by the Israeli company Netafim in 1998 and this was exhibited at the exhibition organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence at the BMICH premises in February 1998. For the first time, visitors to the exhibition saw tomato, bell pepper and green cucumbers grown in a greenhouse though Colombo was not the best place to grow these greenhouse crops.

Sri Lanka has geographic limitations for greenhouse production of vegetables and flowers. High humidity and high temperature are detrimental for greenhouse horticulture and therefore, establishment of the greenhouse project at a suitable geographic location is of paramount importance for the success of such a project. However, making another failure in adapting modern technologies, government sponsored projects, authorities in agriculture sector, private entrepreneurs and companies are promoting greenhouses in hot and humid locations in the country leading to disasters. Once again, those investors “blame the technology” but sadly not the wrong decisions made by them.

Establishing uneconomical small rain shelters even in the suitable geographical areas with the support of government agencies discourages entrepreneurs due to the high cost of production of crops caused by meagre yields that they get from such facilities. One again, the technology is blamed.

However, a mere handful of companies who have invested on proper greenhouse facilities are making tremendous progress and profits from their facilities. This shows that the use of proper technology in the right direction can generate profits in the short term.

Conclusion –

It is essential that modern agricultural technologies are introduced to the country if Sri Lanka is to increase agricultural productivity, firstly to feed the increasing population and secondly to explore export avenues with a product that can compete in the international market. To achieve these objectives, it is imperative that technologies that are introduced not tampered with “cheaper solutions” to make short-term profits. Proper introduction of such technologies to the farming community is the responsibility of the private and state sectors of the country.


Wicky Wickramatunga, B.Sc.(Agric.) is Managing Director of Agriworld (Pte) Ltd. and Honorary Consul of Israel in Sri Lanka.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of Agrigate Global.