Recent challenges to the self-sufficiency of the rice industry have highlighted the need for innovative solutions and partnerships. Solving the key issues such as climate change-induced disasters, and inadequate infrastructure and mechanisation will provide the foundation for the country to achieve long-term self-sufficiency in rice by increasing crop yield.

Rice cultivation occupies 34% (770,000 ha) of the total cultivated area in Sri Lanka. Across the country, around 1.8m farming families are engaged in paddy cultivation. An average of 560,000 ha are cultivated during Maha (the major season from September to March) and 310,000 ha during Yala (the minor season from May to August), making the average annual area of rice plantation about 870,000 ha.

Current Challenges

The country first achieved rice self-sufficiency in 2009/10. This lapsed in 2017, when the effects of the worst drought in 37 years followed by flooding resulted in a 44% shortfall in the amount of rice needed, causing Sri Lanka to import 700,000 tonnes of rice. Although production improved in 2018 to almost reach normal rates, rice production needs to increase by an estimated 20% over current levels by 2030 in order to remain self-sufficient. The current requirement for rice for consumption is almost 2.3m tonnes per year.

In addition to climate-related problems, there are systemic dysfunctions in the industry, such as a lack of efficient storage to avoid water damage, and logistical challenges. As most farmers do not have their own transportation, in some cases private buyers purchase rice directly from farmers using cash. This practice distorts the market, which is subsidised.

However, the private sector can also play an important role in enhancing the industry. This could range from providing help with harvesting to the provision of mechanisation and technology. The use of technology in particular has already had positive effects in the Eastern Province, which provides the bulk of domestic yield and has higher rates of land aggregation. “The sector as a whole needs a technological revolution, as well as investment in knowledge and infrastructure,” S.P.S Ranatunga, the managing director and CEO of chemical products supplier CIC Holdings, told OBG. “Sri Lanka would benefit from quality alignment, greater private sector involvement and more market information.”

Silver Lining

The issues suffered with the crop in 2017 may have resulted in one positive outcome – they prompted the state to prioritise the development of the rice industry. The Ministry of Agriculture signed two agreements with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a rice science organisation based in the Philippines. The first was signed in June 2018 and involves the implementation of a five-year development plan to enhance rice production, with the aim of self-sufficiency.

The collaboration with the IRRI should see improvements in rice nutrition levels, including the formulation of a programme to manage soil, water and nutrition in paddy cultivation. For growers, this plan seeks to increase farmers’ production capacity and reduce the cost of farming, and is also set to provide technical assistance. For the industry as a whole, the scheme aims to improve the knowledge and skills of scientists and researchers in the field of agriculture.

The second agreement, which was signed in January 2019, has several goals, including improving efficiency, increasing mechanisation, developing climate change resiliency and strengthening the national capacity for agriculture leadership. It will also prioritise the improvement of rice varieties and the development of hybrid rice. The IRRI’s principal aim is to create a plan of action to increase food security through rice-based agri-food systems. With much to gain, in terms of feeding the population, and to lose, in terms of foreign exchange, it is not a question of if rice self-sufficiency will be achieved, but when.