Grow or starve!

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Ubiquitous queues have apparently come to stay. Long lines of people are seen near filling stations and cooking gas sales points; tempers flare at the drop of a hat, and fights break out. But the current fuel shortage is likely to be the least of people’s problems if what agricultural experts warn of comes to pass; there will be a severe food shortage come August. This is a frightening proposition. One can only hope that what is feared will not happen.

A 60% drop in the national paddy production is expected during the Yala season due to the existing fertiliser and diesel shortages, and experts warn that there will not be enough seed paddy for the Maha season. The threat of a food crisis must be real, for even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party, while in power from 2001 to 2004, questioned the wisdom of growing rice in the Western Province and advocated the filling up of the paddy fields there for industrial purposes, is asking the people to grow more food!

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose disastrous organic fertiliser experiment ruined the agricultural sector, is urging farmers to cultivate their fields, but they are without fertiliser, and fuel for their tractors. There’s the rub. The so-called organic fertiliser which the government has distributed is substandard, farmers complain. Earlier, they had only cattle and wild elephants destroying their cultivations, but now thanks to a liquid fertiliser, which smells like rotten fish, they have stray dogs, of all animals, damaging their rice plants! The government says it is importing fertiliser, but the people no longer believe in its promises, which are like pie crust made to be broken. It is only natural that most farmers have not heeded Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera’s request that they start preparing their fields for paddy cultivation without waiting until they receive fertiliser, which, he says, will be delivered soon.

Food items such as vegetables are also likely to be in short supply due to the fertiliser and fuel shortages, we are told. The need for a national programme to promote the cultivation of food crops, especially alternatives to rice, cannot be overemphasised. Most of these substitutes such as cassava and sweet potatoes do not require agrochemicals and could easily be grown almost anywhere.

Minister Amaraweera’s efforts to persuade the people to cultivate their home gardens and lands belonging to their workplaces are certainly welcome. Most of all, let him be urged to have a total ban imposed on felling precious kos trees. Amaraweera could do an Arthur V. Dias, who was fondly known as ‘Kos Mama’ because of his campaign to promote the cultivation of jackfruit trees.

There is also the danger of a global food shortage, and it is therefore not advisable for us to depend on food imports even if the country’s foreign currency inflow improves by any chance. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not likely to end anytime soon, and the world is already experiencing a shortage of wheat. Former Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Ertharin Cousin, has called the crippling impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict ‘a perfect storm’ in global agriculture. The two nations cater to more than a quarter of the global demand for wheat while Russia is the biggest exporter of fertiliser.

Pressure needs to be cranked up on the government to make fertiliser and fuel available to farmers, on a priority basis, but others can also make a contribution towards increasing food production. There are many political parties and civil organisations and their support could be enlisted for a national cultivation drive. Some Buddhist monks have started cultivating temple lands, and the results have been really impressive. Their example is worthy of emulation and deserves wide publicity to inspire the public. Schools could also be encouraged to grow food, as in the past.

The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) took its policy of autarky to an extreme, and caused unnecessary hardships to the public, by imposing all sorts of restrictions, but only a campaign similar to its cultivation drive could save us from hunger.

Let’s face it. We, as a nation, led a whiskey lifestyle on our toddy income, enjoying imported comestibles, and elected cretins as our leaders, and the time has come for us to consume ABCD (ala, bathala, cos, del), or starve.

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Disclaimer: Grow or starve! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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