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Strategic planning to restore SL as leading agricultural exporter

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Agriculture’s crucial role in nation building, economic development:
Agriculture’s significance during economic crisis stressed:

President Ranil Wickremesinghe affirmed the government’s dedication to elevating Sri Lanka as a prominent exporter of agricultural produce through rapid agricultural sector transformation during the opening session of the 37th United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Asia and Pacific Conference in Colombo yesterday (20).

He emphasised the pivotal role agriculture played in navigating Sri Lanka through the previous economic crisis and highlighted agriculture and tourism as key sectors for the nation’s swift recovery. President Ranil Wickremesinghe also announced Sri Lanka’s Chairmanship till 2026 which was attended by Dr. Qu Dongyu, Director General of the UN FAO.

The conference, which commenced on February 19 in Colombo with the participation of diplomats and representatives from 34 countries including the United States, China, and Russia, will conclude today (21). Sri Lanka’s presidency of the Asia-Pacific region of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, succeeding Bangladesh’s hosting in 2022, will extend from now until 2026.

Sri Lanka, having previously hosted the second conference in 1955, is now hosting it again after a span of 69 years. Approximately 70% of the Asia-Pacific region’s population relies on agriculture. This year’s conference, themed “Transformation of the Agro-Food System,” will delve into key areas such as promoting nutritious food production, ensuring food security, enhancing food production, safeguarding the environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigating climate change risks.

Following the conference’s opening session, President Ranil Wickremesinghe participated in a group photo with foreign ministers and delegates before engaging in discussions with attending agriculture ministers.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe emphasized the vital role of the Food and Agriculture Organization in bolstering food security, fostering sustainable agricultural production, and advancing resilient small-scale agricultural systems aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals in the Asia-Pacific region.

Highlighting agriculture’s pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s economic transformation, President Ranil Wickremesinghe outlined the country’s forthcoming initiatives.

He further said; “Despite recent economic challenges, including fertilizer shortages and foreign exchange constraints in 2022, Sri Lanka is now moving towards stability. Anticipating the finalization of debt restructuring agreements, Sri Lanka aims to emerge from its economic crisis and transition towards a revitalized economy, emphasizing the need for sustained efforts beyond mere stabilization.When assessing our economy, agriculture emerges as a sector capable of delivering swift results, closely followed by tourism.

Fortunately, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) facilitated the procurement of fertilizer, thereby bolstering our agricultural capabilities.

As a result, as we approached the main cultivation season in April 2023, we found ourselves out of jeopardy, enjoying a bountiful season. This instilled confidence in our ability to progress.

The absence of domestic food production would have precipitated another crisis this year, but fortune favoured us. Anticipating a bountiful harvest this April and a subsequent yield by year-end, agriculture has undeniably played a pivotal role in navigating this economic challenge.

Recognizing agriculture’s potential to drive sustained national development, it is imperative for every country to acknowledge its significance and prioritize its advancement.

Another critical factor contributing to the crisis we faced is the trade balance deficit. Historically, we’ve struggled to maintain a favourable trade balance and have accrued a substantial amount of foreign debt that seems insurmountable within current repayment agreements.

Consequently, our country requires a comprehensive economic transformation guided by three key principles: competitiveness, environmental sustainability, and digitalization.

With a rich agricultural and export heritage spanning over 2000 years, Sri Lanka initially thrived on rice and grain exports, supported by our advanced irrigation systems.

Traditionally, wealth wasn’t derived directly from land ownership but from control over water reservoirs in our ancient irrigated civilization. Following its decline, we transitioned to the wet zone, where spices became a prominent export until the decline in prices during British rule prompted a shift to tea, coconut, and rubber cultivation. Despite India and Sri Lanka maintaining dominance in these sectors globally, our agricultural development has been neglected.

In 1972, large estates were dismantled, capping land ownership at 50 acres, while initiatives like the Mahaweli scheme allocated vast acreage for cultivation, supported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. However, progress was impeded by the conflict.

Efforts to revitalize and expand our agricultural sector are imperative for sustainable economic growth and development.

Even after neglecting the plantation industry for some time, we must now re-engage with it. It’s imperative that we put in the necessary effort. Our goal is to regain our status as a country that exports agricultural products. This objective is being thoroughly studied.

We can draw inspiration from our friendly country, Thailand, which currently maintains a robust agricultural export economy. Let’s take cues from their success. Our first step is to restructure the existing system and involve the private sector.

Additionally, we are prioritizing the adoption of modern agricultural techniques in our country. This is crucial for our agricultural sector’s advancement, even though it may take 10 to 15 years to fully implement. However, our aim is to expedite this process and achieve our goals within a decade. We are actively introducing the latest agricultural practices to our nation.

Yet, we face another challenge: the exodus of young people from rural areas to urban centres, resulting in a decline in traditional agricultural participation. Introducing smart agricultural practices to rural communities can help retain youth in villages. To address this, we have consolidated the Ministry of Agriculture, previously divided into three ministries, under one minister, to prioritize this issue. Moreover, we have initiated restructuring efforts within related institutions. Our primary focus is to ensure that farmers receive quality service.

Furthermore, we are endeavouring to transform agrarian service centres nationwide into modernization hubs for agriculture. To achieve this goal, we are actively seeking contributions from both the public and private sectors.

In addition, we recognize the need to address gaps in the purchase of agricultural products, establish new supply chains and develop cold storage facilities. Many of these essential facilities are currently unavailable in Sri Lanka, so we are committed to bringing them to fruition. This transformative initiative will significantly impact the agricultural sector.

Moreover, we have initiated the largest privatization effort in the country’s history. As part of this initiative, we are facilitating access to land for farmers, including previously unused land within the Mahaweli scheme. These lands are being made available to individuals interested in engaging in modern agriculture, marking the beginning of a new era in farming practices.

Since 1935, we have allocated land to farmers under the Land Development Ordinance, providing them with licences rather than legal ownership. To rectify this, we are granting freehold ownership of these lands to the farmers. This year alone, over a million farmers will receive freehold deeds to their land.

Additionally, we have initiated efforts to enhance the animal husbandry sector, particularly focusing on milk production. Currently, each animal produces only 2 litres of milk. However, we are determined to increase this yield. To achieve this, we are finalizing an agreement with Amul to collaborate with the government-owned MILCO.

Our goal is to rear 2 million animals capable of producing 10 litres of milk per day, significantly boosting milk production and revitalizing the animal industry.

As a result, we anticipate obtaining 20 million litres of milk solely through this initiative, benefiting around two hundred thousand farmers. Moreover, several other companies are stepping forward to contribute to this endeavour.

Companies such as Nestlé, Fonterra and Ambewela Farming, alongside other institutions, have significantly increased milk production to approximately 28 litres per animal. This concerted effort is expected to substantially augment milk production in the country.

Additionally, we are prioritizing the promotion of both freshwater and saltwater fishing industries in Sri Lanka. Through various strategic plans, Sri Lanka aims to make significant contributions to global food security.

While contemplating the global population projection for 2050, it’s important to acknowledge that we may not be present at that time. Nevertheless, it’s anticipated that the population will surge by 500 to 600 million individuals from Iran to Indonesia. This growth is expected to coincide with an overall improvement in living standards and income levels for everyone. Conversely, countries in Africa, particularly East and South Africa, will face significant food demand, emphasizing the importance of proactive measures to address future food security challenges.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka is demonstrating a strong commitment to combating climate change. To this end, we have proposed two initiatives, one of which aims to designate the tropical region, including the Indian Ocean, as a carbon-absorbing zone.

Encouraging private sector investments in grasslands and forests within our respective countries is essential. We must approach this pragmatically, acknowledging that countries like the UK may not fund projects in Mali, nor would Finland necessarily provide funding to Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, we are actively working to attract investment from various sources.

Furthermore, efforts are underway to establish a climate change university in Sri Lanka, with the necessary land already identified for this purpose. Discussions are on-going with the Republic of South Korea regarding the commencement of building construction and numerous other stakeholders have shown interest in participating in this endeavour. Additionally, there are plans to consolidate all agricultural research centres in Sri Lanka under the umbrella of the Agricultural Technology University.

Amidst these initiatives, we are hopeful for the support of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) for the government’s program aimed at facilitating the rapid transformation of agriculture in our country.

Agriculture and Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said:Our journey in agriculture began with great dedication in 1954, and it fills me with pride to see Sri Lanka chairing this conference for the second time in 69 years. The dynamic atmosphere of this hall reflects our collective determination to tackle the challenges of food security, sustainable agriculture and development. I must express appreciation for the support provided by the Honourable President and the UNFAO during the crisis that significantly impacted Sri Lanka’s agriculture in 2022.

I am confident that the outcomes of our discussions and collaborations during this conference, combined with our mutual dedication to sustainable agriculture and rural development, will pave the way for a prosperous future for the Asia-Pacific region.

Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) Dr.Qu Dongyu: The relationship between Sri Lanka and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) spans several decades, with Sri Lanka becoming a member in the 1950s. In 1979, the first representative office of the FAO was established in Sri Lanka. Recognizing Sri Lanka’s significant potential in agriculture, agroforestry and aquaculture, I am privileged to engage in discussions with the President of Sri Lanka regarding the challenges faced in these sectors. The strong guidance provided by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, along with the programme aimed at modernizing agriculture in rural areas, presents innovative ideas that can truly make a difference. We are committed to offering our support in this regard.

Present at the event were Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Ali Sabry, PC, Douglas Devananda, State Ministers D.B.Herat, Mohan Priyadarshana de Silva, Lohan Ratwatte, Kader Masthan, Ministry Secretaries, government officials, delegates from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), as well as local and foreign diplomats.

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