FAO in Sri Lanka

Ceylon Today interviews Mrs. Beth Crawford – FAO Representative for Sri Lanka


The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been involved in the agriculture sector in the country since 1979, providing technical assistance, supporting government policy planning and legislation while implementing various projects in the sector. At present however, the buzz word is ‘Food Security’ and whether our food production can be sustainable in the long run. Ceylon Today thus interviewed FAO Representative for Sri Lanka and Maldives, Beth Crawford to understand the FAO’s role in Sri Lanka and why 20% of the population in the country still remains under-nourished in 2015? 

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q. The FAO has worked many years in the agriculture sector of our country, in your view what are the deficits in this sector?

A. The FAO in general focuses on having a world free of hunger and malnutrition and in improving the livelihoods of the rural poor. In addition to this we also focus on fisheries, forestry and livestock, so it is agriculture in the broad sense. We have been in Sri Lanka for many years working in all these areas. I cannot point to any specific deficits but I see that Sri Lanka is grappling with the same issues as other countries as we move forward in this sector. Sri Lanka wants to ensure inclusive and equitable growth and improve the lives of the rural poor. To ensure that we should have more of a market based focus and approach to our agricultural livelihood activities. We need to make sure that we have value chains that are working effectively and efficiently, all the way from the harvesting to the consumer and there, we have work that can be improved.

Q. You stressed on the need to have market based agriculture, are you saying that our farmers do not grow what the market wants?

A. That is one of the deficits. They need to have access to the right information: information on what is in demand? What are the market linkages? Are the markets available? Weather forecasts? Crop forecasts? These are all important information farmers should have in order to make a decision on what to grow. So the FAO has some programs on this, for example the farmer business school programs which are looking into that aspect.

Q. Can you elaborate more on the farmer business school?

A. It looks at ways to bring market information like market demand, price fluctuation and availability of seed into databases. We also have a ongoing regional project which is looking at bringing that information through smart phone application to the farmers. I think this a project which will hopefully be piloted in Sri Lanka.

The other thing we do in farmer business school, in addition to making this information available to farmers is educating and teaching agriculture extension workers which is an important group, to use this data. We also work with farmers to work on a business plan and to cost a business plan. For example; How much do my inputs cost? What is my likely market value? What is the cost of my time and other family members’ time? Does it make sense for me to be doing this or should I be doing something different? Should I go to the market more often or less often? This helps them make decisions basically.

Q. This concept of a business plan is great but one of the issues is the level of education of the farmers. Have you taken that into consideration? Because many don’t even keep accounts of their day to day activities, thus do you think to move from that to a position of making a business plan is not too practical on the ground?

A. Sri Lanka has a strong education system and very high literacy rates. Certainly the basis is there for farmers to do this type of activity. These farmer business schools also go with farmer field schools which have little more hands-on applications. Between these two approaches we get very good responses from farmers and farmers are interested in changing behavior.

In farmer field schools for example, we have some activities going on where we asked the farmer to sow the paddy in the traditional method in one part of the field and to use the new method in another part of the field. The new part was sowed with a different seed which we believed was more adapted to climate and salt levels in the water. Then we showed the farmers how this other method is done. When I visited this site a few weeks ago, I saw that as a group they were harvesting the crop from the traditional and new method. Similar acreage was being harvested and then they counted and weighed the seeds to see the difference. This was a hands-on way of showing the farmers that it would be an advantageous way of moving in this direction. And again we did a cost benefit analysis of both methods. Sometimes there is a higher upfront cost to some methods but in the longer term, the return on investment is bigger. So we help the farmers look beyond the initial cost to do this type of thing. This sort of demonstrations to farmers is seen to be successful.

Q. Where have you done this project?

A. This is an EU funded project with the UN.  It is in the Anuradhapura-Vavuniya areas.

Q. Have many farmers adopted the new method thereafter?

A. This is the first demonstration and cultivation of paddy in this new method, so we need to see how it is taken up in the coming seasons. The initial feedback has been positive. Similarly, we also try to introduce crops which not only have better economical value for the farmer but also better nutritional value.

For example we demonstrate better intercropping methods; farmers who are growing palm trees can grow pineapple plants below the palms and that combination works quite well. So it increases the yield they can get from the same acreage and they are producing a fruit which has some good nutritional value.

Q. The FAO has placed a lot of emphasis on food security, you had mentioned that in 2013 around 20% of people in this country were malnourished. Has this number improved since?

A. This statistic we have currently is more or less the same. Sri Lanka does well on many of the millennium development goals but on the nutrition levels it is lagging behind and that is seen in this rates of under-nutrition and stunting. Food security doesn’t just look at whether people have enough food to eat but also do they have the right combination.

Food security also looks at issues like how susceptible is the food production to external shocks or price fluctuations. But nutrition is where the main focus is now.

Q. If our country is doing well in other millennium goals such as health and education, why can we not get nutrition right? What is the problem there?

A. That is an interesting question we too have been discussing and I don’t think there is a clear answer. The government, both the previous and the current, is focusing on nutrition. The FAO is working together with the World Food Program, UNICEF and WHO. We are looking at in a multi-sectoral manner when it comes to nutrition because it is not just one thing that needs to be improved. The government too is looking at it in a multi-sectoral point of view. The focus we are trying to have in our interventions is on pregnant and lactating women and infants up to the age of two in particular. That is where nutrition is most important.

It is partly access is to the correct foods and quite a bit of awareness raising, just making mothers and families aware of what are the best ways to have a balanced and nutritional diet.

Q. Do you think this problem is due to changing dietary habits or people not being able to afford healthy food?

A. This again is the dual problem of nutrition we are seeing in lots of countries. With populations moving into cities, working life of families changing and maybe with both parents working, there is a shift in focus towards fast foods. This brings us nutritional deficit problems like obesity. So we can see in the same country undernourishment and obesity issues, and both of them need to be tackled.

 Q. The FAO has had many projects in the North and East after the war. Do you see an improvement in the agriculture in the area?

A.  If we look at the last 6 years, since the end of the war, there have been huge improvements. The FAO has been active in the north and east helping resettled families build their agricultural livelihoods, we have helped around 50,000 households. We provided inputs like seeds, livestock, poultry, fixed agro wells and irrigation tanks.

For the FAO the focus now is moving away from input provision to more towards longer term sustainable development projects.  This includes helping farmers shift more towards market oriented approaches, building capacities and helping the government with better policies so that the agriculture field remains active.

The basic infrastructure for a market is there in the north and east. But we have to now look at the whole value chain. For example, the FAO has been working on dairy production and it has been a difficult field in the point of view of getting the milk to the consumer, because it has to have an appropriate cold chain system. So now is the time to work with all the actors involved to get these value chains set up.

Another big issue is food waste and food loss. Food loss in particular, estimates show that 30% of the food is lost before it gets to the consumer.

Q. You spoke of improving government policy. What kind of policy are you looking at improving?

A. The FAO globally acts as a neutral platform to bring together experts from all different fields and work on standards, guidelines and codes of conduct. These are then set and approved by the FAO in the global level and then we work on them in the national level. One important one is the code of management for pesticides. There we worked with the government to make sure that they have safe use and disposal of pesticides and accurately analyze pesticide use.

In the area of fisheries we work with Sri Lanka to make sure they abide by and are able to demonstrate they are abiding by international fishing laws.

Agricultural statistics is also something we are working at a policy level. We have a global project on agricultural statistics which helps countries improve their agricultural statistics for better decision making, regionally, nationally and internationally. So these are areas where Sri Lanka can participate to ensure that they have the best practices in place.

Q. When it comes to statistics, do we have a proper system of collecting data? Is there a special program in place for this?

A. We just finished a study on looking at the gaps and recommendations were made when moving forward. In the case of Sri Lanka we are looking at strengthening the capacity of the government and the local actors in providing this information. What often happens is that information is gathered at various levels but it does not come together in a cohesive package for decision making. All that data is of no use if we are not using it to make decisions. That is where we are trying to help Sri Lanka.

Q. The FAO has been criticized for working on one off projects instead of long term plans. Once the project is done, they move on to another area leaving the people behind. What do you have to say to that?

A. I am not sure of the criticism you are speaking of. Sri Lanka became a member of the FAO in 1948 and the FAO representation was established in 1979. So Sri Lanka and FAO have been partners for a very long time. Everything we do is at the request and collaboration with the government. We help the government implement best agriculture practices based on what the government wants to focus on. In some ways everything we do should have a sustainable impact. That is at the level the FAO works, we are only there to help the government and farmers work in a better way, we are not there to do it for them.

In terms of one off projects, the immediate relief projects in the North and East could be considered that but even then we help improve the capacities of the beneficiaries.

Q. You mentioned that the FAO works closely with governments, what happens when governments change? Do your programs change with a new government?

A. There is a very long cooperation between the two countries. The FAO also have the country programming framework, right now we are on the 2013-2017 framework which is the agreed priorities of collaboration between FAO and the country. With our focus on food security, nutrition and sustainable use of natural resources, best agricultural practices. These are areas that are unlikely to have dramatic changes in one government to the next. I am not aware of any new government asking us to stop any project. We of course work closely with any government, we might shift emphasis or re-direct or add something, but in general it does not change radically.

Q. What do you think are the main challenges to Sri Lankan agriculture are in the next few years according to your research?

A. One whole area is the market based approach. We also need to make sure that young people are interested in and staying in the agriculture field. That is where using technology and IT based methods to make it more entrepreneurial to encourage young people to stay in agriculture and take it forward as a business.

Another major area which affects Sri Lanka like other countries is the whole climate change impact. In the past in Sri Lanka weather patterns were quite predictable, that is not the case anymore. Last year we had both droughts and floods. These types of patterns are going to continue like this, so when we think of our agriculture practices for the next few years, we have to take these aspects into consideration. See what we can do to increase resilience of farmers, improve seed variety, information of weather patterns and improving irrigation systems.

Q. Finally if you take the South Asian region, what is our biggest challenge?

A. I think globally food security is a challenge. FAO global statistics from 2012-2014 show 805 million people are chronically undernourished. If we look ahead, by 2050 food availability will have to increase by 70% to meet demand. Food supply will not need to increase just because of the growing population but also because of change in demand for food. When income levels in countries rise, as in South Asia and many other countries in the world, the demand for food shifts and move towards more protein based food. When we look at the inputs for 1kg of meat, it needs 10kg of vegetable or microbial inputs and 15,000 liters of water. So this is the type of demand that is being put on globally on our resources, so we have to ensure that we increase production but we do it in a way that is sustainable. This is a global issue but very apt for South Asia where population is growing fast, income is growing fast and climate change impacts are very obvious.

One area of growth for this region is inland fisheries or aquaculture.  In this region in particular there’s not much room for expansion of ocean fishing because of sustainable issues but there is a very good possibility for expansion of aquaculture. This brings in a source of protein, helps diversify livelihoods of farmers as they need to move away from depending on one crop to be more resilient to shocks and changes and helps improve income of farmers. The FAO has a regional initiative, ‘blue growth initiative’ for aquaculture.