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Home gardens contribution to ‘green revolution’

It is encouraging to note that the aftermath of the civil war has received good responses on the need for the development of food crops in the newly opened up land mass of the North. We understand that there are predictions of creating a possible ‘green revolution’ in those areas. A ‘green revolution’ devoid of a chemical agriculture revolution is undoubtedly encouraging in the context of the Country’s foreign exchange constraints even if we disregard the environmental disasters the so called green revolution has brought in since sixties.

While the appropriate methodology should be followed through a proper dialogue in respect of possible large farmlands it should not be forgotten even the North consisted of many a home gardens which were exemplary. These gardens of course, went beyond the confines of home plots what we generally tend to talk about, but means of bringing the sustenance for many.


Foliage - pleasing sight to the eye. File photo

There is a general sense we are heading into very difficult times as regards living costs, especially those relating to food and power. There are of course ways of saving on the consumption of domestic energy and to some extent on travel-related costs but for many of us it is difficult to imagine how we can do much to save on the cost of food. In fact, for city dwellers without gardens worthy of the name there is no escape from the cost of retail foods.

Vegetable fields

It is a matter of common observation that unlike the uniformity of paddy lands and vegetable fields, in the case of home gardens one frequently finds a diversity of plants. This home garden has traditionally been the province of women who have thus been responsible for introducing children to plants and their insect life. It is here that one is likely to find plants driven to virtual extinction elsewhere.

This diversity was a feature of most agriculture before the advent of Western farming practices and the introduction of hybrid cultivars in this island. But diversity is not a sign of unproductiveness - just the opposite. Wherever you see wild vegetation - tropical forest for example - you see much evidence of diversity and production but you see little or no evidence of pests.

It is time then for us to learn from the past rather than emulate the aberration which has occurred in the last 60 years under chemicals. It has been repeatedly shown that when plants are grown in combination rather than as single crops the total production is higher - sometimes by as much as three times - and that this effect is the greater, the poorer the soils.

The success of such a system is based on the efficiency with which environmental resources are utilized and the benefits for plant health and pest prevention which arise from mixing crops.

A recent study has also shown that when yields from organic and chemical farm systems are compared, organic systems in temperate regions perform almost as well as with the use of chemicals and better in drier conditions. However, in tropical countries where temperatures are high and soils are of poorer quality the organic system invariably outperforms chemicals.

What is organics about?

All plant production is, of course, organic so this term is used to distinguish the method from that which uses chemicals. The organic system uses no synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides or weedicides and uses composted organic materials and green manures for building soil fertility as well as organic materials fermented to form liquids for application to leaves. Therefore if you want to adopt the practices above to best effect you must make compost and if possible also liquid organic fertilizer which will be found very valuable as a short-term tonic for plants. Full directions for the organic system are available in a newly published book (Smith, 2007 - Centre for Sustainable Farming and Energy @ Rs400 + postage).

Pest control in organics is found on creating as much diversity as possible both of crop plants and indigenous wild plants. When necessary, a variety of traditional and well-proven natural materials are used for insect control such as neem or garlic extract.

Intensive raised garden beds

So in a small space - say 2-10 perches - we can achieve surprisingly good production employing the above principles. But there is more. By constructing garden beds in a particular way, productive use of a small garden can be extended into seasons when rains are scarce. First, the topsoil is excavated to a depth of at least 30 cm and a layer of organic matter including fresh green leafy material from leguminous trees, garden weeds or wild sunflower together with dried leaves or paddy straw or coir dust. This should be placed to a depth of at least 15 cm and trodden in.

Irrigation water


A beautifully maintained garden. Courtesy: Google photo

The soil excavated is now returned onto this material - subsoil then topsoil - to create a raised planting surface. The sides of the bed can be supported if necessary by coconut husks, stones or wood to prevent erosion of the soil surface. The dimensions of the bed should be 1-1.5 m wide and about 3 m long. It should be possible for the smaller members of the family to easily reach the middle of the bed from each side. Select a combination of vegetable plants or seedlings, with low-growing plants at the edges and taller plants like tomatoes or brinjols in the middle. Introduce a handful of mature compost beneath individual transplants and add compost under any area to be sown with seed. Never put compost on the surface! Make a surface pattern for the distribution of irrigation water when required. The organic matter at depth will decompose to allow absorption of much moisture which is available under dry conditions while giving plants access to a deeper soil than would otherwise be the case.

According to circumstances, many such beds can be introduced across the garden area within a few seasons. In many instances it may be the woman who is in charge of the actual vegetable growing but we visualize the construction work with mammoty as primarily a man’s job and a noble gesture towards helping the family increase its potential food production.

Gardens with beds of this kind have been established in many parts of Sri Lanka including notably tsunami-affected areas, where they are based on coastal beach sands. Within a year or so they have become sufficiently productive to support a family’s needs for certain vegetables while producing a surplus for sale. Neighbours, on learning that the vegetables have been produced without harmful chemicals, have been very pleased to purchase as much as they can. This is exactly the sort of development which the present government is trying to encourage.

When a garden area is small or soil is too poor, then plants are often grown in pots, tubs, troughs or old tyres. This is particularly appropriate where only concrete surfaces are available. The rule must be that where space is restricted, try to build upwards or alternatively allow plants to hang downwards! Many will be familiar with the traditional pole frame system on which snake gourds and other favourites are grown. This is an example of maximizing space, for under a tropical sun plants can be successfully grown in the relatively shady area underneath. Similarly, hanging baskets can be arranged around a vertical pole or post. Window boxes are perhaps the last resort for those without a garden altogether.

When considering which crop plants to select, choose indigenous varieties if possible, for these will be more nutritious and will resist pest and disease problems better than introduced varieties.

One further essential is to save rainwater as this is so much more beneficial to plants than water from a piped supply or even from wells. Water as infrequently as possible to encourage good plant rooting. This will also help preserve more organic matter in the soil. And when watering, do so in the evening rather than in the heat of the day.

These are simple measures that people in Sri Lanka are generally aware of but it is necessary refresh their ‘will’ to contribute, that is why it is necessary for continuing awareness creation. In this respect it is proud to note the two State owned electronic media organizations, the Rupavahini and ITN are providing exemplary services not only to the Home gardeners but also to the agriculturalists in general through programs like Rividina Arunella etc. Now it is high time to think of a telecast of Tamil medium too, since this would be very important in the present context of the resettlement of the IDPs in the Northern Province in order to keep them in the necessary sustainable agricultural perspective before they revert to the practices of chemical agriculture. Both the writers of this article having experiences in their respective countries, UK and Sri Lanka could vouch for the desirability of this type of media services through their joint experiences in Sri Lanka during the past twelve years.

Family health

Although an important aspect of home food production is to raise a certain level of self-sufficiency - even income generation in some circumstances - an equally important aspect when working with organic methods is the health benefit. Organically grown fruit and vegetables will not contain harmful residues of chemicals. They are most often described as tasting superior to chemically grown produce and they keep fresh for longer - often considerably longer. This raises an important question - why should two equally fresh products differ so markedly? Techniques now exist to demonstrate that organic food has higher levels of certain essential minerals and micronutrients. It also contains higher levels of formative energies which are possessed by all living things and which we need our carbohydrates and proteins to contain. It will generally be found that the higher the level of these vital energies the less actual bulk of food we require in order to be satisfied. It is therefore necessary to say that what is important to us is the quality rather than the quantity of food that we eat. Therefore the individual home gardener producing in the way described need not be discouraged by the thought that they only produce a little of their total food needs. In fact they make a disproportionate contribution to their family’s health, eventually saving on the costs of visits to the pharmacy or perhaps the cost of hospital treatment. Such a benefit is rarely considered when debating whether to stop using chemicals.

Future agriculture and the economy of Sri Lanka

We should first look at the economic factors which dominate life in Sri Lanka. For a start, the world price of petroleum-based products from diesel to fertilizers has recently shot up. This, in turn, impacts on the cost of electricity through major dependency on oil for its generation. At the same time world food surpluses have virtually been eliminated. Economies, notably that of China, are growing at such a rate that demand for grain and meat products is pushing up world prices. Mineral resources and the cost of steel have all been affected by this process. This all impacts on the economy of Sri Lanka which is heavily dependant on imports. Other factors need to be considered too. Over recent years we have been importing increasing amounts of food products from India and other neighbours whose costs of production are well below those in Sri Lanka.

Rural life

This may be the ultimate price we pay for a high level of literacy which educates youngsters away from rural life. However, uneconomic agricultural activity has led to a deterioration of rural productive capacity in this island and to further loss of production of some important indigenous food plants. Another dimension of this problem is reflected in the increasing consumption of bread by Sri Lankans in recent years which has undoubtedly lessened dependence on paddy. While this has undoubtedly made wealthy countries wealthier it has had dietary repercussions to add to the narrowing of the diet caused by the Green Revolution. These recent changes have undoubtedly reinforced, if not triggered, an upsurge of diabetes and other illnesses of the endocrine system.

Again, the distortion of our economy by the conflict situation and by a migrant worker culture has led to an erosion of values and sense of purpose within rural society. One needs no persuasion about this when observing drunkenness or looking at vast tracts of under productive coconut or of abandoned paddy lands. It is little wonder that the price of coconuts and paddy is so high! There are yet further problems. There is a growing perception that those in positions to contribute their knowledge to agricultural advancement, those in universities and government research institutes, are generally only maintaining their own prestige and largely failing the country through totally inadequate mechanisms of extension and technology transfer. In short we get very bad value for all the knowledge that exists here while a continuing export of the country’s best talent remains a national tragedy. Even provincial agriculture extensionists in the majority of cases do little more than act as brokers for the sale of chemicals irrespective of whether such a course will be economically viable.

Safeguarding the environment

The tragedy is that those in positions best able to help agriculturalists have become totally divorced from reality as regards safeguarding the environment while, despite a thriving export market in organic products, they remain years behind the knowledge in other countries regarding organic-ecological farming.

What is needed is a fully connected series of government policies which address rural life and its productive capacity, for without such a program the future for the cities of Sri Lanka - in the absence of greatly increased industrial activity - will be bleak. Overcrowding, unemployment, crime, poor sanitation, disease and an escalation of conflict will be inevitable. Such a program must address the balance between rural and urban living which Sri Lanka can reasonably sustain.

It is our contention that a greatly increased role for organic agriculture will form part of this package of measures. These measures should involve incentives for conversion of larger estate-managed farms to organic - these could be operated by the corporate sector. They would involve increasing the herds of cattle and buffalo to provide manures but also form the basis of an expanded dairy industry possibly with non- mono cultural energy plantations to make energy development also an integral part for which Sri Lanka should work hard. Compost would be made available at subsidized cost to small farmers while the politically motivated and ultimately unsustainable cost of the fertilizer subsidy would be progressively reduced over a ten-year period.

Sustainable energy

Together with emphasis on an environmental approach to landscape, sustainable energy should be expanded from short-rotation timber. The green matter produced would be a valuable input to the making of composts for organic farming. This would be an excellent model for integrated land use that could be adopted as a model with the new agriculture/ livestock development initiatives with IDPs in the North.

A movement away from the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture would be a huge step towards solving the problem of water pollution across the island, the greater part of which is caused by agrochemicals. Fertilizer efficiency in the tropics is an alarming 30 percent, underlining the fact that chemical agriculture always was a transfer of an inappropriate technology as far as Sri Lankan soils were concerned. The loss of at least one third of all nitrate fertilizer into the ground is one reason why so many here suffer from kidney disorder. The use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides also contributes to health problems in society and, together with urea, these are a major cause of soil impoverishment. All these products have to be imported and on top of this is a government subsidy for those polluting the island! The health benefits arising from reduced dependence on chemicals could be enormous, thus saving vast amounts of money now diverted into healthcare - vast amounts too on importation of drugs. Here, government is keen to uphold traditional practices but seems powerless to stem the tide of Western costly allopathic treatment which addresses the symptoms rather than the cause.

Chemical industry

For the chemical industry this does not mean a collapse in markets overnight but it does mean a different future and a different kind of business model. Up to now the multinationals have enjoyed an almost perfect model based on other people’s dependency for their products - from fertilizers and pesticides to seeds. Indeed, it is a common perception among farmers that more fertilizer and pesticide is required in order to achieve a satisfactory yield and the SL Economic Review 2003 reported that by 2000 compared with the mid 1970s, twice the amount of fertilizer was being used to produce each tonne of paddy.

From the commercial exploitative model, the multinationals must now begin to engage in a socially-responsible, participatory model where environmental concerns and the well-being of the local population is seen to be in their own best interests. We all share the planet and if we so foul our nest and poison our citizens then there is no future for commercial activity. It is time to realize that the high water mark of corporate control has now passed.

(Dr.Richard Thornton Smith of ex-University of Leeds UK and an inspector of organic certification and has more than 12 years of experience in working with the farming sector in Sri Lanka; has authored the farming manual on Sri Lankan practices ‘Organic Farming- Sustaining Earth and People’. Nelson Nagasinghe a Chartered Accountant in practise has been working in the Sustainable Farming and Energy sectors. Both could be reached on: nelnaga@sltnet.lk)

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