How traditional rice survives
According to the Mahavamsa, which tends to be reticent on the subject
of food, the legendary King Vijaya ate rice given to him by the Yakkhini
Kuveni and cooked by his followers. It has been the staple diet of the
people of this island for all our recorded history and earlier.
Rice seems first to have been cultivated in the Yangtze valley of
China about 10,000 years ago. On the Indian sub-continent, the crop is
first encountered about 4,500 years ago in association with the
Mohenjo-Daro-Harappa civilisation. Over the next 1,500 years it spread
The European terms for rice, including its scientific name (Oryza
sativa) are most probably derived from the Sanskrit ‘vrisi’, although
some sources think it came from the Tamil ‘arisi’.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the hunter-gatherers of Horton
Plains developed agriculture 10,000 - 17,000 years ago. They appear to
have herded cattle and grown barley and oats. Rice did not make an
appearance in Sri Lanka until the Iron Age civilisation began about
3,000 years ago.
The cultivation of rice was closely linked to the development of a
complex hydraulic civilisation in the island's dry zone. Cascading tank
systems provided for the optimisation of irrigation water usage.
Co-operative cultivation, remnants of which can be seen in the 'goyam
kayiya' or co-operative harvesting band, appears to have been the norm.
Farmers practised a variety of eco-friendly practices. Fields were
left fallow for years, allowing the nutrients in the soil to be
regenerated. The variety of rice grown depended on the weather
prediction - longer-growing varieties were cultivated when rain was
expected in great quantity.
The European colonialists who subdued the country after the 16th
century were interested in the country's cinnamon, pepper, arecanuts and
elephants, for which they could get premium prices. Developing the
natives' staple crop was not high in their list of priorities.
Nevertheless, the 17th century Portuguese writer Ribeiro noted that rice
was available in abundance.
Following the great rebellion of 1818, the British military
instituted the 'search and destroy' tactics which were to become
notorious 150 years later in Vietnam. Entire villages (and their paddy)
were burnt down and, even more catastrophically, the bunds of the
irrigation tanks were breached.
The cataclysmic change was compounded by the Wastelands Ordinance,
which expropriated the peasantry, enclosing common land and fallow land
and forcing out whole villages. The British put all their resources into
Coffee, Tea and Rubber, and rice cultivation declined precipitously. The
Wellassa (the name meaning '100,000 paddy fields') was no longer a
By the time the British left, the country was producing only 45
percent of the rice it consumed. Land was scarce and paddy fields were
small - barely sufficient for subsistence agriculture in many cases,
especially since yields were very low - averaging about 650 kg per
Following independence, a great effort was made to increase rice
production. The cultivation of traditional varieties such as
Murungkayan, Vellai Irangkayan and Ma, which were responsive to
inorganic fertiliser, was encouraged.
Tractors were introduced, together with increased use of chemical
fertilisers. Yield rose to 1.73 tonnes/ha in the 1950s. Following this,
the so-called Old Improved Varieties (OIV) such as H7 and H4 were
promoted. Together with the Paddy Lands Act, the guaranteed price scheme
and the fertiliser subsidy, this encouraged increased rice production.
By the mid-60s, OIVs accounted for 40 percent of the land under paddy
and yield increased to 2.09 te/ha.
At this point, very high-yielding New Improved Varieties (NIV) such
as IR-8, which had been developed at the International Rice Research
Institute in the Philippines, were introduced. By the mid-70s, of the
total rice land, 45 percent was under NIVs and 35 percent under OIVs,
with traditional varieties accounting for the remaining 20 percent.
Yield went up to 2.47 te/ha. In the following decades, the area under
NIVs increased to 95 percent and yields doubled.
However, unlike traditional varieties or the OIVs, these were highly
susceptible to diseases such as bacterial blight, gall midge and blast,
so increased inputs of pesticides and herbicides were required - the
downside of the so-called 'Green Revolution'.
The NIVs also engendered the increased use of inorganic fertiliser,
including Urea, Muriate of Potash and Triple Super Phosphate.
The misapplication of fertilisers has created nutrient imbalances in
the soil causing long term adverse impacts on soil fertility. Runoffs of
fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides have contributed to the
contamination of downstream waters as well as to poisoning ground water.
This caused alarm which, combined with fears about the loss of genetic
diversity and nutritional value in rice, provided the catalyst for a
movement among farmers and plant geneticists to conserve traditional
varieties of rice.
In recent years, with increased prosperity and a generalised
upliftment of living standards has come a raised level of expectations.
Combined with rising awareness about health issues, this has created an
expanding niche market for relatively more expensive traditional
varieties of rice.
The rising demand has encouraged more and more farmers, particularly
those with small, hitherto uneconomic plots, to abandon the NIVs for
The traditional rice varieties have established themselves through a
process of survival of the fittest; they are hardy and relatively
impervious to pests and diseases. They lend themselves to sustainable
agriculture, not requiring heavy inputs of fertiliser.
They are also very nutritious and have health benefits not possessed
by the NIVs. For example, Beth Heenati and Pachcha Perumal are good for
diabetes patients; Ma is suitable for patients with diabetes,
tuberculosis, constipation and haemorrhoids; and Kuru Wee and Mada
Tavalu help increase immunity.
As incomes increase, so will the need for greater value added in
agriculture. Sri Lanka needs turn its attention to higher-value
varieties of rice - to repeat what we have done with tea and (to a
slightly lesser extent) garments. Now that self-sufficiency has been
achieved, quality must replace quantity.