22 October 2014

Re-graining the nation

I joined 'The Nation' newspaper (re-joined, to be precise) in October 2011.  I wrote my first editorial after re-joining on October 23, 2011.  It's been a great three years.  By way of remembering the beginning, I reproduce here the first editorial I wrote, titled 'Re-graining the nation'. 

'Let it be written in the blood of Korean farmers that rice will not be imported ever again,’ is a sign carried in the offices of the South Korean Rice Federation.  There is pride there.  Determination too.  And it’s all about self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency is an objective that all governments as well as those aspiring to govern talk about.  Indeed, self-sufficiency is a consideration that always factors into discussions on food security, which in turn is an integral element of national security. 

On the other hand, self-sufficiency or being self-sufficient, say in rice, can also give a false sense of security.  It has all got to do with seeds.

There has been a lot of focus on irrigation and access to water, with token reference to the engineers who helped design a hydraulic civilisation second to none.  There’s a considerable literature, also, on the use of chemical inputs. 

The pluses and minuses of mono crop cultures and chemical thirsty, high yielding varieties have been debated.  The importance of research and extension have been duly noted, even though the objections to policy regimes that have by and large deferred these subjects to multinationals and their agents selling poisons have been footnoted or edited out for the most part.  The issue of agricultural credit and insurance has had its day in the sun.  A lot of talk, some action, but the structures of resource and value extraction have remained largely intact.

The entire discourse on agriculture and in particular paddy cultivation has largely ignored the politics pertaining to seeds.  Sri Lanka may become self-sufficient in rice but if the seed companies decide to stop sending seeds, that’s it.  The nation’s borders are now secure, but this alone does not keep out evil and does not necessarily mean that the people are safe.  There is often mention of sanctions, withdrawal of concessionary trade instruments such as GSP Plus and motions to censure and thereby embarrass political leadership, people and nation, and these are indeed matters of concern.  The instruments of subjugation, however, are not all visible and don’t all come waving a threat. 

The answer perhaps can be drawn from the unprecedented effort to secure the nation from the threat of terrorism. It lies within and not outside the nation.  Recently, an enterprising young man, a graduate from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, secured a 5 hectare piece of land in the Eastern Province to grow 73 traditional varieties of rice, to symbolise the 73 gnanas (wisdoms) of the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama.  He made 73 offerings of kiribath (milk-rice) made from these 73 varieties to the historic Mahiyangana Chaityaya.  This arduous exercise gives a simple message: we can and we must!                                  

It must be remembered that there are said to been some 2,400 traditional rice varieties in this country of which only around 200 remain with us.  The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is said to have 1,100 varieties preserved.  Currently, farmers as individuals or small, cooperative collectives grow around 120 traditional varieties. 

The issue is whether or not the relevant authorities are aware of or committed enough to the issue of food sovereignty to understand the importance of seeds, in the context of global political economic process.  There is very little research on the subject of traditional rice varieties.  Each particular variety constitutes an invitation for thesis research, but undergraduates in Agriculture Faculties are not encouraged to explore this rich and vital aspect of their discipline. 

It is also doubtful whether the relevant laws (currently under review to ensure compatibility with conventions signed or to be signed uncritically) take into consideration issues of food sovereignty and national security.  The truth is that the law and policy preferences constitute serious disincentives when it comes to cultivating traditional varieties of rice.

It is nice to be self-sufficient in food.  It would be disturbing indeed if ‘self-sufficiency’ is time bound to a single season and moreover amenable to swift dismantling by outsiders, in particular multinational intent in securing a monopoly in the seed business. 

It all comes down to a few pertinent questions.

Whose nation is this anyway?  Is planning about getting by in the hand-to-mouth manner or about preserving sovereignty and dignity for the next generation and those yet unborn?  Do we have a comprehensive understanding of ‘national security’?  Is self-sufficiency enough? 

There is a lot of talk about regaining the nation.  It seems that re-graining is an intrinsic part of such an effort.  And it’s about traditional rice.  One grain at a time.  One variety at a time.  


Anonymous said...

You've done an amazing job in those three years. Extremely proud.

Snoweater said...

let us hope that the Nation will re-gain their senses and get you back.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i am still here....3 years later. :)

Jayaratne Weerakkody said...

It is interesting your first editorial as well as the latest. You are a man of past present and future too. That is incomparable. well done!

Anonymous said...

Papers will come and go .People will gain ,regain and loose. Things you gained and developed were given to the 'Nation" .Therefore it never dies.The fragrance of your words will be with the readers forever.