COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) - As vegetable prices keep rising, accelerated by twin floods earlier this year, Sri Lanka’s government is pushing a country-wide home-garden programme to encourage Sri Lankans to grow what they might otherwise struggle to afford.
The government has unveiled an effort to set up a million home gardens, aimed at growing vegetables for household consumption. The selected households in the country of 21 million people will be provided free seeds, fertilizer and technical advice.
“The recent floods showed us how vulnerable we are to climate change. It is better to be prepared for such calamities than feel sorry later on,” said Shyamalee Gunasekera, director of development at the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa said home gardens potentially could help insulate households from widely fluctuating food prices brought on in part by increasingly erratic weather linked to climate change.
Floods in January and February that lashed the eastern and north central regions of Sri Lanka brought a year’s worth of rain in three months to some parts of the country, destroying paddy rice, field crops and vegetable plantations.
According to assessments released by the United Nations, 25 percent of the country’s paddy rice harvest was destroyed by the floods. An additional 10 to 15 percent could be lost to poor yields from fields that went under water.
Over 98,000 acres, equivalent to 25 percent of total cultivated land for other crops like green gram, potato and cowpea, were also lost, the U.N. said.
Production losses of over 30 percent were reported in crops such as black gram, chili, green gram, potato and cowpea, the U.N. said in an assessment report released at the end of February. Altogether about 27 percent of the country’s vegetable crop was affected by the extreme weather, the report said.
Vegetable prices have been rising in Sri Lanka since the floods and some varieties cost twice as much as a year ago. Prices of beans, carrots, leeks and tomatoes had increased by between 60 and 100 percent compared to a year ago by the last week of February according to the government’s Census and Statistics Department.
On top of the harvest lost to the floods there are also worries that rising oil prices could push food prices even higher. It is these sharp price hikes that the government hopes to ease with the home gardening programme.
Choosing appropriate crops for each region of the country will be key to making the new home garden effort work, crop specialists say.
A GOLDEN CONCEPT?
“The home gardens are a golden concept but you have to do it right to hit the jackpot,” said crop expert Gamini Pushpakumara. The scientist, who heads the crop science division in the department of agriculture at the University of Peradeniya, one of Sri Lanka’s premier agriculture research institutes, believes up to 13 percent of the island’s land – 800,000 hectares – could potentially be used as home gardens.
The land is not currently earmarked for agricultural use, but has no outstanding construction plans authorized, Pushpakumara said.
He said that expert advice will be crucial to helping the effort succeed.
“There is no single crop or vegetable that will grow well all over the island,” he said. “There are certain varieties that do well in certain areas. We have to identify those.”
The government envisions gardens producing vegetables everywhere from urban terraces to back gardens in rural and urban areas.
“I think people with gardens will try this out, because there is very direct impact on their household expenditure,” Gunasekera said.
Some Sri Lankan opposition parties have dismissed the gardening push as a political gimmick. But at least some people say that, faced with higher food prices, they are willing to experiment.
“If they are giving us the seeds and fertilizer, we might as well give it a try,” said Indika Sriyan, a young computer graphic designer from Ratmalana, a suburb of Colombo, the capital. He has a small garden that is now filled with ornamental plants.
“But I will not do this if the savings is very limited or if the growing takes up a lot of time,” he warned.
The gardening push is just one of the government’s efforts to cushion rising food prices. The country’s security and civil defence forces since December have begun growing vegetables on military bases around Sri Lanka. The effort has yet to produce a major impact on food prices, experts say.
Gunasekera , of the agriculture ministry, said the initial aim of the new home gardens effort is to provide food for household consumption, but sales of excess produce might also eventually be possible.
“The first step is to cut down costs that would otherwise be used to buy vegetables. After that we will look at encouraging produce to be sold commercially,” she said.
The project, which got underway with initial seed distribution on March 12, will focus first on vegetables like beans, tomatoes and okra that mature within about three months.
Gunasekera said she believes the programme will succeed because people are beginning to feel the rising prices.
“There is no cost involved here, so at least initially people will want to try this,” she predicted.
The government has in the past pushed similar home garden initiatives, with limited effect. But Pushpakuamara said the latest project may benefit from having a more clearly defined aim.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka.