The Sunday Times Economic Analysis                 By the Economist  

Are we actually self-sufficient in rice?
The coming Yala harvest is expected to yield a surplus of about 200,000 metric tons over the demand for the current year. This no doubt prompts people to think that the country has achieved self-sufficiency in rice. Are we in fact actually self-sufficient in rice?

Self-sufficiency in rice has been a cherished national goal and objective of successive governments and politicians from even before independence. It is an emotive issue often enmeshed with patriotism. Self-sufficiency in rice is frequently confused with food security and economic arguments are often of no consequence when either issue is discussed.

The problem discussed here is neither the desirability of self-sufficiency nor the broader issue of food security. It is a simpler one of whether the country is self-sufficient in rice or not. Simple though the issue is, the emotive connotations even on this issue could render the discussion irrational and misleading. Therefore as to whether we are really self-sufficient in rice at present is a controversial issue.

The current situation is that at the present level of demand for rice, the country does not require to import rice. In fact the supply from domestic rice production is expected to exceed demand. There is no denying the fact that rice production has increased significantly over the past five decades.

At the time of independence with a population of about 7 million the country imported over one half the requirements of rice.

Today with a population of 19 million we do not require to import rice. Part of this self-sufficiency is owing to a shift in consumption to imported wheat. Per capita wheat consumption has risen over the years to reach 50 kilos per person now. Rice consumption per capita is about twice that. Not withstanding this the higher level of self-sufficiency in rice is an undeniable fact.

This estimation of self-sufficiency in rice is based on the present level of demand for rice. However, If rice prices could be brought down, there would be an increased demand for rice. This could reverse the trend towards self-sufficiency. Rice consumption would increase and wheat consumption would decline. This could have both economic and nutritional benefits to the country, but the level of self-sufficiency would decline.

Furthermore, since a large proportion of people in the country, perhaps as much as one fourth, do not have adequate food, if these persons are provided with adequate food that would include more rice, we could be far from being self-sufficient.

It must also be recognised that good harvests are followed by lean periods. Therefore the surplus of this year could well be followed by seasons of poor harvests. To pronounce ourselves as self-sufficient in rice our production in the good years must be able cope with the shortfalls in production in drought or flood ridden years.

Our jubilation about self-sufficiency must also be tempered by the recognition that there is an increase in our population by little over 1 per cent each year. This means there are additional 200,000 mouths to feed each year for at least the next five years. If the incomes of persons rise their per capita rice consumption too would increase. This increase in demand must be taken into account in determining paddy production and marketing policies.

Therefore the current situation can easily change with this increase in population. When all these considerations are taken into account the fact is that we cannot still celebrate the attainment of self-sufficiency. We still require enhancing our paddy production, especially by increasing national yields that are much lower than the potential. If the euphoria of the increased rice production leads to complacency in our paddy production strategies, then we may soon find ourselves once again a rice deficit country.

It is most important to realise in this context that agricultural development policies that increase rice production have a rationale and justification.

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