Presidential Speech

SDS Hemachandra (PhD)

President SAEA 2022

Role of Agricultural Economists in Sri Lanka: Does Our Job Start and End in Research and Teaching?

As I am delivering this speech on 20th January 2023, Sri Lanka is facing the worst economic crisis in its 75 years post-independence. The food crisis in Sri Lanka will likely worsen amid poor agricultural production, price hikes and ongoing economic crisis. According to WFP estimations, 30% of the population is experiencing acute food insecurity and will likely deteriorate further unless urgent assistance is provided. Moreover, 6.3 million people face moderate to severe acute food insecurity, and their situation is expected to worsen if not supported. In this plight, our active involvement in the profession as agricultural economists is needed more than ever before.

Let me start with the definition of economics I learnt in my first lecture on the first day of the BSc Agriculture degree programme at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, in Principles of Economics 101. “Economics is the study of allocating scarce resources among unlimited needs and wants”. Much later, I learnt that agricultural economics is that definition applied to the resources involved in agriculture. We as professionals should be questioning our existence in a country which implements policies such as “self-sufficiency in all food crops”, banning chemical fertilizer imports or erecting a policy to substitute chemical fertilizers with organic fertilizer overnight, which challenges even the idea trade-offs we face in the allocation of scarce resources in an economy, resource use efficiency principles, input substitutability, comparative advantage and market principles fundamental to the management of the economy. Such imprudent policies led to back-to-back policy failures in agriculture and other pillars of the economy, taking a high toll on the country’s development.

We, as agricultural economists, cannot stay in our cocoons in the comfort zone of our workplace, be it academia, research institutes, development agencies, or freelancing. There is a dire need to focus our efforts and resources on a more concerted effort in applying our training in more applied work, which has direct relevance to the country’s agriculture sector.

We need to think about not only producing primary agriculture crops and raising animals but a more extensive food system considering what we produce and consume to ensure that it is healthy and nutritious. Further, it is essential to view the agriculture sector not only as a system providing food for the urban and rural people but also as an employment generator for the rural population, which is about 70% of the country’s population. Paying attention to the relationship between agriculture and the environment is essential because agriculture is an enormous user of natural resources. Furthermore, suppose we are aiming to enhance the living standards of the rural farming population. In such a case, it is essential that we shift our focus from only “increasing farm income” to “ways and means of enhancing the household income”, which necessitates us to view the rural farming household as the unit of production and consumption needing it to be a pluriactive business unit, with farming as the core business, to maximize resource use efficiency and effectiveness whiles maximizing both off and on-farm incomes.

As agricultural economics professionals, we are increasingly getting better at quantitative techniques and modelling. I would like to identify six priority areas where our analytical thinking and training in quantitative modelling should be directed.
1. Scenario analysis: We project future scenarios using trends and patterns using existing data. We must go further than our current practice while acknowledging that unexpected things will occur. Unexpected scenarios could change the trajectory of the food system. As agricultural economists, we should foresee opportunities and threats and carry out scenario analysis bearing both short-term and long-term implications to the economy to understand what actions are required by different actors.

2. Climate change: While the development of models and modelling approaches for climate change have been commendable, different models yield different predictions. We need to improve our models to predict the long-run changes in temperature and precipitation and the potential threats to the food system.

3. Technological development: Technological developments provide opportunities to tackle the challenges in the food system. Technological developments are changing how food is produced, transported, processed and consumed. At the field level, robotics, precision and genomic agriculture could change agricultural productivity, nutritional composition, etc. Data revolution involving everything from big data, blockchains and AI at a high level could be used in planning and decision-making. An example is the deciding insurance scheme for food system actors.

4. Policies: the world of agriculture and food can dramatically change depending on what policies are in place. Macroeconomic policies such as fiscal policies and currency policies have an effect on agriculture in the background. In the short term, we could see trade wars that hugely impact production, import, and export incentives. While mandatory in Sri Lanka, policy reforms could be threats if not done appropriately, or opportunities, if done well, could assist the evolution of the food system in the direction we would like to see in Sri Lanka. Ex-ante as ex-post policy analysis should be a priority area in our work/research portfolio.

5. Communication: The agriculture sector is in this plight today primarily due to the inappropriate short-sighted policies enacted. As agricultural economists, we need to be at the forefront where decisions are made and be influential. Our responsibility for communication does not end with a publication in a high-indexed journal. We must show our presence and communicate widely to the public and policymakers. It is important that we learn not only scientific communication but the commoner’s language. It is our duty to bridge communication gaps with policymakers.

6. Collaboration: In looking at the agriculture sector as a system, it is vital that we collaborate with other professions and institutes to bring in new dimensions and perspectives. We, agricultural economists in Sri Lanka, are a small group. Therefore, collaborations should happen both within and outside the country to bring in new knowledge and expertise as well as much-needed finance.

Finally, as professionals, it is time we lead discussions in agricultural development in the country rather than playing the role of an observer or participant in discussions. When we, as the professionals with the mandate on this, shy away from or avoid public platforms, we open gates for non-professionals to drive their propaganda in the agricultural development domain, leading to far-reaching disastrous implications for the country’s economic development.

SDS Hemachandra (PhD)
President SAEA 2022

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