Rice is famed to have had a long and regal history in Sri Lanka. Its importance goes far beyond its status as a primary food source in this island nation. Synonymously, rice plays an important role in the country's cultural identity, tradition, and politics.
Sri Lanka and IRRI started collaborating in 1960 through training and exchange of rice varieties. In 1967, an agreement between Sri Lanka and the Ford Foundation led to a two-year program between IRRI and the country's Department of Agriculture where its scientists eventually trained at IRRI. Renewed in 1969, the program also included technology transfer activities.
Different projects were conducted with the collaborative efforts of IRRI and partner institutions in Sri Lanka, one of which is a collaboration with the country’s Department of Agriculture (DOASL) and the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID). They undertook a Rice Research project where Sri Lankans were provided with nearly 25 graduate scholarships to different universities in the US, UK, and the Philippines, as well as 100 short-term trainings in rice production, and cropping systems. Moreover, the project also provided research equipment and infrastructure development in rice research stations, and included as a component the improvement of rice varieties.
In 2007, DOASL and IRRI held a collaborative workplan meeting where they identified some areas for mutual cooperation. This included improving existing rice varieties in terms of quality and yield, enhancing conservation of rice genetic resources, increasing labor productivity, and strengthening the delivery and impact of technology through good extension models. Similar with past agreements, DOASL continued to serve as the clearing house for IRRI’s activities in Sri Lanka. Both institutions continue to find ways and means of improving collaboration including funding support.
Current research and development with Sri Lanka
Breeding better rice varieties
IRRI is developing Green Super Rice varieties that produce stable yields despite low inputs such as fertilizer or pesticides, as well as rice varieties that can withstand the effects of climate change, particularly, flood. In another project, IRRI also aims to track the diffusion of rice varieties across South Asia and generate widely accessible databases on crop improvement. This is to understand the impact of food-crop genetics research on the poor and food insecure in the region.
Fine-tuning rice farming systems
The Closing Rice Yield Gaps (CORIGAP) is one of several projects by IRRI that aim to raise the productivity, profitability, and resilience of rice farming systems while ensuring environmental sustainability. IRRI has developed innovation platforms that foster participatory research and extension in CORIGAP. Key partners in this project include policy advisers, farmers and farmer groups, teaching institutions, and agricultural practitioners from NGOs, the private sector, and government research and extension specialists.
Weeds were not a serious problem in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. But in the early 2000s, one weed type began uncontrollably increasing in farmer's fields causing as much as 30-100% yield loss. This weed type identified as 'weedy rice' was believed to be either a natural hybrid of cultivated rice (O. sativa) and a wild rice species (O. rufipogon and O. nivara) or the result of 'de-domestication' of cultivated rice. After conducting some field experiments to determine the most effective crop establishment method for weedy rice in 2010, IRRI is currently doing more field trials on improved management strategies for weedy rice. The project will not only identify, adapt, and validate improved management strategies, but also establish a network and develop training materials for farmers, extension workers, and researchers on the prevention and control of weedy rice.
Coping with climate change
Headquartered in Sri Lanka, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is working with IRRI on initiatives under the Climate Change affecting Land Use in the Mekong Delta: Adaptation of Rice-based Cropping Systems (CLUES) project.
In the 1950s, Sri Lanka imported an average of about 60% of its annual rice needs for six million people. The improvements in the genetic potential of rice varieties through breeding and improved management practices and facilities along with added support through certified seeds, credit facilities and guaranteed price scheme allowed Sri Lanka to reach rice self-sufficiency in 2000. In 2010, Sri Lanka produced about 15-20% more rice than it needs for 20 million people and imported only less than one percent specialty rice for its hotel industry.
Better rice varieties
By 2009, 95% of Sri Lanka's rice land was planted with improved rice varieties. According to the Council for Partnership on Rice Research in Asia (CORRA), annual rice production in Sri Lanka has risen by more than tenfold in the last 60 years. Within the same span of time, average rice yields increased by more than fivefold from 0.8 tons per hectare to 4.18 tons per hectare.
Genetic diversity conservation
In 2000, nearly 1000 different types of rice from Sri Lanka were donated to IRRI's International Rice Genebank. As of 2015, the Genebank holds about 2,027 types of rice from Sri Lanka.
Training has been one of the most active areas of joint work between DOASL and IRRI since they started collaborating in 1960.
A broad range of projects implemented with support from different institutions like the USAID, Swedish Agency for Research and Economic Cooperation (SAREC), and others included training programs to build the scientific human capital of the country. From 1964 to 2014, 135 scholars from Sri Lanka completed their studies while 426 trainees have attended short courses at IRRI.
Sri Lanka is blessed with a vast, fertile terrain that allows it to grow many crops including rice. The country's rice industry can trace its roots back to the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, the first capital of the island nation, which was said to have flourished between 161 BC and AD 1017.
Many kings of this period had reportedly built large reservoirs and mazes of interconnected canals to irrigate the rice fields of their constituents.
To this day, these waterways and numerous reservoirs are being used by rice farmers in the dry zone for their irrigation. These ancient works have also been rehabilitated and maintained under the acclaimed Mahaweli River diversion program that was implemented during the 1980s to ensure reliable water availability.
Rice is grown mainly on irrigated land in Sri Lanka's "dry zone" that spans most of the country's north-central and northeastern regions, and secondarily on rainfed (nonirrigated land) by smallholder farmers across the country.
In 2007, Sri Lanka's rice industry made up 5% of the nation's gross domestic product. Almost one-third of the labor force is said to be directly involved in the rice sector. In 2010, the per-capita consumption of rice rose to 114 kilograms from 108 kilograms in 2008.
Although it is widely recognized that rice offered minimal financial return for farmers, its social, cultural, and political significance had ensured that successive governments since independence paid it due attention.
IRRI Sri Lanka
c/o Ministry of Agriculture
“Govijana Mandiraya” 80/5 Rajamalwatta Avenue
Battaramula, Sri Lanka
You may also view IRRI's YouTube playlist about Sri Lanka.
Media release and news items
- More Asian rice farmers to benefit from CORIGAP technologies
- Sri Lankan envoy visits IRRI, discusses building capacity for research
- CORIGAP opens as IRRC achievements lauded in new RIPPLE issue
- Direct-seeded rice areas to get boost from rice that can germinate in anaerobic conditions