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A third of the working population in Sri Lanka still depend on agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to climate change. Crop diversification could be an interesting strategy to adopt. Solutions to raise farm productivity, nutrition research and climate change adaptation are some areas of research collaboration between ICRISAT and Sri Lanka.  

4.2 million ha-Area classified as drylands (2/3 of the territory) in Sri Lanka

3 to 4 ton/ha – Yield observed in ICRISAT groundnut variety trials in Sri Lanka

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General context

 The teardrop-shaped tropical island, located just 30-50 km off the Southern tip of India, known as the "pearl of the Indian Ocean", has suffered a long civil war that disrupted smallholder agriculture and other economic activities for two decades in the North East part of the island. The peace and reconstruction process will hopefully improve the food security and poverty situation in rural areas.

The Sri Lankan economy has changed in recent years, from an agriculture-based one  to one dominated by the services sector, including tourism, which represents over half the national GDP (56%). Agriculture, including livestock and fisheries, account for less than 15% of the GDP and is dominated by a few traditional plantation crops, in particular high quality tea (20% of global tea trade). The agriculture sector employs over one-third of the workforce and links with the manufacturing and services sectors. Weak agricultural policies and delivery of services in remote rural areas, as well as uncertainty of state interventions in agricultural input/output markets restrict agricultural development.

There are two cultivation seasons, the Yala (Southwest monsoon) and Maha (Northeast monsoon). Water management has always been challenging especially in the drier Northeast, as mountains in the central region block the monsoon rains from the Southwest, and irrigation facilities are scarce. Small-scale farming is therefore vulnerable to erratic rains, with a million families being severely affected by frequent droughts.

Since any temperature rise will jeopardize tea production, Sri Lanka may have to rethink its agriculture given climate change predictions. Cultivation of traditional crops like finger millet, black gram, and oilseeds have fallen in recent times, while that of other cereals and vegetables are increasing. Some farmers are shifting to perennial crops like cashewnut in rainfed villages in response to climate change.

ICRISAT research in Sri Lanka

Our research collaboration with Sri Lanka focuses on plant breeding, crop management and farming systems, aiming at improving the farm productivity of Sri Lanka's drylands (4.2 million hectares). Groundnut and pigeonpea were given high priority in recent years, as legume proteins play an important role in the family nutrition in rural areas. Sri Lankan farmers were interested in the drought tolerance and yield potential (1 to 2 tons per hectare) of pigeonpea and research on this legume has started since 1990's. Yields over 2 tons/ha have been demonstrated in fallow rice fields during the post rainy yala season.

Groundnut, grown over 11,000 hectares, is mostly consumed as snacks. Three high yielding ICRISAT groundnut varieties have been released in the country.

Kadala or chickpea is widely consumed in Sri Lanka but this crop is not grown as high temperatures and terminal drought are major constraints. Over 1,100 chickpea germplasms have been tested for adaptation and it appears that the super early chickpea varieties could be cultivated on the island.

Such legume experimentation is important to test and promote crop diversification which will help farmers sustain production despite global warming. Research looks at the increase of agricultural vulnerability due to demonstrated climate change (a rise of annual mean temperature of 0.3 degrees was noted in the period 1981-2006), as well as the different adaptation strategies depending on farm size.

ICRISAT also collaborates with Sri Lankan scientists in better understanding the nutrition value of finger millet, a dryland cereal grown by many Sri Lankan farmers. They are looking at the prebiotic components such as carbohydrates that promote the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria.

Climate change vulnerability: The southern districts are highly vulnerable to climate change.
Some pigeonpea varieties such as "Prasada" showed great potential as postrainy crops in fallow rice lands.
Several groundnut varieties like Walawe, Indi and Tikiri have shown yields of over 3 tons per hectare.
Photo: ICRISAT
Scientists are investigating the role of probiotic components of finger millet which may increase the market potential of this traditional crop.
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