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Local vegetable oil fiasco and irrational goals

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by Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardene is reported to have remarked at some meeting that the current coconut prices can be reduced if people consume soya instead of coconut! Surprisingly, this has come from an educated minister! What rushed to my mind is the supposed utterance of Queen Marie Antoinette: “If no bread why don’t they eat cake!” However, some historians claim she never uttered those words. Let us hope the Minister too did not!

Be that as it may, the Table 1 below shows the current retail price of commonly consumed vegetable oils.

The cheapest vegetable oil in the market is palm oil which is 24% and 34% less than coconut and soya respectively. The price difference is substantial to the low-income consumer. The poor people largely consume not coconut but palm oil labelled often as ‘vegetable oil.S The high price of fresh nuts is because of the poor production last year and now, and reducing consumption of coconut oil will hardly have an impact on coconut prices.

The relative low price of palm oil is because of the very high productivity of oil palm which is, on average, five times that of coconut and 10 times that of arable oils such as soya, corn, sunflower and sesame.

 

Bit of History

Because of the very high productivity, after the Second World War many South East Asian countries took up oil palm cultivation to meet the increasing global oil demand. Already oil palm cultivations existed in West African countries. It is reported that oil palm use there is as old, if not older, than coconut oil use in East Asia. In fact Malaysia opening up land for expansion of agriculture, and had a land policy of 60: 40 for rubber and oil palm from the early 1960s . However, seeing the growing vegetable oil demand and profits, the then Premier Tunku Abdul Rehman reversed it to 60:40, in 1965. Some of our plantation companies too, but at ‘snail pace’, took up diversifying some of the low-yielding rubber but to date have only about 10,000 ha oil palm.

During the Second World War, with disruption of coconut oil supplies from the east, the west began consuming arable oils such as soya. However, with the resumption of oil supplies from the west after the war, the soya oil lobby attempted everything possible to ban coconut and palm oil supplies to the west. Together with the American Heart Association’s backing, coconut and palm oils were branded as “artery clogging tropical oils”. The attached photo tells it all!

Sadly, however, although several plantation companies made a move to expand palm oil cultivation in Sri Lanka diversifying some of the less productive

rubber lands, the President in a sudden decision without an inSdepth analysis of facts of the matter, banned palm oil cultivation expansion. A written request by a team of 18 experts on the subject including 11 senior professors ended up in the Presidential dustbin, his office informed!

 

The need for a National Planning Commission

This ignoble happening is an outstanding example for the need for a body of professionals and experts for making major national policy decisions. India has such a Commission from the days of Premier Nehru, and to date Premier Narendra Modi continues with it but with a small name amendment Ironically, a major decision of this commission was to expand the Indian oil palm extent from the current level of 400,000 ha to 2 million using a large share of the irrigated lands currently cultivating some eleven arable oil crops. Because of the low yield of arable oil crops India has a huge palm oil import bill. We should learn from the Indian example!

The President’s decision to ban palm oil cultivation is the claim by villagers in the oil palm growing areas that it causes drying of wells and other water bodies. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this contention. The evidence is that the evapo-transpiation rates perday per hectare of rubber and oil palm are about 32,720 and 35,607 litres respectively, a difference of only 9%. Moreover, given the rainfall rates of 2500-3000 mm per year the in the wet zone the needed water for both crops should be conveniently available. Moreover given the economic returns of the two crops for rubber and oil palm of Rs 280,000 and 630, 000 respectively, the justification for increasing the production of palm oil is overwhelming.

 

The unrealistic policy of the government to meet the national oil demand from coconut

 

Our national annual vegetable oil demand is over 180,000 MT of which for consumption as oil and for the food industry is about 120,000MT. The current coconut oil production is a meagre 45,000MT, and that of palm oil from the 10,000 odd ha now under cultivation is about 20,000MT. Given our coconut oil yield of ) 0.8 MT/ha/yr we need an additional 75,000 MT coconut oil just for dietary consumption obtainable from about 93,750 ha. There is doubt whether such an extent of land suitable for coconut is available. The government has set upon expansion of coconut cultivation in about 20,000 ha in the north and east. There is a serious constraint to coconut cultivation in the dry zone because of increased atmospheric temperatures with global warming, causing poor pollen germination and fruit set. Given the various constraints the Coconut Research Institute calculates availability of a maximum of a further 50,000 ha for it. The simple logic is that it is hard to produce our oil need from coconut oil. On the other hand, diversifying an additional 50,000 ha of unproductive rubber could provide our oil requirement conveniently. Given the massive economic benefit of oil palm over rubber, the government’s indecision on the issue is hard to understand.

Cultivating oil palm or coconut in abandoned paddy fields

Estimates reveal some 143,000 acres (58,000 ha) of which over 80% are in the wet zone. Rice is not cultivated in these lands because of very poor returns. Much of these ill-drained lands should be cultivable with coconut or oil palm using the “Sojan” system developed in Indonesia where the crops are grown in raised beds. The drained water can be collected at the bottom of the catena in ponds for fish culture.

 

Should coconut cultivation expansion be only for the oil?

 

The biggest demand now of coconut globally is for the coconut water as a sports drink. It is expected to grow four fold over the next five years. The anti-oxidant and other health benefits are some reasons for it. Because all the health benefits are retained on dehydration of the water to form a powder, the latter is used widely for addition to other drinks. The American Chemical Society has recommended it as a sports drink. There is also a huge demand for tender coconuts. As shown in the picture below partially de-husked tender coconuts are a common site in foreign supermarkets. A tender coconut shown in the picture is 4.25 Singapore dollars! The potential for export of tender ‘Thambili’ nuts appears huge, and the ill-drained lands should be quite suitable for cultivation of this crop for export.

As per the data in Table 2, the export market for coconut milk products has grown far in excess of the coconut oils.

In conclusion, coconut is a multipurpose commodity , and its expansion need not necessarily be only for oil production for the local demand, but based on the market demand and profitability of the various products globally. The government policy to meet our entire vegetable oil with coconut oil is untenable given the limited land availability. Converting about 50, 000 ha for oil palm is very rational and if the rubber land diversification is to be stopped, the ideal option is the use of the abandoned paddy lands involving smallholders of those of lands. Some 35% of the global palm oil production is via smallholdings.



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Opinion

Alan Henricus- A Stalwart Sportsman Of Yesteryear Passes Away

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Alan Henricus (10-Feb 1933 – 26 Nov 2022)

by Hugh Karunanayake

Alan Henricus the youngest of five outstanding sporting brothers who represented their school Royal College, and their country then known as Ceylon, passed away a few days ago. He would have been 90 years of age if he survived up to his birthday in February next year.

The Henricus brothers grew up in Kohuwela where their father a former Feather Weight Boxing Champion of Ceylon lived. He served as an administrator of the sport first as Hony Secretary of the Amateur Boxing Association of Ceylon and later as its President. He helped build the Baptist Church in Nugegoda and was its Treasurer for 25 years. The road leading to their property was named Henricus Mawatha in honour of this outstanding family.

Alan represented Royal in Boxing, Athletics and Rugby, and won school colours in all three sports. He was also a school prefect, highly respected and regarded by both his schoolmates and staff. The family consisting of five brothers and two sisters were all nurtured in the best sporting traditions of colonial Ceylon. Eldest brother Barney represented Ceylon in boxing at the Empire Games and won a gold medal winning the feather weight title. The next, Basil, held the national record for 100 yards sprint and I believe his record still stands. He also represented the Havelocks Sports Club and All Ceylon at Rugby. The next brother George, for many years the Master Attendant in the Colombo Port was also a champion boxer, as was Derrick the fourth in line.

Remarkable sportsmen such as Alan reached their great heights from a base of raw innate talent fostered by regular training and a disciplined approach to life. When I was a 10-year old schoolboy I used to watch with awe and admiration Alan doing his training run at 6 a.m in the morning, jogging all the way from his home in Kohuwela to the Havelock Park and back on most weekends. Alan was senior to me in school by about three years and in those days that was an age gap filled with respect and admiration for a senior student. To us younger kids the high achieving Alan was a hero.

I recall in one Public Schools Athletics meet for the Tarbat Cup, either in 1950 or 1951,Royal College was able to obtain a total of 15 points only, and were never serious contenders for the trophy. However the 15 points that Royal earned was almost single handedly collected through Alan’s efforts. He won the pole vault event, was first in the 120 metres hurdles, and was a member of the 4 X 400 metre relay team which won the event. Although the Tarbat Cup was won by another school, the assembled gathering of Royalists carried Alan shoulder high around the grounds!

From school he was selected for training as a Naval officer cadet in Dartmouth in Devonshire in England. Fellow Royalists the late Norman Gunawardena, and Humphrey Wijesinghe were among the cadets who were selected for Dartmouth together with Alan. On returning to Ceylon after his naval training at Dartmouth, he served the Royal Ceylon Navy and its successor Sri Lanka Navy for several years until retirement. On retirement from the Navy he served for a short period as an Executive in a Mercantile firm in Colombo, before migrating with his family to Australia.

The stint at Dartmouth would carry many precious memories for him, as that was where he met Maureen the love of his life. On migrating to Australia in the 1970s Alan joined the Royal Australian Navy which he served with distinction as Lieut Commander. On my migrating to Australia in 1984 I met Alan and Maureen at a Sunday luncheon hosted by the late Brendon Goonratne. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and Alan and Maureen remained very close friends of ours.

Over the years we used to meet every three months at lunch at the Rosehill Bowling Club organized for old Royalist Seniors through the initiative of Chandra Senaratne. Other social engagements over the years have strengthened our friendship, and it is with deep distress that I heard of his terminal illness about two months ago. I rang him immediately and he was stoic as ever, the brave naval officer that he was. He said in no uncertain terms that he was not seeking to extend his life on this earth, and that he would wait in his home until the final call.

Alan’s departure marks another severance with the old Ceylon we knew, and its traditions and honorable ways. The Last Post will be played at his funeral at the Baptist Church, Epping on Friday December 2 at 3pm. He is survived by his dear wife Maureen, sons Andrew and Richard,, daughter in law Caroline, and grandson Ryan.

“The song is ended but the melody lingers on “

Farewell dear Alan.

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Opinion

Controversy Over Female Teachers’ Dress To School

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Our country and its people always get involved with unnecessary things which is of no interest to the majority of people. The latest debate in this never -a -dull -moment country (as always for the wrong reason) is the dress the female teachers are expected to wear to school. This is something that should be decided by the Ministry of Education in respect of the teachers of government schools.

I recollect when we were students the majority of female teachers wore saree to school. Then there were several teachers who wore frocks. These were the Burgher ladies. And there was no problem at all. I am not indicating this to show support that the teachers should be left to decide on their dress.

Now the strange thing about this controversy is that Buddhist monks have got involved in the debate and they are trying to determine the dress that teachers should wear. They do not seem to realize that the teachers must pay for the sarees. And they need to possess several sarees as they cannot wear the same saree over and over again. Given the monks get their robes free from the dayakayas, they should never get involved in matters of this nature, even though the female nurses may be happy to have one as the president of their union!

This controversy, if settled in favour of the teachers being given the option to decide on the dress and if they wear various types of dresses, the students too might get a bright idea to wear anything they want rather than the uniform that they have to wear at present.

It might be a good thing if the Ministry of Education could decide on a uniform for female teachers in Government schools. Some private hospitals, private firms and Sri Lankan Airlines have uniforms of their own and one could identify them easily. If there is such a uniform in saree and blouse for teachers in government schools, everybody outside too would be able to identify them as teachers and give the respect due to them.

However, this is not the time to worry about dress for teachers when there are children who do not get a proper education and suffer from malnutrition. It seems our rulers always get their priorities wrong, and this always affects the country and the people adversely. First, the teachers must do their job properly so that the schoolchildren do not have to attend tuition classes. We hear that sometimes only one teacher is available, and as a result the children keep away from attending school.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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Opinion

Dr Shafi’s daughter

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Just read on WhatsApp about the daughter of  famous Dr. Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi. I do not like to even mention why he became famous or infamous. His daughter after several years of rejection and trauma has passed GCE (OL) examination with Eight As.

The persons who generated disaster to an innocent family used it to gain positions as President, Ministers and MPs. Teachers and student friends of Dr Shafi’s children too insulted and rejected them as dirt. Has anyone of  these people apologized to this family for their suffering?

B Perera

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