A nationwide effort is essential for food security | Sunday Observer

A nationwide effort is essential for food security

26 June, 2022

According to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS), food security is “the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to an adequate supply of food that is safe and fits their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.”

Despite the lengthy explanation, the vast majority of nations, whether developed, developing, or undeveloped, currently encounter various levels of food security challenges.

Not only Sri Lanka but also many countries regardless of their economic status, are gearing up to confront the impending food crisis. Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told the World Economic Forum that global anxiety about access to affordable food is “hitting the roof” as food prices continue to rise. Similarly, the United Nations Secretary-General has also warned of the spectre of an imminent global food crisis. These two statements simply indicate the magnitude of the crisis.

Daunting economic crisis

The current daunting economic crisis has placed the Sri Lankan citizenry in a severely awkward position with nationwide food shortages for various reasons. Food has become costly for a majority portion of the population as a result of Sri Lanka’s major decline in agricultural production due to the infamous chemical fertiliser ban.

All agriculture-related factions, including the Government, have predicted harsh food shortages over the coming months. The economic crisis in the country is evidently turning into a humanitarian emergency unless remedial measures are taken without delay.

Adding salt to the wound, the severe fuel shortage due to the sharp reduction of foreign exchange receipts has already affected the lives of millions of people in the country. As a large portion of essential foods are imported, the impact on the lower levels of society has been daunting.

The transport costs of the food distribution system have sent food prices skyrocketing, making essential food items inaccessible to a section of the population.

The chemical fertiliser prohibition that came with bad advice and without adequate planning has created ongoing intolerable hardships for the general public. The irony is that those so-called advisors who completely led the Government up the garden path are remaining incommunicado as if nothing happened due to their negligence.

This untimely and hastily implemented prohibition has created a terrible effect on productivity and production, which saw an approximate 50 percent fall in output of most types of essential food varieties.

Portion of farmers

The yield reduction is probably going to persist until the following cultivation of the ‘Yala Season’. Only a small portion of farmers have worked their fields for ‘Yala’ cultivation because of the higher production costs, which have climbed to more than double for paddy harvests. Only a small portion of normally farmed land is thought to have been planted with crops for the forthcoming growing season. As a result, the existing yield is most likely to be insufficient to meet domestic needs.

The extensive shortage of essential imported food products such as wheat flour, canned fish, milk powder, lentils and so on has made the prices spike to exorbitant levels. As a result, families have started to resort to eating less preferred or less expensive foods daily and limiting the portion sizes of meals.

Over the past few years, even before the current crisis, the prices of almost all food-related items in Sri Lanka have risen sharply due to inequality between supply and demand. As for the supply segment, during the past few years, production shortages due to various natural phenomena such as droughts or heavy rainfall have caused an elevation in prices.

The demand naturally increases whenever there is a shortage. In addition, poor functioning of the local agriculture market, artificial scarcity created by dubious traders, and inadequacy of Government control over pricing are also causing price spikes.

In order to confront this national crisis, in addition to the efforts of the Government, scholars, the private sector, schools, Buddhist temples, and the general public have consciously come forward.

Due to alarming warnings, particularly by scholars, the general public is showing an increasing enthusiasm for producing their own food by using whatever spaces they possess. They have also taken the situation seriously as they have realised the gravity of the problem at hand.

Although food security is a matter of importance to everyone and public trust in the Government is at an all-time low, the State is in the best position to make reforms to take action in times of crisis. For example, the Government has to adjust the policy framework of fertiliser imports for local production, open up import opportunities for importers, and set up new tax systems. In addition, only the Government can make institutional changes and impose other necessary regulatory actions.

Wastage of food is a serious issue in Sri Lanka. For a number of reasons, thousands of tonnes of edible food are wasted every day. The main among them is that wastage occurs in transit. As there is no system or regulatory mechanism, the transporters have an extremely low consciousness about the wastage. Numerous attempts made by successive Governments and scholars to introduce a viable solution have failed so far. An effective mechanism and an attitude change by the lorry transporters are dire needs for the country’s effort to combat the crisis.

A number of Sri Lankan scholars who specialise in agriculture and food production have cited common reasons for the shortage of food in Sri Lanka.

They say that the primitive methods still used in Sri Lanka are a major reason. According to them, the traditional knowledge that has so far been utilised by many farmers can be improved by educating them. The yield can be increased by following new methods.

Transportation issues

Apart from the above, the efficiency of the irrigation system is not updated to meet the modern needs of agriculture. Transportation issues, a lack of information, insufficient marketing efforts, and financial constraints of the farmer fraternity all impede overall food production.

The Government is compelled to stop further deterioration of the current situation. The already commenced but hastily planned programs must be monitored closely as the general experience is that many such efforts were thrown into the waste bin in the past due to the whims and fancies of dubious politicians. As per the experts, home and community gardening are two effective efforts that have to be encouraged relentlessly.

Going after investors in large-scale commercial agriculture and encouraging them to join the effort is vitally important at this juncture. The usual notorious bureaucratic red tape has to be eliminated and the investors must be given adequate help to start food-producing ventures. A system must be implemented to offer undeveloped state lands to large-scale food producers. More importantly, all types of political manipulation must be curtailed.

The Government should devise an effective mechanism to develop the technology. The only solution to the impending crisis is to develop agriculture. Hence, with the help of scholars, farmers, media, and other stakeholders, the authorities must encourage the entire country to join the effort. The prevailing prohibitive challenges such as irrigation restrictions, lands, water supply, fertiliser shortage, and other related issues must be addressed holistically by the Government.