Food security and decolonising Sri Lankan diet | Sunday Observer

Food security and decolonising Sri Lankan diet

4 December, 2022

Today, there is much panic about skyrocketing food prices and cases of people facing a food crisis. The world has seen acute food shortages at diverse intervals in different countries, owing to diverse reasons and although we are currently obsessed only with highlighting Sri Lanka’s plight, a careful analysis of other countries, including the United States and other Western countries will indicate skyrocketing food prices and food shortages.

Any national crisis is an opportunity for its people to re-think the multifarious causes and the equally multifarious solutions and rising stronger than before.

It is also a time to think whether we have been trampling upon and ridiculing the solutions that had made the country an ancient civilisation based on food security and where its national policies revolved on keeping the nation healthy.

Hydraulic civilisation

It is for this reason that the country was known as a hydraulic civilisation where ancient kings focused on creating water security and conservation so that it would contribute to food security and where soil enrichment was considered strongly in national policy where certain trees such as the Mee (Madhucalongifolia) tree was especially protected for its role in soil fertilisation.

Therefore, in this backdrop, and with countrymen who had a sound knowledge about their land and its bounty, the hundreds of traditional rice varieties that were both medicine and food, the almost countless varieties of tubers and yams (used as food centric treatment for diseases ranging from anaemia to diabetes) and the many traditional fruits, leaves and herbs thrived. They grew in the wilderness and they were grown in every household.

Hunger was not something associated with this country historically and the medical science of Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama), Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani ensured medical security. The education system revolved around the basic knowledge of how to keep the environment; soil, plants, water resource base and the human body healthy. Thus, the concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘self-sufficiency’ was inbuilt into the individual and national psyche. Citizens knew that almost every single traditionally grown plant was food as well as medicine.

We will have to consider what we do not hear from economic experts or taken up in panel discussions talking of the current crisis; that it is time the people revive the knowledge of what should mean ‘food’ for Sri Lankans.

Yams and Tubers

For example, as prominent traditional food activists such as Chef Publis Silva has repeatedly said, Sri Lanka has over 300 varieties of Yams and Tubers that grow wild (but with the post-colonial conversion into chemical fertiliser where many of these are killed off) and around 500 or more varieties of traditional rice and scores of traditional grains. All of these are both food and medicines. This is the reason that the ancient civilisation of the nation was declared by 19th century Western medical researchers to be a kind of a pharmacy.

Traditional food varieties are those that grew without external inputs. There are rice and grain varieties that grow in salty areas of the country. Sri Lanka was a haven of rich soil.

What we will not hear from some of the gurus preaching solutions to the current crisis is that we can educate the public on the hundreds of traditional rice, yams, tubers, grains, spices, fruit, nuts and seeds that our ancient kings promoted as part of the nations’ food policy. Hence in this time of skyrocketing food prices, below are few recommendations;

To encourage each Sri Lankan to take responsibility for creating solutions to eradicate hunger through awareness on traditional food that grows in abundance.

There are thousands of traditional food/medicine practitioners who are cultivating/educating/promoting indigenous food varieties. Each one can be the harbinger to the food security solution, if we seek out these practitioners and educate ourselves and others on the vast amount of food naturally grows.

Each of us could be activists to ensure that we enrich our soil through diverse natural means.

Each one of us could use our might to sensationalise the ‘solutions’ rather than the problem and work with teachers and academics to learn what our ancestors knew and what we do not know about the food of the land.

Armed with knowledge, we could turn all places of worship into such learning centres as well as cultivation centres where indigenous food is cultivated and the services of traditional farmers and traditional medicinal nutritionists are used proactively, reinstating in the island the medicinal security it was known for.

Such a revitalising effort could be a key factor for wellbeing based tourism.