The truth about food | Sunday Observer

The truth about food

5 September, 2021

Food is a fundamental right of the people and food security is one of the cornerstones of national security. Sri Lanka, which is primarily an agricultural nation, had once been known as the Granary of the East. Even amid two World Wars and Northern and Southern insurgencies, Sri Lanka never experienced anything close to famine or even a limited food shortage.

The inward looking economic policies that prevailed during the 1970-77 period did result in limited rationing and some economic difficulties for the people, but the drive to grow foods locally succeeded to a great extent. However, the open economy introduced in 1977 led to the total destruction of the indigenous economy and we began to import everything from foods to needles.

In fact, some economists believe that if that drive continued for some more time, the country would have literally reaped the benefits and become self-sufficient in nearly all the main foods. We did become self-sufficient in rice some time later, though. However, these gains were lost later as we depended almost entirely on imports. Even the fruits and vegetables that we could grow here easily were imported at great cost. This was not only a huge drain on foreign exchange but also a great blow to the local farmers.

We did not, however, feel the ill-effects of this dependence on imports as we were cushioned to a great extent by expat remittances and tourism earnings. But the Covid-19 pandemic that entered our shores in March 2020 was an eye-opener for our import-driven economy. Suddenly, both tourism and expatriate remittances dried up and exports too could not be maintained. This led the Government to implement drastic measures to protect the economy and foreign exchange reserves.

Some say that Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise for the local agricultural sector as the Government immediately began a production drive for 14 crop varieties that could be grown locally. This import substitution alone saved millions of dollars for the economy at a time when health costs (treatment, testing and quarantining) associated with the pandemic escalated. Going one step further, the Government has introduced another revolutionary change – completely organic agriculture. Under this program, the use of chemical fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides would be phased out as soon as possible. Organic farming is healthy for the soil as well as for the consumer, though there will be teething problems. It will also take a few years for the results to become apparent. Again, this will mean a huge saving in terms of foreign exchange spent on chemical fertiliser and agrochemical imports.

However, not all foods and commodities can be produced locally. Even if they can be, the local demand for some foods exceeds what the farmers can supply. In such cases, the Government has to resort to imports. The private sector plays this role as the Government does not directly import foods.

But sometimes the private sector does not exactly abide by accepted norms of conduct. In the present lockdown, many traders and importers have resorted to the hoarding of goods with the intention of jacking up prices. This is a case of ‘make hay while the sun shines’, of course at the expense of the consumer. Sugar and rice are the main items hoarded in this manner, with unscrupulous traders selling a kilo of sugar at an exorbitant Rs.230, despite the import tax being only 25 cents per kilogram. Rice too is available aplenty as a result of a bumper harvest, but market prices had gone through the roof, mainly as a result of manipulation by the so-called “rice-mafia”, a collective of big mill owners who call the shots in the market.

This was a huge inconvenience to consumers who are facing difficulties on several fronts. The Government has thus taken a strong stand against the practice of hoarding and through the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), conducted non-stop raids on warehouses that contained hoarded rice and sugar stocks. Accordingly, these stocks have been released to the open market, especially through the Sathosa outlets at controlled prices.

People gathered outside the Sathosa outlets to buy their requirements even amidst the curfew. The Government has since gazetted Maximum Retail Prices (MRP) for rice, sugar and several other foodstuffs. The Government has also appointed a Commissioner General of Essential Services to ensure that all essential commodities are available to the people at controlled, affordable prices. This is a step in the right direction as hoarders will also get the message that their antics will no longer be tolerated by the authorities.

Unfortunately, these steps have been misinterpreted by some sections of the foreign media as “food emergency” and a “food shortage”. This has created a wrong picture in the minds of overseas readers and viewers on Sri Lanka, that the situation here is akin to that of certain sub-Saharan African countries.

The truth is that there is absolutely no food emergency or shortage in the country. Emergency powers are only being used to provide hoarded stocks of food to the consumers and also to ensure the smooth distribution of food amid the Quarantine Curfew. Local food production is going ahead as usual, as seen from the frantic activity at all the Dedicated Economic Centres around the country. In fact, the only downside is the increased incidence of Post-Harvest Losses (PHL) as some farmers have not been able to sell their produce on time due to the current travel restrictions in force. The Government should address all these shortcomings in food distribution to give the consumers a wider choice even amidst the present circumstances.