Thursday, April 15, 2021

Food (In)security: A national action plan needed

Food security is defined by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security as “the means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preference and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”. Despite the lengthy description, a vast majority of the countries, irrespective of whether developed, developing, or underdeveloped, confront food security issues at different levels.

For example, according to Wikipedia, while Afghanistan with a nominal per capita income of US$ 601 undergoes 35 percent household food insecurity, the United States with a per capita of US$ 63,051 also experiences 11 percent food insecurity. Perhaps, except for a very few countries, most others are subjected to food security issues in varying degrees.

Sucker punch

Despite the unprecedented recent economic growth in Asian countries such as China, India, and the region as a whole, the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered a sucker punch that has significantly affected household food consumption. In Sri Lanka, as a result of job losses, reduced food productions, disruptions to the food supply chain, soaring prices, and the severe health crisis, the people were compelled to take stringent measures to face the food shortage.

Even though food scarcity has been a pressing global issue in the past, the impact created by the treacherous Covid-19 pandemic has reinvented the topic of ‘food security’ in almost every country. The supply chain disruptions brought the food security issue into focus with warnings from organisations such as the United Nations World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) places Sri Lanka at 66th place among 113 countries with an overall score of 60.8 points. In comparison, Singapore at the top has a score of 87.4 points with sixteen strengths and zero challenges. The GFSI ranking is made considering the core issues of affordability, availability, and quality. The indicator is a globally accepted quantitative and qualitative benchmark that measures the drivers of food security.

Food security

The population of Sri Lanka is projected to rise by over 600,000 by 2030. With this sharp spike, the requirement for food supplies also will increase. Hence, the need to address the challenge of food security is extremely urgent. The subject of food security is not addressed by the authorities adequately, nor is it a popular topic among politicians. Even the usually powerful and effective electronic, print, and social media in Sri Lanka have not properly focused on this pressing issue. The country currently does not seem to have a clear policy or comprehensive strategy to combat the prolonged food insecurity.

Food security is dependent on the efficiency and productivity of the agricultural sector. Historically, Sri Lanka was known as an agricultural country. Even though the country’s soil fertility and other relevant climatic conditions are largely suitable for agriculture, at present only 23.7 percent of the population is employed in the farming sector as against 30.6 percent in the industrial sector and 45 percent in the service sector. The interest in agriculture is low due to a variety of factors such as high cost of production, adverse climatic conditions, price fluctuations, high cost and wastage in transit, and several other reasons. The Government’s recent ban and import restrictions on non-essential food products were welcoming news for farmers. Food imports not only hamper the enthusiasm of the farmers but also create heavy price volatility for consumers. Unwanted food products discriminately imported by traders are a threat to local farmers to obtain a reasonable price in the market. There seem to be no proper study on the disparity between food imports and local production.

In keeping with the election manifesto, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, visibly displays his interest in providing maximum assistance to the agriculture sector. However, it is still unclear whether his directives are properly carried out by government officials.

The President has paid utmost attention to the development of agriculture. His vision and the action plan proposed in Chapter-5 of his manifesto is the best guideline for the crucially important agriculture sector at this time.

Inequality

Over the past few years, the prices of almost all food items have risen sharply due to the inequality between supply and demand. In the supply segment, production shortages due to various natural phenomena such as droughts or heavy rainfall have caused the soaring of 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 also lead to price spikes.

Home gardening is one of the most productive concepts to meet food security in Sri Lanka. For centuries, Sri Lankans successfully engaged in home gardening for food supplies with the naturally fertile soil. Home gardening contributes to household food consumption by increasing availability, accessibility, utilisation, and stability of food, the four factors that form the pillars of food security.

Senior citizens may recollect that several decades ago, food crops were cultivated by most Sri Lankan families in home gardens for personal consumption. This offered social, economical, and environmental benefits to both growers and the country. However, with the emergence of the liberal economic environment, these traditional habits shrunk to a great extent. During the early stage of Covid-19, amid the long lockdowns, the Department of Agriculture, with the patronage of the Government launched a program to popularise home gardening. Under this plan, they distributed two million seed packs throughout the country and provided technical advice to participants. Unlike the previous attempts, Saubhagya (prosperity) has gathered momentum.

Self-sufficiency

Even families that were not directly involved in this program contributed towards it by purchasing seeds on their own. The country as a whole has realised the importance of individual food self-sufficiency.

Food security is a global issue for the majority of countries including the developed or rich nations. The magnitude of the issue has been clearly evident during the prevailing pandemic which showed that the world is not completely ready for a comfortable supply of food in a crisis. The development of sustainable agriculture is the key to ensuring food security. The diverse climatic conditions enable year-round cultivation. To secure food for the next generation, the authorities should act swiftly and prepare long term national plans to confront food security issues. At present, only the agriculture sector discusses this pressing issue.

Good proposals put forward by experts seem to have been swept under the carpet due to inter-agency frictions, political involvement, and bureaucracy. The effort must be national and the whole country must contribute. The prevailing high food prices will keep rising until the agriculture sector becomes secure and strong. The agriculture sector will continue to be crucial for food security in the years to come. The prohibitive challenges such as irrigation restrictions, lands, water supply, fertiliser shortage, and other related issues must be addressed holistically by the Government.

HEMANTHA KULATUNGA
Source: sundayobserver.lk

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