In addition, domestic food production is curtailed by a lack of agricultural inputs that have to be imported.
Amidst the serious shortages of essentials for livelihoods, social unrest and a political crisis, the government has been compelled to focus on the imminent possibility of food insecurity and starvation.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned the country that we will face severe food shortages and even starvation during the course of this year. Consequently, we saw a new focus of the government on food production to avoid starvation in the coming months.
The Prime Minister warned of imminent food shortages in the coming months; the President has appointed a task force to increase food production; and the Agriculture Minister is pleading with farmers to begin cultivation as soon as possible.
The causes for food shortages is too well known. The banning of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals diminished food production drastically. The nation that was near self-sufficient in rice became dependent on rice imports for which it has scarce resources of foreign currency.
This shortfall in production of paddy in two season, failure of vegetables and other crops, the inability of the country to import its food needs, fertiliser and agrochemicals owing to a dearth of foreign currency has resulted in the current food crisis.
The problem has been compounded by international shortages of food and fertiliser and their soaring prices owing to the Ukrainian war.
The genesis of the problem is in the President’s banning of chemical fertiliser and agrochemicals that he is striving to reverse now.
No import capacity
With negligible foreign reserves, the needed imports of food, fertiliser and agrochemicals have to be obtained on loans or gifts from friendly countries. India in particular has been generous in resolving these scarcities.
Whether the current efforts of the government would increase the country’s agricultural production to stave off starvation is unlikely owing to the lack of inputs for cultivation. The Prime Minister’s estimated requirement of US$ 600 million for fertiliser renders the import of adequate fertiliser impossible.
The only favourable factor has been plentiful rains, even causing floods in several regions in the country. The shortages of fertiliser, fuel, agrochemicals and seed material are the severe constraints to commencing cultivation.
Furthermore, farm incomes have dwindled owing to the low farm incomes from a failed Maha crop. Financial assistance is essential to enable farmers to commence cultivation.
The Agriculture Minister, who is fully aware of this, is pleading that even if farmers are unable to cultivate paddy this Maha, that they do so in the Yala season beginning around September and to grow other crops like mung beans in the current Maha 22/23.
There are also efforts to cultivate uncultivated lands and expand home gardens. The results of these thrusts are uncertain as yet. There is little doubt that the production of food crops would be a fraction of the potential and too little to resolve the food shortages.
There is however a puzzle in understanding the stock position on rice. The previous harvests of 2020/21 were bountiful, but millers and merchants were storing paddy and rice to increase prices. In addition, the government imported large quantities of rice to break this hold from China, India and Myanmar. Are there stocks of locally produced and imported rice stocks? Can these alleviate the scarcity in rice?
The international economic conditions have aggravated the country’s food problem. International prices of food, fertiliser and fuel have skyrocketed and are likely to increase further. Food production shortfalls have resulted in food surplus countries banning grain exports. The developing International food situation has driven us to a serious food situation.
The food security of the country is severely threatened by these domestic and international factors. There is evidence of increasing malnutrition and even starvation. The Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital has reported a high incidence of malnutrition among children recently. Malnutrition in the country has risen and is rising to unacceptable proportions.
Household food insecurity
Household food security is endangered when people do not have the capacity to access the available food at prevailing prices, even though there is adequate food in the country. At the best of times when there is adequate stocks of food in the country there is a significant proportion of the population that cannot obtain adequate food due to inadequate income. Hence a high proportion of the country’s population is malnourished. This number is reported to be increasing recently.
Sri Lanka’s food security
We are facing a situation of both national food insecurity and household food insecurity. The latter is likely to increase to high proportions owing to soaring prices of food and loss of household incomes.
The country’s food security has been undermined by reduced domestic production, decreased food imports, higher prices, and the dearth of fertiliser, agrochemicals and fuel.
A country’s food security is dependent on its production of food and its ability to import food. Some of the most food secure countries in the world like Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong, produce little food but are food secure as they have the capacity to import food.
On the other hand, some of the most food-insecure nations, like sub-Saharan African countries are food insecure although they are agrarian economies.
We had enhanced our food security in the post independent period. In the 1950`s with a population of only around seven million we imported most of our food requirements. In 2020 with a population of 22 million we were about self-sufficient in rice and many other foods. We were import dependent on a number of basic commodities such as wheat, sugar, milk and dhal.
The food situation is drastically different in 2022. Our rice production has fallen by about 50 percent and so has many other food crops. And we do not have the finances to import the food deficit nor purchase the fertiliser, fuel and agrochemicals needed to revive food production.
Only the generosity of friendly countries and international organisations can save us from malnutrition, hunger and starvation. We may have to seek help from the World Food Programme.
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