By Lakshila Wanigasinghe
World Food Day is celebrated on October 16 to promote awareness and action to ensure regular access to nutritious food for all. The blog examines Sri Lanka’s struggle to preserve food and nutrition security amid the current economic crisis and outlines policy measures to meet the challenge.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of its people, with the burden being heaviest on the poor and vulnerable. The situation progressed from bad to worse, with debt problems worsening and negatively affecting all aspects of the economy.
Food crisis in Sri Lanka
Global disruptions including COVID-19, the climate crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year have impacted food supplies around the world. However, food insecurity in Sri Lanka is largely the result of the current economic crisis coupled with short-sighted policies enforced by local decision makers. The overnight ban on chemical fertilizer imports was costly and resulted in a lower harvest. Although the ban has since been reversed, it continues to have ripple effects on the food system.
The drastic drop in domestic output has prompted policy makers to spend more money to import needed products previously produced locally, including staples like rice. This decision was detrimental at a time when foreign exchange reserves are lacking. In addition, government-imposed import controls have resulted in the scarcity of some food products. These supply shortages have led to increases in the prices of essential foods. With food inflation reaching 95% in September, Sri Lanka ranks among the top five countries with the highest food price inflation.
As food becomes scarcer and prices continue to rise, more and more people – the poor in particular – cannot afford adequate food. Added to the problem are inflationary pressures, the inability of wages to keep up with inflation and the loss of income caused by the economic crisis. Thus, households find themselves in a difficult situation to reduce their expenditure, in particular by reducing their consumption expenditure. A World Food Program (WFP) survey reveals that 79% of households are adopting food-based coping strategies to cope with the crisis.
This affects both the quality and quantity of food consumed. Families are likely to resort to cheaper and unhealthy alternatives (78% of families) due to the inability to purchase high quality, nutritious foods. They are also likely to reduce portion sizes (49%) or skip meals altogether (39%), resulting in individuals not meeting their required daily caloric intake. For children, eating less has a direct impact on growth and contributes to increasing the already high rates of child malnutrition in the country. For adults – given the rapid aging of the population in Sri Lanka – undernourishment means great pressures on the health system in the future.
Government action to combat
The interim budget proposed to allocate LKR 46,600 million for crisis-related initiatives, including providing LKR 10,000 per food-insecure family and an additional monthly allowance of LKR 2,500 for pregnant women for four months respectively. . An additional LKR 400 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture to urgently supply farmers with seeds/planting material and LKR 40 billion for fertilizers for paddy cultivation for the 2022/2023 “Maha” season. In addition, the government has recently launched a national food security program. The interim budget also proposed setting up agricultural enterprises for young people, canceling outstanding loans for rice farmers, etc. Although the success of these initiatives remains to be seen, it will depend entirely on the effectiveness of the implementation. However, the pressure for rapid success is high and essential to address food insecurity.
Fight Hunger and Succeed
While long-term strategies are needed to address the underlying causes of food insecurity and ensure sustainable national production, swift action must be taken to meet the challenge of ensuring that people do not suffer from hungry right now. Meeting immediate food needs in the midst of the current economic crisis requires a double effort: protecting (1) the poor and (2) the farming community. In this regard, targeted measures to support the poor and near-poor through policy interventions and strengthened social safety nets are essential. The government has already allocated funds in this regard; however, successful implementation depends on accurately identifying groups at risk of famine and providing them with immediate food assistance through subsidized commodities or cash transfers.
Attention should also be paid to middle-income people, who are often left behind in aid processes, but who may be in dire need of support given Sri Lanka’s current economic situation. Steps should also be taken to ensure food availability in all parts of the country, thus ensuring equitable access. Protecting farmers’ livelihoods requires adequate availability of fertilizers at reasonable prices. More efficient use of fertilizers and high-quality seeds also play a role in ensuring limited supplies last longer. This will ensure a harvest that can better support domestic demand next season. The government can also reallocate unused land to agricultural production and encourage small-scale farming.
Given the debt crisis, although import restrictions on certain foods are necessary, they tend to be counterproductive. As the 2008 global food crisis showed, trade restrictions have driven up food prices rather than subsidizing them. Additionally, stricter regulations should be in place to ensure consumers are not overcharged for high-demand items, as was evident for powdered milk and fuel earlier this year. Minimizing the high levels of food waste (around 3,963 tonnes per day) also plays a crucial role in meeting immediate food needs. Not storing food, buying local produce and consuming leftovers at a later stage / restaurants donating leftovers to the poor are ways that households and businesses can help address food insecurity.
A food crisis during an economic crisis is a worst-case scenario. With more than a third of the population currently suffering from food insecurity, it is imperative that Sri Lanka take prompt corrective action. Although several measures have been introduced in this regard, they need to be reassessed in due course to measure their effectiveness. Given current resource constraints, it is only natural that government aid targets only the poor and vulnerable. However, it may also be necessary to work towards obtaining international assistance to meet immediate food needs, targeting in particular those just above the poverty line and groups traditionally excluded from food programmes. assistance. These actions must be coupled with medium and long-term initiatives that guarantee sustainable food production in the future. Moreover, policymakers must be willing to be flexible and change their course if necessary, given the volatility of the current situation. The consequences of not doing so will leave lasting impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Link to the original blog:
Food Fight: Sri Lanka’s battle for food security
Lakshila Wanigasinghe is a research fellow at IPS and focuses on poverty, social welfare, development, education and health. She holds a Master’s degree in Economics with a concentration in Development Economics and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with a concentration in International Finance, Law and Economics from Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), USA. ([email protected])