Food systems globally are having to adapt to increasing numbers of challenges; a growing population, supply chain inadequacies and an overwhelming strain on the environment that in itself disrupt harvests and crop growth. Food systems in Sri Lanka are experiencing major shortages in recent years due to government mismanagement and a failed transition to organic agriculture, alongside crippling economic conditions and mounting foreign debt. People’s food security is a growing concern.
The World Food Programme (WFP) reported an estimated 6.3 million people, nearly 30% of the population believed to be experiencing moderate to severe acute food insecurity in September 2022. This follows after successive poor harvests and a limit on imports of food grains as a result of a depreciating currency and rising prices of goods.
Imports account for 22% of the country’s food consumption. Previously self-sustained in the production of rice, meat, fish, eggs and fruit and vegetables, poor harvests have rendered domestic supplies inadequate, forcing Sri Lanka to import $450 million worth of rice, despite the price for the staple crop rising some 50%. Maintaining a nutritious diet has become increasingly difficult for the average household as inflation rises to 57.4% and incomes fall.
How it Happened
One can attribute poor harvests to environmental impacts and government policy. Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April 2021 imposed a national ban on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in an effort to transition Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector to organic production methods. This was carried out without an integration period, effectively ordering 2 million of the countries’ farmers to go organic overnight.
Whilst the notion of organic farming is appealing through the environmental benefits it offers, the use of synthetic fertilizers attains consistency in yield that is difficult to replicate. Consequently, since the imposition of the ban, Sri Lanka’s rice production has substantially declined.
The foreign exchange felt the economic drawbacks of this policy after tea production took a hit and Sri Lanka’s export revenue decreased, weakening a key industry that employs many across rural areas. The significant decline in agricultural output sent many Sri Lankan farmers into poverty.
Intrinsically altering the nature of production and operations of food systems in Sri Lanka in such a way requires education programs to introduce farmers to alternative methods of crop growth. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka did not take such measures.
Following public outcry, in October 2021 the government went back on its synthetic fertilizer ban. Despite this, the global rise in prices has seen farmers struggling to afford imports of fertilizer, resulting in continued shortages of harvest and food.
The need for sustainability in agriculture is irrefutable; for the attainment of various SDGs as well as the health of the consumer. A gradual approach, alongside a holistic framework, reappraising all the involved sectors and stakeholders will be necessary to ensure vulnerable communities are provided with the required subsistence levels.
To curb the effects of current shortages, NGOs and foreign governments are actively sending remittance packages targeting vulnerable communities and Sri Lankan food systems.
In September 2022, the United States embassy announced a package worth $40 million supplying Sri Lankan farmers with fertilizer needed to resume crop growth. A crucial step in kickstarting the agricultural sector. The embassy also announced a package worth $20 million addressing immediate humanitarian needs across the country, focusing on the groups that the shortages most affected, including pregnant women and children.
The WFP appealed for $63 million in emergency funds earlier in the year to supply those most affected by the crisis, including vulnerable groups, pregnant women and children. It aims to offer food vouchers to help cover expenses and provide emergency nutrition and school meals until the end of the year.
Australia was the first country to meet the WFP’s appeal, from whom Sri Lanka received a donation of rice worth $15 million in September. The Australian government has scheduled further donations of rice and cooking oil to be shipped to Sri Lanka in the coming months.
Many are hungry and much rely on a successful harvest in the coming season. However, with the measures in place, some pressure on the agricultural sector and food systems in Sri Lanka is being relieved, and the immediate needs of the most vulnerable groups are receiving attention.
– Bojan Ivancic