Crisis of food security and nutrition

18 December, 2022

The United Nations Committee on World Food Security defines food security as “the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to an adequate supply of food that is safe and fits their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” Despite the extensive explanation, majority of nations, rich or poor, deal with food security concerns at varying scales.

Since mid-2021, the worldwide food crisis has heightened considerably due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian-Ukraine war situation, escalating crude oil prices, and disruption to fertiliser supplies.

These world events have drastically affected global food supply chain, dramatically reducing household food consumptions in many countries, including Sri Lanka.

As an indirect result, even though the pandemic situation has subsided, the issue of food shortage remained unchanged.

The situation has severely deteriorated since early 2022 due to imprudent and irrational political decisions by the authorities, predominantly where an abrupt ban on chemical fertiliser was brought in. The move that was taken based on political opinion rather than educated thought process was not only ridiculous but also made the entire nation suffer.

Severe economic crisis

It is now common knowledge that Sri Lanka has never faced a more severe economic crisis since independence. Food, fuel, gas, and other necessities for residents’ daily lives, although available now, are no longer affordable for the nation. The current food inflation has skyrocketed during the past months inflicting a heavy burden on the common citizenry.

With the year-over-year food inflation rate of about 94 percent, prices of most food products have been steadily rising since the fourth quarter of 2021 and hit a record high in August 2022, severely reducing household purchasing power.

Over 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s population (6.3 million people) are “food insecure” and in need of humanitarian aid, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Out of this segment, almost 5.3 million are skipping or limiting their mealtimes, and at least 65,600 are extremely food insecure. Due to rising inflation, loss of employment, declining purchasing power, and a severe lack of necessities including food, medication, cooking gas, and gasoline, the situation is projected to get worse as the country’s crisis develops.

The external assistance offered by international aid agencies and some of the friendly countries thus far has not made a visible impact on the actual ground situation. According to expert opinion, the situation will likely worsen further, particularly due to the ongoing lean season driven by low harvest of staple food such as rice.

Food imports, the common strategy the successive governments adapted during similar situations for decades is no longer an easy way out due to the current shortage of foreign reserves.

Adding salt to the wound, most international suppliers are either reluctant or refuse completely to provide credit facilities to the Sri Lankan importers, both the Government and private.

As of today, food security has become a major cause of concern for the authorities. The country needs to formulate immediate strategies to face the crisis on short and long-term programs. The notion of nutrition security, which calls for physical, economic, and social access to a balanced food, clean drinking water, a safe environment, and health care, must be operationalised.

Food wastage has been a critical issue in Sri Lanka for decades. The impact of food waste not only is threatening on food security, but it also is a serious threat to the environment. Out of the 7,000 tons of solid waste collected daily, a staggering 65 percent is food waste according to media reports.

Whilst a considerable quantity of processed food is wasted as hotel and restaurant leftovers, a further vast amount also is wasted during transportation due to poor packaging and lack of suitable storage.

If other elements like access to safe drinking water and medical care are not properly considered, ensuring food security alone will only help to reduce hunger but not completely eradicate malnutrition or have a significant impact on nutrition status.

Modern systems

The Government must establish an integrated policy framework in order to encourage the expanded use of irrigation and modern farming methods. In Sri Lanka, time and again governments pledged modern systems and technologies in election manifestos.

Nevertheless, the country has never seen a conscious effort to actively implement such programs. Apart from providing the farmers with improved technology for cultivation and improved inputs like irrigation facilities, availability of better-quality seeds, fertilisers, and credits at lower interest rates, and a rational distribution of cultivable land.

Home gardening has also been identified by experts as an effective alternative process for providing all-year-round access to food for most rural and suburban households in the country.

While making a significant contribution to food security in Sri Lanka, the harvest of home gardening also provides a nutritious, safe, healthy, and chemical-free supply of food to meet daily household needs. Therefore, encouraging home gardening is an important strategy in the fight against hunger.

Regrettably, due to inter-agency conflicts, political participation, and bureaucracy, good solutions put forth by experts during the past many years appear to have been ignored.

It is time now to revisit the proposals of these intellectuals and study the possibility of utilising such plans. The whole country is expected to participate in this effort.

Agriculture industry

Food prices will continue to rise with the current economic downturn for an indefinite period and a stable and robust agriculture sector is required more than ever. In the coming years, the agriculture industry will become the most essential sector for ensuring food security. Hence, the Government must initiate a comprehensive approach to resolve the impediments such as land constraints, water supply issues, fertiliser shortages, and other associated problems.

Food insecurity is risky for a country because it does not exist in a vacuum. Multiple overlapping difficulties, such as social isolation, acute and chronic health conditions, a lack of affordable housing, poor salaries, and high medical costs, among others, may have an impact on low-income families.

Apart from the setbacks in the overall agriculture sector, food insecurity could be caused by these causes as well, making it a complicated and riskier condition of affairs.

The existing situation of the food insecurity is exceedingly critical as the general economic conditions and trends are bleak. People are forced to consume less, cheaper, and low-quality food because of the soaring prices of essential commodities.

The cash-strapped Government is forced to scale down nutrition drives due to the financial constraints.

Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has revealed that the agriculture sector with nearly 30 percent workers requires Government interventions to improve production capacity to boost the resilience, reduce import requirements, and prevent up swinging malnutrition.

The Government must establish a mechanism to provide such facilities to the farmer community.

In order to ensure the accessibility of food the citizenry, the Government has initiated a joint mechanism to guarantee the food security and nutrition under the patronage of President Wickremesinghe.

Committees

The President said that the Government will introduce new laws to ensure future food security soon. The mechanism will be implemented through seven different committees while the National Food Security and Nutrition Council will be directly under the President.

The move was hailed by the entire country as timely and necessary. However, with past experiences the country has witnessed throughout the post-independence history, the general public express doubts on the efficiency of the politicians and bureaucrats who are responsible for the implementation.

The citizenry hopes that this important move to be efficiently managed and competently executed unlike many such pledges by politicians. The country desperately needs a well-strategised long-term plan with modern technology to promote agriculture and solve the dire food security hindrance. 

– Sunday Observer Sri Lanka

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