Food Security in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is an agricultural country, blessed with fertile, tropical land, a perfect climate, and adequate water throughout the year, and is very farmer-friendly. Yet, issues such as effectiveness, productivity, and the lack of proper management, have hindered food production of the country. Production is insufficient even for the consumption of the population. Dr. Manuja Perera, Senior Lecturer in Community Medicine, of the Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya, expressed her views on the present status of food security in Sri Lanka.

Following are excerpts:

What is food security?

A: In simple terms, food security is defined as access to enough food for all people at all times for an active, healthy life. It is a complex phenomenon that can operate at individual, household, and community levels. For example, even in developed countries, although there’s an adequate food supply at the national level, there are some groups of people (e.g. low-income groups, migrants, etc.) who do not have access to adequate food. This means there is food insecurity in those communities. In Sri Lanka, those vulnerable groups not only have an issue with access, but we also have a setback in the supply as well due to the present political and economic crisis seen in global and country contexts. Thus, some categories of our society like people with low income, especially in urban areas, do not have adequate access to affordable food, facing many negative outcomes because of that. We are actually in quite a soup.

Do you think Sri Lanka was more secure in food in the past?

A: Actually, yes. I can remember during my childhood, we were living in a more food secure society. For instance, our grandparents had home gardens which included even hens that provided eggs. They never bought eggs from outside. In our village, we had dairy farmers and they supplied milk to our households. Also, there was easy access to affordable and sufficient food those days.

What do you think is the reason for this drastic change?

A: With the increasing population, the world was not producing enough food to feed all of them. As an answer to this, the Green Revolution was implemented in the 1960s, to increase total agricultural production, to combat hunger in the world. In Sri Lanka, the focus was particularly to make the country self-sufficient. However, this project didn’t yield the anticipated results and hunger was never eliminated. The benefits of this revolution failed to reach the majority of the world’s population due to the influence of the
‘big-agri,’ the multinational agricultural industries that tried to control the global food supply. Under the Green Revolution, even though crops were genetically modified to yield higher harvests, those required chemical fertilisers and pesticides which were only manufactured by the profit-based multinationals to produce that harvest, thus making the farmers across the world dependent on them.

As per many other farming communities in Asia and Africa, this process slowly robbed us our traditional seeds and our traditional farming practices. As we are facing an economic crisis, we are short of dollars to purchase any of these. We don’t have money to buy food, seeds, or agrochemicals. One of the main solutions for a context like this may be to promote organic farming, including using our native seeds. However, that excellent concept was ruined before the public’s eye because of how it was piloted recently in Sri Lanka. The farmers have gotten used to farming with hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers for years. So, when making a huge change like switching to complete organic farming, the Government should have been more tactical.

What are your thoughts on cultivating crops in home gardens, lands of schools, and workplaces? Should it be encouraged?

A: In Russia, during the great economic depression, they survived by cultivating each and every spot they could find. It’s actually a very good trend and will improve our chances of survival by making our households and work settings more resilient.

We also have planned to launch such a project at the Faculty of Medicine in June, to cultivate food crops and the harvest is to be supplied to the canteen. However, when we use occupational settings for cultivation, we must have a policy and issue proper guidelines. For example, how many working hours will we spend on cultivation, and what will we do to the harvest? It should be balanced. Otherwise, it will not be feasible in the long run.

We need to think of our next generation and do our best to safeguard them from the negative consequences of the food insecurity we are presently facing. For example, schools can grow various kinds of green leaves like Gotu kola, Mukunuwanna, Hathawariya…etc, in their gardens and the harvest could be used to prepare a meal like kola kenda for schoolchildren, which will ensure that they will get adequate calories and vitamins necessary to effectively engage in their learning activities.

Food security at the household level would be helped by home gardening. However, the promotion of home gardening should also be backed by policy measures and technical knowledge. And we do have a State system in place to do that. We have Agrarian Service Centres in every local government area and every district. So, we must use that system to implement a well-planned, effective, efficient programme, targeting the next short-term survival of our country.

What is the importance of food security on nutrition, general well-being, and sustainable development?

A: Food and nutrition is a basic human right. We cannot survive without food. For sustainable development, it’s necessary that the population is well fed. Because if they do not receive adequate nutrition, their productivity becomes low. For example, if you are anaemic, you can’t perform actively, and your productivity will be low. You will be lethargic. So, for a country to develop sustainably, it needs to be assured that the population have access to adequate and nutritious food.

Sri Lanka being such a farmer-friendly country, with such a supportive natural environment, we could actually be a case study of a self-sustaining country that doesn’t rely on other countries for essential food.

What would you propose to the responsible authorities to ensure food security in the country?

A: As I mentioned earlier, we live in a tropical country which is very farmer-friendly. We have many flatlands, we have adequate water, we have sunlight, and we don’t have extreme climate situations. If the Government is tactical, and the officials would envision the challenges, ensuring food security in the country would be an easy task. Although organic farming is a very good thing, it’s sad to say that we cannot even talk about it in the present context because of the recent fertiliser issue. People are against organic farming as a concept now. It’s not helping our present situation. The Government can take measures to increase the efficiency of land usage and promote the growth of essential food crops. They should be more supportive of the farmers and supply whatever they need to help them produce sufficient food to meet the requirement of the country.

We actually don’t have a long-term national policy on agriculture. It has been many years. Responsible authorities should have a proper plan to balance food production to meet the requirement. This should not be changed by a government, but it should be a long-term plan based on the opinion of experts like economists, agricultural technologists, scientists, and may be health professionals who are interested in food security. It should not be a political decision, but a technical decision. Even though we have platforms to take these technical decisions, they are not taken. That’s the issue.

And, as a downstream measure, we have to revise our tax system that taxes essential food items. We need to go for an efficient and effective income-based tax system, rather than a tax system that depends on goods and services related tax. That way, food will be more affordable and accessible to all, especially to vulnerable low-income groups.

Lastly, what message would you like to share with the citizens of Sri Lanka? Is there anything they could do to ensure food security?

A: It would actually help at some level if every citizen in Sri Lanka contributes however they can to overcome this issue. Also, we should be mindful of our food practices. For example, even though we are addicted to dhal as a Nation, we do not grow dhal in the country. We import it. These kinds of food practices are not compatible with our agricultural practices and economic situation. As a solution to this, there are many other substitutes we can consume instead of dhal like mung, chickpea, cowpea…etc. If you reflect on this, you’ll realise that we have so many other food practices that are not compatible with our agricultural practices.

So, we need to seriously consider switching to more sustainable habits. However, I must finally stress that it is the responsibility of the Government to take organised, well-planned steps to make sure our country gets out of this crisis with minimum nutritional damage, and I also plead them to at least take this crisis as an opportunity to develop sustainable, long-term measures to ensure our Nation is secure with food.

About the author:

Malki Epasinghe is attached to the Communication and Media Unit of the University of Kelaniya.

By Malki Epasinghe