A man in his early 50s was nervously staring at a malu lella for a minute from the other side of the road. He had a small ‘silisili bag’ in his hand with small quantities of vegetables. On reaching the fish stall, he inquired about the prices of fish from the seller in a low voice. He finally settled for just 5 Salayas, for Rs 250!

“This is an everyday occurrence,” the owner of the fish stall said.

“The people who come to buy fish often turn away after hearing the prices. Many buy several small fish just for one meal, according to the number of family members.”

Soaring prices of fish and meat

“I still have business because I did not increase prices by a large percentage. However, I don’t buy fish in large quantities like I used to. I only buy a few boxes from Negombo ‘Lellama’ Fish Market. Unlike at the beginning of this year, now I don’t buy fish to display them on the malu lella. At present, I earn enough to feed my family, even after reducing the selling quantities, but we don’t know for how long this will last, Piyal, the most popular fish seller in Seeduwa said, pointing at boxes of fish, his voice filled with uncertainty.

In this writer’s recollection, Piyal’s malu lella was one of the busiest places in the town. At any given time, there were dozens of customers in front of malu lella in Negombo. Piyal starts his day at about 3:00 a.m. He goes to Negombo ‘Lellama’ Fish Market and buys the fish varieties he requires daily. However, now, there are not many customers, owing to the soaring fish prices.

Prices have increased threefold to fourfold since March. Now, the customers are reluctant to buy varieties like ‘Thora,’ ‘Mora’ ‘Thalapath’ and ‘Kelawalla.’ They buy small fish varieties like ‘Salaya’ and ‘Sudaya’ now, Piyal said.

“There was a huge demand for ‘Salaya’ and ‘Sudaya’ from those who have pet cats and dogs. But now they too hesitate to buy even 1 kg of fish due to the high prices.”

The main reason for the soaring fish prices is the kerosene shortage. The fishing community have to queue for hours to get kerosene, without even knowing whether they can get enough. Not only that, prices of all fishing accessories including bait, nets, and ice have increased too. Thus, many boats have been beached.

“My lella has the highest sales in the area. I have a loyal customer base and that is why I was able to drag the business this far, amid these unfavourable conditions. Other fish sellers are struggling to stay afloat. Many will have to stop selling fish under the present circumstances,” Piyal said.

The prices of meat have also skyrocketed. In May, 1 kg of chicken was priced (wholesale) at Rs 780. By Friday (17), the price increased to Rs 1,080. Chicken prices in retail stores are between Rs 1,200-1,400. Not only chicken, prices of 1 kg of pork and beef are above Rs 1,000. These skyrocketing prices have made it extremely difficult for customers to buy meat compared to a month ago. Also, prices of dried fish are soaring as well. There is no hope that the prices would decrease in the near future.

“Nowadays, people rarely buy 1 kg of meat. Many first ask the prices and buy about 250 g of meat. Some people also ask us to give meat according to cash in hand. Sales have reduced by about half now,” Harsha Lakshan, a meat seller in Seeduwa said.

Harsha buys meat from farms in Ja-Ela in wholesale quantities daily and sells to retailers in the area.

“I buy chicken at panabara (live weight) from farms and give them to a worker for processing, before selling meat to retailers. The farm owners are struggling these days due to the prices of animal feed. Therefore, they quote higher prices for panabara. 1 kg of live chicken was priced at Rs 550, 2 months ago. Now, it has increased to Rs 780,” he said.

Speaking further, Harsha said the transport cost has also increased threefold.

“We have to recover that from the customers too. Now, there is a lack of diesel and it is difficult to continue the business. Farms are forced to retrench staff due to costs of animal feed. I used to sell meat to retailers daily. Now, I am forced to limit it to once in two days because of the diesel shortage.”

Looming nutrition crisis

Sri Lankans fulfil their protein needs by eating fish, meat, and eggs. Even before the economic crisis, many people did not consume meat and fish owing to poverty, especially in rural areas. However, no matter how poor the parents were, they somehow found the resources to feed their children with fish, meat, and eggs at least twice a week.

But now, with the soaring prices, children are deprived of fish, meat, eggs, and dried fish. A horrendous situation has been created, whereby parents have to skip meals to feed their children.

This will soon escalate into a full-blown nutrition crisis.

According to a recent survey of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), about 86 per cent of families in Sri Lanka are resorting to at least one coping mechanism, including eating less, eating less nutritious food, and even skipping meals altogether, in light of the worsening economic crisis. Food inflation in Colombo was at a record high of 57.4 per cent in May, and widespread shortages of fuel for cooking and transport means poor families are struggling to afford food.

Nearly 5 million people, or 22 per cent of the Sri Lankan population, are food insecure and in need of assistance. Nutritious food, such as vegetables, fruits, and protein-rich products are now out of reach for many low-income families.

Meanwhile, during a webinar, Prof. Jeevika Weerahewa of the University of Peradeniya cited seven causes behind the soaring food prices in the country.

They are adverse world market conditions, depreciation of the currency, imposition of food import restrictions, removal of price ceilings on essential food items, Sri Lanka’s ad-hoc move to organic agriculture and increase in world fertiliser prices, adverse weather and food hoarding.

She said although the writing is on the wall for a potential food crisis, nothing is concrete, due to the absence of national-level data.

The webinar titled ‘Economic Crisis, Soaring Food Prices, and Nutritional Wellbeing: Options for Safety Net Interventions in Sri Lanka’ was organised by the Institute of Policy Studies. Prof. Weerahewa, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Pradeepa Koralegedara, Senior Lecturer, University of Peradeniya, and Dr. Suresh Babu, Head-Capacity Strengthening, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) were the speakers at the webinar.

Dr. Koralegedara presented an in-depth analysis of the effects of the soaring prices on diet costs and the adequacy of existing safety net interventions on food and nutrition security.

She said the prices of basic food items such as rice, bread, eggs, and milk powder have risen sharply, resulting in people resorting to different coping methods. The most notable method is utilising a part of the non-food expenditure allocation in household budgets to cover the food cost, short-term borrowing, and changing the diet such as reducing the quantity and quality of the diet. These coping strategies can result in certain demographics becoming vulnerable to nutrition insecurity, especially adolescent girls and lactating women. Dr. Koralegedara added that such vulnerability can be reduced with effective safety net systems, which are adequate in size, targets the correct people, supports in the best form (that is, cash transfer or direct food transfer), and is free from implementation inefficiencies.

Dr. Babu focused on how best to create effective safety net systems during crises by learning from international experiences. He asserted that the policy environment should be conducive for effective safety net programmes to be implemented, and multiple pathways created to protect the vulnerable. Dr. Babu also said international and regional trade negotiations should be leveraged to facilitate an adequate supply of food to the country during emergencies.

In a shocking revelation, doctors at Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children said 20 per cent of the children admitted to the hospital are malnourished due to the rising cost of living and food shortage.

While the cause for malnutrition can be attributed to the ongoing economic crisis and food shortage, the situation could be avoided if the children were given more vegetables to eat, according to Dr. Deepal Perera, Consultant Paediatrician at the hospital.

He said they tested 53 children in Ward 2 of the hospital last week and found that 20 per cent were malnourished. “All of them had also suffered from acute malnutrition, making this a difficult situation.”

The test was conducted after it was found that the children’s weight and height were below average. This is because the children are not getting enough carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and vitamins. “Breast milk does not provide sufficient nutrition to a child after six months, so certain food items should be introduced,” he added.

Children should be weaned on food such as Jackfruit, Jackfruit seeds, Breadfruit, Ladies’ Fingers, Gotukola, Thampala, Long Beans, and other proteins, he said.

By Methmalie Dissanayake