Monday, March 31, 2008

an impending food crisis

The Nation in recent history has never been able to be self sufficient in food production. I don’t mean stop imports, just produce to our capacity. By recent history I mean from 1900 onwards. To be fair our population has increased 7 fold in that period, so we have actually increased our food production, but not enough to sustain the growing population.

The past 15 years has seen the lowest growth rate in population, but also the lowest growth rate in food production in volume terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I exclude the Tea Industry, which has unique characteristics of its own as a major export earner.

We have had legitimate reasons to shift focus, primarily grappling with terrorism, however this shift has led to an enormous cost in imported food to satisfy our hunger. The million plus Sri Lankans who work overseas, has somewhat alleviated an otherwise even worse situation, both by sending foreign exchange from which we can buy food and also not being in the Island to consume it.

By all accounts globally, the increase in price of food will exceed the rate of inflation in every country. We are therefore doubly affected. We have to pay an ever increasing price for imports as well as for home grown food. I am not exactly sure what our expected food import bill is for 2008, but I will not be surprised if it is not much below our oil import bill for the same year.

This is a staggering indictment of the state of the country, which is purportedly still a rural agricultural economy, if one excludes the Western Province, which contributes over 50% of the GNP, but where the cost of food has risen by every criteria by 50% in the past 6 months.

The immediate importation of 100,000 tonnes of rice by private traders, from India due to the failed crop is a further indication of the impending crisis. There is no national stockpile for unforeseen events. Living in Hingurakgoda, I see so many empty storage buildings, owned mainly by the government, but also by private individuals, so we have the storage capacity to stockpile paddy.

Clearly, merely leaving it to market forces is not working, which I can also testify to as I also produce food and despite price increases my overall output has fallen more than the rise in prices leaving me with less revenue to cover my increasing overheads. Market forces, namely increases in supply due to higher prices may come about in the long term, but the foundation for this supply increase is what is imminently required.

If one takes coconuts as an example, the severe shortage of the crop has resulted in a spike in prices and the decimation of the export industry. However all the causes have not been thoroughly investigated. The south of the country is experiencing the effects of a mysterious disease that has killed the trees. There does not appear to be a cure for this, nor any steps to prevent it from spreading north to the coconut belt. If nothing is done we will not have one coconut tree left in the country.

California has an agricultural inspection to prevent fruit coming into the state. We may require checkpoints to prevent disease from spreading, far more important than to prevent the odd bomb passing through. Has anyone even addressed this issue? What good is it to win a battle by taking over the territory currently occupied by the Tigers, if we lose the war. So strategic thinking is necessary, not short-term goals to win elections for personal gain at the expense of starving the country in the long term. This is what is happening, even if we don’t realize it.

These are just two examples I am using to make a point but the story is the same for all crops in terms of lack of a plan to increase supply with efficient and cost effective production techniques.

Before we implement a long-term plan we must have a short term plan to reduce the exposure to imports and slow the increase in prices, only then will we begin to understand how we can achieve long term progress.

I recommend steps to reduce demand. Eating rice three times a day as advocated by the politicians is a luxury we cannot afford today. We must encourage the consumption of bathala(sweet potato) and manioc(casava), more nutritious than rice for the morning meal. More marginal lands can be used to grow this if the demand is there. The immediate effect is to reduce the demand for rice, and the consequent price pressure. I know this is putting a simple face on the solution, but I am making this point just as an example for us to think about.

I will at a later stage address the structural issues with ideas of how to achieve the objectives, using the practical experience I am gaining now.


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