Food crisis in Sri Lanka From granary of East to barren nation

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The uncertainty that prevails due the present economic crisis and other challenges has forced farmers to contemplate whether to sow paddy during the Yala season (Pic AFP)

  •  Sri Lanka is unable to secure imports of essential items as well
  • Internal data suggests that the paddy yield has reduced by 50%
  • During 1940s Sri Lanka had a population of roughly around six million and still had to import 60% of this requirement
  • Experts warn that if this crisis continues people would die of starvation and there’ll be more malnutrition within the community
  • Food experts affirm that a huge publicity campaign is needed to make the people stop consuming imported food

A damning revelation by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be two countries that will have no food during the global food crisis. In terms of Sri Lanka, this was anticipated by farmers, scientists and academics when the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime decided to ban the import of chemical fertilisers. Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, Sri Lanka is unable to secure imports of essential items as well. While India has come to the rescue of the crisis-struck island, economists predict that strained bilateral relations with other allies would worsen the situation.  


Consequences of a short-sighted decision 


“Agriculture practices come as a package and if one practice goes out the overall impact is detrimental,” opined Prof. Buddhi Marambe of the Department of Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya. “The plant is a living being and everything from fertilisers to weedicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, equipment used, water and land use patterns that contribute to a good harvest. Let’s talk about the impact of the chemical fertiliser ban on three main crops namely paddy, maize and tea. Paddy is the main food crop while maize is the main feed crop where 85% of it goes into producing animal feed. Tea on the other hand is the most important perennial crop and this is because tea plays a major role in terms of foreign exchange earnings. However the decision taken on April 17, 2021 to ban the import of chemical fertilizer- which was subsequently gazetted on May 6 during the same year- hit hard on all these three food sectors,” explained Prof. Marambe.   


He said that this is one of the worst decisions taken by a human being or group of people. “From the time this decision was taken a lot of academia came forward to ensure that the agriculture sector was safeguarded. The problem arose during the Maha season where farmers found that the yield was poor. The Department of Census and Statistics has been mandated to release data since any other source cannot be authorised. However, internal data suggests that the paddy yield has reduced by 50%, maize by 65-70% and the foreign exchange earnings for the first quarter of 2022 from January to March was USD 52 million lower than what was earned during the first quarter of 2021,” said Prof. Marambe.  


The Professor further said that along with fertiliser, farmers were deprived of pesticides as well. “Pesticides are being used for 2-3 seasons. Agriculture has evolved where during early 1950s the average rice yield was at 650kg/ha. But scientists realised that this won’t solve the food requirement. During 1940s Sri Lanka had a population of roughly around six million and still had to import 60% of this requirement. 80 years later, the average rice yield has increased from 650kg/ha to 4300kg/ha to meet the consumption requirement of 22 million people. People blame the Green Revolution, but thanks to the Green Revolution we have been producing more rice than we consume. The Maha season is from September to February, therefore the harvest of the previous year and the Yala season fulfills the annual requirement. The Maha season of 2020 and the Yala season of 2021 produced a good year in terms of harvest and it was during this year that they decided to ban the import of chemical fertiliser. The monthly consumption of rice is around 185,000-196,000 metric tonnes, whereas the annual consumption of rice stands at 2.3 million tones,” he said.   


When asked about Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s request to cultivate barren land Prof. Marambe said that this is a crisis situation. “Therefore it’s better to do something rather than nothing. We have a failed Maha season. Even though there were 450,000 hectares only 350,000 hectares have been cultivated. The season is not only about planting paddy, but everything from land preparation needs to be sorted out first. Therefore the signal is not very good. If there’s a low yield in Maha and a high end yield reduction during Yala we are going to be in trouble. Therefore the only option is to import rice. We at least need another 2-3 seasons to return to normalcy. Selecting crops and growing in your home gardens could at least ensure nutrition security. This can add nutritional value to the food plate. But this mistake should never be repeated,” he underscored.  


Spineless agriculture industry 


Speaking about the ground situation Namal Karunaratne, Convener of the All Ceylon Agrarian Federation said that the yield during Maha season has reduced by 50%. “The cost of fertiliser is too expensive and weedicides and pesticides are unavailable. The prices of seeds too have increased. Ploughing charges for a tractor costs around Rs. 25,000/acre therefore the cost per hectare stands at around Rs. 60,000. Farmers need to pump petrol to operate the machines, but filling stations don’t issue petrol to cans. The hire for the harvesting machine too has soared and due to fuel price hikes a majority of farmers have been severely inconvenienced. Many of them travel in bikes but due to a failed Maha season and due to lack of income they are unable to obtain loans from banks anymore. Due to this uncertainty many are contemplating whether to sow paddy during the Yala season. They didn’t receive any compensation and they are now in dire straits. This is a matter concerning the food plate. People can purchase vegetables and fruits only if they are grown in plots. For that to happen there has to be a continuous harvest. Vegetables and fruits grow in cycles and farmers need facilities to ensure that the cycles aren’t disrupted,” said Karunaratne.   


He further said that the price of a bundle of urea exceeds Rs. 40,000 and farmers have no income to purchase fertiliser. “We are already bypassing the Yala season and as I see it, there is no instant solution. How can we expect solutions from a government that recently requested government workers to work from home due to the fuel shortage? They need to prioritise on the issues at hand and derive solutions accordingly. The agriculture industry now remains spineless. In order to boost the spirits of farmers they need some sort of assistance; either financially or as subsidies. The infrastructure needs to be in place in order to restore confidence in the farmer. There is no mechanism to manage farmers and cultivation plan to ensure a continuous supply of rice and other food items. If this continues people will die of starvation and there’ll be more malnutrition within the community. More underweight babies will be born. The Yala season is predicted to be unsuccessful and we don’t see them taking necessary measures to supply fertiliser and facilities for the Maha season either,” Karunaratne said in conclusion. 

 
With an empty wallet, Sri Lanka is unable to secure imports 


Shedding light on the financial crisis at hand Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP Dr. Harsha De Silva said that two specific policy errors made by the incumbent government were tax concessions and filling the void by printing money. “The other was the ban on the import of chemical fertiliser. If not for these two errant decisions we would have managed to struggle our way through the pandemic,” said Dr. De Silva.   


Even though experts suggest that the immediate solution would be to import essential items including food, Sri Lanka has no money to process transactions. “We haven’t received any money and we are unlikely to receive in the future either,” observed Dr. De Silva. “India has gone out of its way to help us in the form of credit lines, swap lines and deferment on Asian Clearing Union (ACU) payments and all of this amounts to around USD 5 billion. It is very unlikely that we will continue to get a blank cheque. We are in a difficult situation until we get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan,” he explained.   


Further explaining strained bilateral relations Dr. De Silva said that Japan isn’t happy with Sri Lanka as a result of how they were treated. “Without the courtesy of a discussion the government cancelled the Eastern Container Terminal project and the Light Rail Transit project. They were very kind to us, but we blatantly said that we won’t be paying back their loans. The Japanese have told me that they have lost trust in Sri Lanka. China says that we have to pay their loans back. The Middle Eastern countries would have assisted us in importing fuel and cooking gas, but they don’t welcome us as a result of how we treated Muslims during COVID. We were the only country that forced people to cremate the dead,”   


For the time being food is being imported from India and if not for India we would have plunged into an unspeakable crisis. The Prime Minister suggested to cultivate barren land, but that’s not an easy thing to do. Instead I suggested that we concentrate on greenhouse agriculture since productivity comes from there,” said Dr. De Silva.   


During the Yahapalana Government former minister Dr. Harsha De Silva proposed the establishment of an island-wide network of climate-controlled warehouses for agricultural produce and the pilot project was done in Dambulla. The ‘Shakthi’ rice programme was another concept by Dr. De Silva implemented to break the monopoly in the rice market and to strengthen small and medium scale rice millers. But two and a half years later, the projects have come to a standstill. “Funds for the climate warehouse were a grant from India and all that this government had to do was to finish it. Now the government is talking about a food shortage, but there’s no warehouse to store produce coming from outstation. In terms of rice millers this government gave an oligopoly to the rice milling business. A kilo of samba back then was Rs. 85, but today it’s Rs. 460. If these two projects continued it would have contributed to the stabilization of food prices,” he said.   


When asked about an immediate solution Dr. De Silva said that the only option is to keep borrowing from others. “We will have to expect donations from World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organisation etc.,” he added.  

Farmers staging a protest demanding fertiliser


Has Sri Lanka been misled?


Giving a completely different picture to the crisis at hand, former consultant to the FAO Ranjit Seneviratne said that the Global Food shortage is a big lie being promoted by the “Deep State” (World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, Big Agro and Big Food businesses) and right now we are their victims and it looks like our leaders do not realise they are being used.  


“Chemical Fertilizers are short cuts to feed plant nutrients. They bypass the nature’s use of the soil micro-biome to feed the plant (like our digestive system has a microbiome that helps us digest our food, to make new cells, improve natural immunity etc.) Over time these chemicals kill off the soil microbiome leaving dead soil. So the idea of replacing chemicals with Organic fertilizer to soil that is dead is like feeding food to a dead human. Nobody seems to know that you need to “Heal the soil” or “Regenerate” it first, so as to have the microbes etc. process the organic fertilizer to a form that plants can absorb. Unlike chemicals, which provide just the basic needs of the plant, the microbes provide various enzymes and phyto-chemicals etc. that make the plant produce very nutrient dense food that is healthy for us,” said Seneviratne.   


“So a basic problem is that the public look for produce that ‘looks’ good (big, all of similar size, tasty or sweet etc.) but not the nutrition value. The government will therefore need to make “biomass” (leaves and twigs which are now burnt in almost every home, food waste from markets, hotels and even homes) provided to farmers to spread on the soil to help heal the soil. Any farmer who now does organic farming can show how this is done. It is so simple. It will take time (a couple of months) but can be expedited if they are provided with well-rotted biomass that contains earth worms as this would indicate that other life forms like micro worms, insects, bacteria, viruses, funghi etc. are also present,” he explained further.  


Seneviratne said that the absolutely hard, dead soil could take up to 10 months based on his experience in his own garden. “But it would also depend on the quality of the biomass being added and perhaps they could supply and also teach the farmers and government advisors too!,” he said.   


Nobody seems to know that you need to “Heal the soil” or “Regenerate” it first, so as to have the microbes etc. process the organic fertilizer to a form that plants can absorb
– Ranjit Seneviratne Former Consultant to FAO


Pesticides are being used for 2-3 seasons. Agriculture has evolved where during early 1950s the average rice yield was at 650kg/ha. But scientists realised that this won’t solve the food requirement
–  Prof. Buddhi Marambe Department of Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya


India has gone out of its way to help us in the form of credit lines, swap lines and deferment on Asian Clearing Union (ACU) payments and all of this amounts to around USD 5 billion. It is very unlikely that we will continue to get a blank cheque. We are in a difficult situation until we get the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan
-Samagi Jana Balawegaya 
MP Dr. Harsha De Silva


Due to fuel price hikes a majority of farmers have been severely inconvenienced. Many of them travel in bikes but due to a failed Maha season and due to lack of income they are unable to obtain loans from banks anymore
– Namal Karunaratne Convener All Ceylon Agrarian Federation


FAO’s immediate/ongoing response to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka When contacted by the Daily Mirror, FAO Sri Lanka said that serious macroeconomic challenges in the country since the beginning of 2021 have caused unprecedented increase in both headline inflation as well as food inflation. With food inflation reaching 46.6 percent in end-April 2022, access to safe and nutritious food has become a major concern with impacts to food security.   As such the following projects are being done to support livelihoods of people and increase their resilience.  FAO is working to help the vulnerable population including smallholder farmers (crops/livestock), fishers and their families. These initiatives include, provision of inputs, augmenting seed production, and strengthening home gardens and school gardens.   FAO and WFP have initiated a Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM). The CFSAM will be carried out to estimate the extent and severity of crisis-induced food insecurity, existing or expected, in Sri Lanka.   FAO is supporting maize hybrid seed production at commercial scale in Sri Lanka to increase the availability of locally produced high quality hybrid seeds.   With funding from the Government of Canada of USD 107 247, FAO is working with the Department of Agriculture to provide technical assistance to produce high quality seeds of chili, big onion and red onion.  Australia through its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) will provide AUD 2.5 million to FAO and WFP to improve food security. FAO will focus on increasing household incomes and improving nutrition.   With potential funding of USD 150,000 from New Zealand FAO will be working with households with severely malnourished children, for improving their nutritional standards.  

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