The ongoing controversy over Sri Lanka Cricket since the humiliating defeat to India has gripped the country as if it is the biggest issue before us. The Parliament is deeply embroiled in this controversy. The ICC ban is expected, amongst other losses, to cause a loss of about USD 50-60 million to the country. This will add to the drama. Yet, is this the biggest issue confronting our country right now is the question.
It has been repeatedly highlighted that most people in our country are facing various forms of food security. According to an assessment conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) on crop and food security for 2023:
• around 17 per cent of the population is facing food insecurity,
• 31 per cent of the children aged under 5 are malnourished and
• 20 per cent of children aged under 5 suffer from wasting (a weight-for-height indicator of the international standard or by a mid-upper arm circumference between 11 cm and 12.5 cm).
The WFP report however acknowledges that the year 2023 is an improvement from 2022 statistics. Last year, 28 per cent of households were noted as food-insecure observes the WFP report.
Nevertheless, the figures for 2023 are hardly satisfactory. Indeed, the report continues that “nearly two-thirds of the population are adopting livelihood-based coping strategies, such as borrowing money or dipping into their hard-earned savings to feed their families”.
There had been numerous other reports highlighting similar concerns. According to a survey conducted by Save the Children during a six-month period between June and December 2020:
• nearly a quarter of the households were unable to meet most or all of their basic needs,
• 27 per cent of households are skipping meals to feed their children,
• nine out of ten households cannot guarantee nutritious food for their children.
Compared to the WFP report, the Save the Children survey is an old finding. Still, it underscores the fact that food insecurity in Sri Lanka has been a problem that has been developing over the years. This is certainly not an issue that cropped up overnight. However, a concentrated effort to resolve this growing crisis is yet to be formulated.
First and foremost, these reports need to be verified by a singular authority connected to the Government such as the census and statistics department. For instance, the Save the Children survey involved only 2,308 households across nine districts. There are 25 districts in the country. This brings forth the doubt if the sample size is sufficient enough to make a pronouncement on the entire country.
Irrespective of the veracity of these reports, the fact that people are struggling financially cannot be discounted. The stress written on the faces of those who fall below the middle-income bracket is visible to all.
While the SLC controversy is not a matter to be dismissed or taken lightly, neither is the growing issue of food insecurity. In fact, out of these two issues, food insecurity must take precedence.
This should be the issue that ought to get parliamentarians shouting their stance and debating solutions. This should be the point where the president locks horns with his ministers. The fact that nearly one-third of our children below five years are hungry must deeply bother the conscience of every one of us – in and outside the Parliament.
Factors Contributing to Food Insecurity
In Sri Lanka, poverty is not the main cause of food insecurity. In fact, poverty is a consequence of our lack of productivity, the wrong choices we make and our utter wastefulness.
Though nearly 60 per cent of our population is part of our agrarian industry, as a nation we are not industrial enough. Our production is very low, but costs are very high and the quality of produce constantly fails to meet the basic standards.
To maintain food prices, the easiest and often the only solution our successive governments resort to is to import even the most basic food as kankun. This is hardly a remedy. It is akin to applying whitewash on a dirty wall. The dirt to reappear would only take a short time. All that would have been achieved is the money wasted on the whitewash and the labour to apply it.
Likewise, without addressing the high production and transportation costs, the high markups from the middleman and the wastage along with the lack of storing facilities, we import. Where this leaves the farmer is only half the question. The toll on our debt burden med economy, as we spend valuable forex just to eat, is considerable.
In effect, we are like the dog who is trying to catch its tail. We go in circles without ever addressing the key problems in this equation. The problem as to how we can produce enough food to feed the nation at affordable prices thus remains an enigma.
The trending topic on this subject is home gardens. Whether commercially or homegrown is not the point. The fact remains what needs to be produced for a nation that has a high rate of malnutrition, especially among children.
Thus both commercial and home-grown cultivation must have a systematic approach. Excess produce of home gardens must have the means to find its way towards a distribution system. After all, home gardens are with its own set of costs. Thus a means to recover these costs would serve as an incentive. More importantly, however, is the system this would provide for the excess food thus produced to go towards feeding the nation.
Excess produce of commercially grown must find its way to either storage or preservation facilities. It should be our national policy that not a single item of the food we produce should go wasted. As such, apart from the traditional pickles, jams and sauces, we must look into converting the excess fresh into new types of preservatives. If we are to come out of poverty, then we must create new products and attract new markets.
When we import produce, we forget that the farmer is also a consumer. The farmer is also the backbone of our economy. When we import, we fail to protect the farmer and allow the farmer to face poverty by bypassing his produce. We make his investment a mockery.
When the income of nearly 60 per cent of our population is thus curtailed, the rising poverty is hardly surprising. Hence the government needs to intervene less with market prices and more with support structure for the farmer. This includes creating new markets for the farmer as well as paving the path to markets that are currently beyond the farmers’ reach as the export markets.
This may even include acquiring an understanding of the food outside Sri Lanka. For instance, lies with pumpkin and sweet potato toppings are favourites in the US. If we can get into that process of supplying the American market with these toppings, we create a new avenue for the much-needed forex.
Improving our personal and national income is crucial if we are to overcome our economic constraints. Without enhancing our purchasing power, it is a moot point to discuss food insecurity. Simply providing government aid packets either in terms of money or food parcels is ineffective. It only places a greater burden on the government’s finances. As this does not address productivity, the situation will only continue to fester, and people will only get further impoverished.
The second reason that directly contributes to food insecurity is our penchant for importing produce that does not contribute to our well-being. Wheat-based products for instance do not agree well with us. It is known to lead to many gastric-related illnesses, including obesity. Yet, we continue to see an increase in the variety of wheat-based products.
These foods are beginning to replace our staple diet of rice. Sugar-sprinkled bread is hardly a substitute for a plate of rice and dhal curry. Lentils are high in protein and provide most of the essential amino acids we need. Thus this seemingly boring meal is actually a power-packed meal.
However, wheat-based products are ready-made and can be purchased over the counter whereas rice-based foods must be often prepared at home. This makes wheat-based products the preferred choice as they cater to convenience. It also creates the illusion of being the cheaper meal.
We are in the habit of snacking on confectioneries. Often, the only nutritional value here is carbohydrates. The State must put a plan to encourage more nutritious foods such as fruits and nuts as a snack. Sri Lanka has an amazing variety of fruits, which can be served in different ways. As foods such as fruits perish quickly, we must explore methods such as making fruit leather to enhance its shelf life.
Fruit leather is a very easy-to-make product. This involves spreading a very thin layer of fruit purée on a baking sheet and baking it under the lowest temperature until it completely dehydrates. The result is a leathery sheet that can be cut into stripes and rolled up.
Just as wheat-based products, milk powders and sugary milk are another category that does not contribute to our well-being. More often than not, most milk products only create the illusion of a wholesome food. These may give a temporary boost of energy but whether these meet its promises in terms of nutrition is highly questionable. The real problem with these milk products is that they fill the tummy and dissuade from an actual meal. This is one of the leading causes of malnutrition.
As this is largely unaddressed, many parents spend unnecessary money on these products. Many are under the impression that a glass of milk is a must for the child. As such, the pricey product is an enormous burden on the parent’s grocery budget.
Given the high cost of food in Sri Lanka, one would think that we would loath to waste it. Surprisingly this is not the case. The very absence of alternate uses for our food products attests to our wasteful nature. At the very least, we do not have a national plan to produce organic fertilizer that can greatly contribute towards lowering food prices.
Obvious and Simple Solutions to Resolve Malnutrition
Strengthening our economy is the number one solution to counter malnutrition. This means the purchasing power of individuals must increase. There are two ways to strengthen one’s economy.
The first is to increase income. In Sri Lanka, people think a higher salary is the way towards a better income. However, winning demands through agitation does not work. The reason being that productivity does not increase to reflect the salary hike. Without corresponding productivity simply increasing salaries will only result in the cost of everything else around increasing as well. This decreases the value of money and with it the purchasing power of individuals. In the end, salary hikes without productivity lead to the national economy becoming more brittle.
Therefore, there must be a concentrated effort to increase productivity. Considering the backbone of our economy is held by the agrarian communities, the productivity of the farmer must be increased. The output can only be considered a success if the inputs are not prohibitive. Thus, while exploring new technologies, our ancient methodologies that worked in our favour and are still applicable in today’s context must be reintroduced.
The national diet is something that needs to be planned with meticulous detail. If roughly one-third of our children are suffering from malnutrition, then the effort must be to introduce a high-protein diet.
This does not necessarily mean a meat-based diet as such a diet brings its own set of health complications. The better alternative would encourage more foods such as pulses, soya, drumstick and beans, which Sri Lanka has a variety. The supply and demand need to be properly managed to ensure a fair price for both the farmer and the consumer.
This is also the time for new recipes. Some of today’s culinary favourites as Raman, Spam and even varieties of meatloaf came about during World War II. With food shortages, people became more creative. We need such a mindset right now in Sri Lanka. Instead of potato-filled buns sold as vegetable buns that have dubious nutritional value, it is time we improvise traditional foods such as imbul kiribath as an ensemble of a miniature meal.
Above all what is really needed is a marketing plan. This should include educating people on proper nutrition that realistically fits even the lowest income. In this endeavour, productivity must be made efficient from crop to actual preparation of meal. It should minimize wastage by finding alternate uses for refuse. It is time we create new foods to match the needs of our times.
If all these elements from planning the national diet to efficiently producing it are cohesively planned and executed, it will lead to new markets. This will help with the strengthening of the economy – the most obvious step in this endeavour.
The problem of malnutrition in Sri Lanka was not a complicated one to resolve. It just had not the kind of focus it deserved. Consequently, year after year the problem persists.
When the national economy falters, the government is unable to directly intervene and individuals in lower income bracket suffers. When the government manages to inject a loan from somewhere, a better aid package is provided. However, these are hardly solutions.
The time has come for us to address this issue with the same intense indignation that we are addressing the problems at the SLC. It should be our collective responsibility to ensure that not a single child in our country is left hungry.