Food Insecurity Looms Large | Daily News

Food Insecurity Looms Large

Food prices continue to rise
Food prices continue to rise

A strong sense of uncertainty, frustration and anger is written all over the faces of farmers standing in queues with empty cans in hand with the hope of buying diesel to be used for preparing land for the ‘Yala’ cultivation season, which is now midway but of which many of them are behind time.

How some of them, who have been in long and never-ending queues for fuel for days, raise their voices as they run out of patience is a sight that burns one’s heart.

The farmers, everywhere in the country, are inconvenienced due to the prevailing fuel shortage on top of a more severe fertilizer crisis, which has been continuing since last year and for which solutions are yet to be seen. All of it is too much of an ordeal for “feeders of the Nation” time-honoured as “kings” as in the proverbial saying, “the farmer qualifies to the Throne when his mud is washed off”.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, 2.1 million households or about 40 percent of the total was engaged in agricultural or livestock farming as at 2017 (the last update available), and the estimated population in them stood at 8.1 million.

Now that the preceding cultivation season has failed and this cultivation season is riddled with problems, their livelihood is in jeopardy and a dark cloud of a food crisis on the horizon for the crisis-laden country.

To make matters worse are predictions of a global food crisis mainly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Climate Change, economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising costs of reaching people in need.

Paddy harvest

According to the Agriculture officials, the field data point to about a 50 percent drop in the paddy harvest of the previous ‘Maha’ season. Rice is the staple food of the 22 million population of the country, and the ‘Maha’ season is considered the most important when it comes to national food security.

Sri Lanka’s monthly requirement of rice is estimated to be 196,422 Metric Tonnes (MT). Agriculture Department Additional Director General Dr. Samanthi K. Wasala pointed out that the rice stocks available in the country are sufficient only up to mid-September or October. The ‘Yala’ harvest is not expected before February, next year and a share of it has to be kept aside for seed paddy for the next ‘Maha’ season.

Dr. Wasala said, according to the ground-level data coming in, the ‘Yala’ paddy cultivation is not up to the mark. “Usually, about 450,000 hectares are cultivated, but it would be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 hectares this time. It is a cultivation season that heavily depends on major and minor irrigation systems in the country, and therefore, the majority of cultivations are in areas such as Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Ampara and Kurunegala,” she explained.

She noted that the vegetable cultivation around the country has also been affected due to the fertilizer issue, and that there is a shortage of seeds as many of those seed varieties are usually imported. “For example, lettuce and leek seeds are 100 percent imported,” she added.

Minor export crops

Export Agriculture Department Director (Development) Upul Ranaweera said the Department is aiming at increasing land productivity, quality improvement and home gardening to enhance income from minor export crops, as foreign exchange is critical to the country at this moment. He said the country recorded the highest ever income from minor export crops, Rs. 102 billion (US$ 517 million), last year. This income had largely come from cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmeg and betel.

He pointed out that his Department paid higher attention to turmeric and ginger cultivations last year to fulfil the local demand. “The country is now self-sufficient in them, but now their processing has become problematic as most of the processing plants have closed down due to the kerosene shortage. As an alternative measure, we train cultivators to sun dry them,” he said.

“We did not get much fertilizer last year, but since all these are perennial crops, they can survive without fertilizer for about a year without a considerable drop in the yield. The use of agro-chemicals is also minimal for them. Our crops were not affected so far, but we need fertilizer this year,” he explained.

He said that maize, cashew and cocoa are being imported to the country as the production is not enough to cater to the local requirement.

Food prices soar

The weekly food commodities bulletin of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) said that the wholesale and retail prices of all the vegetable varieties have increased due to low supply in the off-season. The domino effect of the recent fuel price hike will also shoot up the vegetable prices as transportation costs increase.

“The vegetable prices usually reach the maximum in June, and therefore, it is expected that the vegetable prices will further increase in the next few weeks,” the bulletin said. It further said that the prices of ‘Other Field Crops’ such as red onion, big onion, and potato have also increased considerably.

“We have given more weight on studying how the recent policy changes on fertilizer affected the overall agricultural productivity and their impact on the country’s food security. We are currently focusing on promoting home gardening as it could help ease the prevailing food problems,” HARTI Director Malinda Seneviratne commented.

Hunt for fertilizer

It is no secret that the local agriculture failure largely stemmed from an ill-advised and ill-timed decision to make a direct changeover from conventional farming to organic farming with a blanket ban on chemical fertilizer and agro-chemicals that came as a bolt from the blue for farmers. It could be seen that collective attempts are being made to right the wrongs of the past and revive agriculture, but the acute forex scarcity has stood in the way.

National Fertiliser Office Deputy Director Kasun Mahathanthila told the Daily News that only 17,000 MT of chemical fertilizers (six types of them including Urea) are available in the country now, and those are sold in the open market, at exorbitant prices in some cases, as there is no price control. He said that the annual fertilizer import requirement, without the organic fertilizer component, is 1.1 million MT, but importation has been limited due to the inability to open Letters of Credit.

He said that 37,753 MT of Urea has been ordered but only 19,802 MT has come so far. About 31,000 MT of Sulphate of Ammonia is also pending, whereas Muriate of Potash (MOP), usually bought from countries around the Black Sea, cannot be imported anymore due to the Ukraine conflict.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a discussion with representatives from the agriculture sector last Friday, noted that about US$ 600 million would be required to ensure adequate supply of fertiliser, but only US$ 198 million is available and the balance should be found soon.

“We will have to request from donor countries and organisations to provide us with fertilizer and seeds in any quantity they can,” he remarked, while instructing the officials to identify underutilized land in urban areas, which could be cultivated, as an urgent measure to face the impending food crisis.

The Prime Minister also expressed his intent of presenting a new piece of legislation in Parliament, ‘the Essential Agriculture Supplies Act’, to ensure uninterrupted supply and distribution of agricultural materials.

There were reports of receiving 65,000 MT of Urea from India, but newly appointed Agriculture, Wildlife and Forest Conservation Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told a pocket meeting in Angunakolapelessa over the weekend that the talks were still at the early stage. However, he said that the talks have been positive even amidst a ban on export of Urea from India.

Farmers in distress

At the same time, attention has now been paid to give priority to issue fuel to farmers for agricultural purposes during the ‘Yala’ cultivation season. Minister Amaraweera said directions have been given to issue fuel to farmers from 217 selected fuel stations covering all districts.

All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation National Organiser Namal Karunaratne, however, complained that the ground-level reality was different and that such measures are not practically implemented. Observing that the cost borne by farmers to hire tractors to plough paddy fields has dramatically increased due to the fuel price hike, Karunaratne said farmers must be provided with some sort of relief.

“Annually we have to produce about 3.6 million MT of paddy for consumption and another 100,000MT for seed paddy. Farmers could reach this target every year until now, except in 2016 where there was a severe drought. The paddy production in 2019 was 4.8 million MT and it was 5 million MT in 2020. In 2021, despite all the challenges, we produced 4 million MT of paddy. What happened was that the maize production dropped significantly due to the fertilizer fiasco, and rice was used by poultry farmers to produce fodder. Later, a Gazette notification was issued to stop that practice.

“Moreover, rice was also used to produce beer. This year, the yield of ‘Maha’ season, which usually amounts to 3 million MT of paddy, has dropped to about 1.5 million MT due to lack of fertilizer and agro-chemicals. This quantity is barely enough for a few more months and then we will have to import rice, which might have been produced using even more fertilizer and agro-chemicals than we do,” Karunaratne said.

“The ‘Yala’ season has begun but not enough fertilizer is available. A black market for fertilizer is thriving, and farmers are compelled to buy a sack of Urea at about Rs.40,000,” he moaned.

Brace for impact

Peradeniya University Agriculture Faculty Senior Professor Buddhi Marambe forewarned that according to their predictions the paddy harvest of the ‘Yala’ season could also drop by half. “Both fuel and fertilizer crises have affected the Yala cultivations. The best we can do is to well-plan from now for the next ‘Maha’ season. A mix of conventional and organic farming methods is recommended for better yields. About 80,000 MT of seed paddy is required for the ‘Maha’ season. The need of the hour is to give all the help needed to farmers who have taken up seed paddy cultivation,” he advised.

In addition to paddy, he highlighted that the harvest of maize, which is a main component of livestock diets, dropped by 65-70 percent in the last cultivation season, affecting the whole livestock industry.

Moreover, the export income from tea declined by US$ 52 million in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year. “Tea is the main export crop of the country. We are losing precious foreign exchange at a time we most need it. My suggestion is to give priority to paddy, tea and maize when providing fertilizer and other plant nutrients,” he noted.

Prof. Marambe was one among the few academics who voiced their concerns at the very outset of the Government’s decision to go for an overnight total ban of chemical fertilizer and agro-chemicals. He, along with other experts in the field such as former Agriculture Ministry Secretary and Wayamba University Senior Professor Udith K. Jayasinghe-Mudalige, projected the dire consequences of the decision, staking their positions in the Government, but in vain.

“It was the most erroneous decision related to the agriculture industry since 1948. It was a top-level decision, but a historic mistake that has proven costly to the entire Nation. There were ample scientific evidences within and outside the country not to take that decision. The money of the country was wasted on a dream that can hardly be realized,” he lamented.

“We are to face a food crisis by October as two cultivation seasons have failed back to back. We will have to import the full requirement of rice for about 5-6 months. Tell the truth to the people, not to scare them, but to make them prepare and adapt themselves for the impending difficult situation. The people will have to deviate from their regular food patterns. Minimizing food wastage is a must. Adopt preferable alternatives for rice. Home gardening has to be encouraged, and when that is done, go for plants which can add more nutritional value to your meal,” he stressed.

Obviously, difficult days are ahead, but things will gradually improve over time, so let us brace for impact and do our part without losing hope. “Sharing is caring,” and it is time we think more about helping each other, especially the needy. Remember, even small acts of kindness can make a big difference.


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