World Food Day 2021 – Strategic thinking on food security for Sri Lankans

The world food day theme 2021 is a good one as all themes go. This year it is “Our actions are our future. Better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life”

So let us see if Sri Lanka is close to being “better”. If we are to really do better, we must step into those actions, not today, but yesterday. The analysis of the problem is long. So fairly briefly;

The important “vulnerables”

Covid 19 threw into stark reality the situation especially with regard to those important Sri Lankans. This was a clear picture of what ails our food system at ALL times.

Who is meant as important Sri Lankans? All human beings are important as per human rights. But for development workers, those who matter are the vulnerable. Vulnerable meaning open to abuse, closer to all problems and suffering. The vulnerable groups are in minus in everything from access to affordable food, to poverty and lack of opportunity, to productive and highly paid jobs, to child rights, to violence, to access to information, gaps in knowledge,  to quality health care,  to meaningful education, having a satisfying and fulfilling life, being part of decision making and changing the future. Victor Hugo in his work “Les Miserable”, explains the lot of the “vulnerables” very clearly. These include those working in the informal sector getting a daily wage, female headed households and female maintained households, the sick, the disabled, the self employed.

Personally to a development worker the important people in positions of power and wealth matter only so far as serving the really “important” who have to be served. That is our indispensable and non expendable duty.

Covid 19 food insecurity impacted mostly on the poor, informal sector workers in urban and rural areas

Lockdowns and closure of business resulted in lack of income and mobility. This lack of income and stay at home rule meant that these people could not buy food nor gather food from the immediate surroundings. According to most measurements of food insecurity it meant having smaller meals, not having variety in the diet to get all the required nutrients and skipping meals. In the early stages and even later in the epidemic, large numbers of people of especially urban low income settlements were seen being infected. The holes in the food system actually resulting in low immunity, drives epidemics. The excellent articles written in a series by Omar Khan clearly demonstrated the epidemic of poverty and food insecurity caused by lockdowns. Furthermore the “care” component of a Covid 19 patient includes a quality diet, though this may not be highly cost intensive.

Not meeting social protection requirements and assurance of entitlements during Covid

The only form of social protection provided by the state was in the form of a cash handout of Rs 5000 given twice at most in April and November 2020, not fairly and uniformly spread among those who really needed it and then a third handout of 2000, not tangibly done in Sept 2021.  Generous assistance was provided by individuals and organizations mostly in the form of food baskets. But unfortunately these cannot be quantified and are a drop in the ocean of need. Individuals and private entities unfortunately cannot, will not and need not play the role of the government/the state which is bound to assure its people, first of all their right to food.

The state provided a food pack to the Covid infected. But what about their neighbours? not directly impacted with the disease, but  affected and unable to get out from next door? Is this assistance an equitable approach?

A messed up economy and mafia taking hold of the food system compounding the problems of the “vulnerables” during Covid

Two examples are given briefly.

The milk powder mess created in the absence of a sound economy where the Rupee was floating, the lack of adequate fresh milk supply to solve problems at home and having to depend on powder imports, price caps fixed on retail prices by the Consumer Affairs Authority, hiding of stocks and furtive selling lead to the lack of access by the “vulnerables” getting that bit of “milk comfort”. However judgemental we in the food and nutrition world maybe about milk powder, it is a pleasure for some to taste it as a whitening agent, 1 to 1.5  teaspoons provides at least a fraction, maybe 5 to 7 % of the total protein requirement of the body. In the absence of affordability of and access to fresh milk, powdered milk still is the answer, caused by a broken dairy value chain. Though milk is not essential after age 2, gaps in nutrients in the meal are filled by milk.

The rice crisis was yet another, created by a state-interventionist yet supposed to be an open economy, compounded by increased cost of inputs and lack of dollars as well as shortsighted agriculture and trade policy. The rice mafia which rose to the occasion and controlled paddy farmers and millers is closely connected to the powers that be or have been. The result being the price of a kg of nutritionally highly recommended nadu rice increasing by at least Rs 25. This is near, a 25% increase from the original price. The government had no pricing policy with the pendulum swinging between price caps on one day and removing these the next.

With associated increases in the price of fuel, the entire food system is in a collapsed state. All types of food have been hit by inflation as part of the broken economy. No Forex reserves, low trading, lack net foreign investments, high indebtedness, etc. This against the agricultural dynamics of high quantity of imported inputs, going into organic overnight without any thought of a sustainable system, no plan for food security based on population requirements, no demand-based cropping plan and low, stagnated productivity, no strategic technology transfer which is prudent in a limited land area and the total disregard of women’s contribution to agriculture.

What really is needed to boost our food system?

  • Nutrition sensitive planning from the decision to grow, production, transport, storage, distribution, processing, eating, and trading; while there is a basic discussion on planning, there is not much planning based on biological requirements, trade and tourism requirements and demographic changes. The 10-year plan for food security proposed by the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka 5 years ago was disregarded owing to the ego and complacency of the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture. There was no semblance of the agricultural policy until recently. The earlier policy was a set of words with no meaning whatsoever. FAO has supported these endeavors with various studies and recommendations. Now the implementation is the key.
  • Optimum investment in technology, technology transfer and research; suitable for small land areas and sensitive environments, and the preparation of healthy processed products, together with suitable human resource development to implement these actions. This is evident in the fact that women who form over 50% of agricultural labour have barely touched a weeding machine. Local technology and research are important in order not to be dependant on imports and the spending of limited foreign exchange. Also, solutions need to be local. Urban home gardening is an area that needs intense attention to achieve success as in Cuba’s case.

The impairment of food security as in the case of Covid would not arise, if people had some food grown in their space-limited environments, close at hand. Animal husbandry should be an essential part of the rural home garden so that quality protein can be easily accessed. Providing food close to home means less food miles, in turn reducing the requirement for fuel and cash outlays, reducing the cost of food as well as carbon fumes. This also makes Sri Lanka less dependant on the outside world.

  • Promotion of SMART food requires less effort and inputs but maximum benefit in nutrition. A Vision that our food is ‘Smart’ – healthy, sustainable on the environment, and good for those who produce it especially the smallholder farmer. Smart food combines a number of nutrients in rich density in one source of food. Dryland cereals like millets and sorghum, and grain legumes are Smart Food.

How are they good for You?

These Smart Food crops are highly nutritious and target some of the largest micronutrient deficiencies and needs, especially of women and children.

For example:

Iron and zinc – Pearl millet has very high levels and bioavailability studies have shown that they will provide the average person’s daily requirement of iron and zinc.

Calcium – Finger millet has 3 times the amount compared to milk.

Affordable protein – provided by grain legumes and together with millets and sorghum they create complete protein. Low Glycemic Index – which means escalating levels of diabetes – can be avoided or managed by sorghum and millets because they have low Glycemic Index.

High antioxidants – Fights against heart diseases, life style disorders and cancer

High Fibre

Gluten-Free

How are they Good for the Planet?

Legumes have an important contribution to soil nutrition

Millets have a low carbon footprint. Millets serve as a mitigation and adaptation strategy for climate change.

How are they good for the Smallholder farmer?

Smart Food is good for the smallholder farmers because they;

Survive in high temperatures

Survive with very little water; pearl millet is often described as the last crop standing in times of drought

Their climate resilience means they have a good risk management strategy. Their multiple uses and untapped demand means they have a lot more potential

Unlike other crops, they have not reached a yield plateau and have great potential for productivity increase

  • Conduct of market analysis at consistent intervals so that the market demand is properly established and post-harvest losses are minimized and farmer income is not drastically disrupted.
  • Improving nutritional knowledge and skills in diversifying meals on the part of the community has to be done without delay. The more diversity of meals taken means that the demand for very different food crops is present. A more diverse plant base of eating ensures environmental sustainability and a reduced carbon footprint. In order to reduce the carbon footprint, eating animal source food which is very expensive both in the environmental and economic sense requires reduction. This means that the protein component needs to be sourced from a mix of pulses and vegetables. In Sri Lanka, the main source of plant protein is from dhal which is imported from far away and provides no diversity. Also eating a single pulse does not provide all the essential amino acids. But a mix of pulses would provide these. The underutilized food crops such as rare fruits which are extremely nutritious needs to be brought to the forefront.

The recently launched Food-Based Dietary Guidelines needs dissemination to the community, as these messages will help guide the consumption of nutritious meals.

All the points mentioned above to “fix” the food system together with actions not mentioned. All these need to be implemented together through a multitude of professionals

Visakha Tillekeratne, Consultant, Food and Nutrition Security

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