Deranging levels of Food Security in Sri Lanka consequent to COVID-19


by Saanaaree Manoratne 10 June 2020

In the backdrop of exponential growth of world’s population and the changing patterns of consumption, it is undoubted that the global demand for food is guaranteed to experience an upsurge in the near future. Such increase of demand coupled with other externalities such as limitations in production, soaring prices, mismanaged supply chains, declining nutritional value of crops and structural inequalities in access to food has disturbed the food security at national and international level. Despite the expansion of production capacities, through technological advancements, developing world have been continuously struggling to handle situations of pervasive hunger and extreme poverty which shares a direct correlation with food security. Hence, while the nations are grappling with new challenges posed by COVID-19, the imminent threats to food security should not escape the attention of the governments and policy makers.

Similar to many other countries, in Sri Lanka the demand for food is supplied through domestic production as well as imports. Although successive governments have pledged to achieve self-sufficiency in certain crop varieties, including rice, it is incontestable that the Sri Lankan population is heavily reliant on imports to fulfil their dietary requirements. In 2019 Sri Lanka was ranked 66th amongst 113 countries in the global food security index which indicates that food security has been an area which required improvement even prior to the pandemic situation.   Amidst the strict preventive measures employed to control the spread of COVID-19, both domestic production and imports have endured disturbances which seems unfavourable to the status of food security in the country. Analysis of these disturbances and its impact on food insecurity warrants a close observation of the possible trends and outcomes in the short, medium and long term.

Firstly, the immediate impact would be on the low-income households dependent on daily wages to fulfil their basic requirements. Given the suspension of several economic activities, low income households in both urban and rural areas have experienced major setbacks in their income, which has depreciated their ability to purchase essential food items. Although a decline in supply of food items was not identified in the market, deficient financial capacity of low-income households has caused significant obstructions to their access to food in sufficient quality and quantity. In this outset, several measures have been taken by the government and the private actors, including concessionary prices for certain essential food items and donations to vulnerable households to sustain themselves during the lockdown. While such immediate relief to those who were unable to fulfil their day-to-day requirements was an absolute necessity, in the long run, these provisions are nothing but merely a makeshift approach as oppose to a more sustainable solution.

Secondly, while an immediate decline in supply is not anticipated, given the interruptions caused to market activities and supply chains, limitations to accessibility of food items is expected in intermediate term. With the interruptions caused to economic activities in several critical nodes of the market, such as Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre and Manning Market in Colombo, the traditional channels have been dysfunctional causing inefficiencies in distribution. Consequently, massive oversupplies were observed in many areas where the farmers were claimed that they were left with no option but to throw away their unsold produce.  As discussed previously, government has made efforts to purchase the unsaleable produce from the farmers and distribute them through government channels to end consumers. While home delivery of essentials was required given the circumstances, this approach had its fair share of challenges posed by geographical proximity, observance of hygienic practices and limited consumer choice compared to the situations which prevailed earlier.

 Thirdly, due to cessation of market activities producers will be discouraged to produce in quantities they previously cultivated in fear of not being able to secure reasonable prices. Moreover, their production capacities will also deteriorate as they struggle to purchase agricultural inputs such as fertilizer for crops and animal feed for livestock with their low incomes earned in the previous season. These irregularities will eventually reflect in the production quantities, which will inevitably reduce the domestic production in the long run. Decline in domestic production would naturally call for increase of imports to ensure food items are available in sufficient quantity in the markets. Yet, given the pressures induced by COVID-19, unprecedented escalation of food prices is expected globally which result in increase of expenditure on imports necessary of domestic consumption.

Sri Lanka’s response to imminent threats to food security, should take into account two underlying principles, namely, minimizing damage and building resilience. Any response with this regard should firstly, focus on preventing the worsening conditions and preserving the status quo and secondly how to improve the prevailing situations and ensure resilience of communities to challenges which may follow in future. Amongst other measures taken, reasonable interventions should be made to regulate market activities in order to discourage unfavourable trends. Particularly, a strong preventionist stance is recommended to avoid fictitious shortages caused by “panic buying”.  Parallel to the relief mechanisms Sri Lanka should invest more on planning for post-COVID recovery measures especially targeting the low-income households which have suffered severe economic setbacks. Opportunities should be created for them to either resume their previous methods of income generation or to shift into alternative livelihoods. Furthermore, attention should be paid to develop strategies to efficiently manage national food reserves, which is of utmost importance in the backdrop of a pandemic. The process of management of food reserves should be transparent and handled by an institution with a clear mandate which will be directly accountable to ensure its efficient administration. Last but not least, incentives should be provided for producers to continue their cultivations, until they are able to recover from the shocks experienced during the suspension of market activities due to COVID-19.