Food Security

Food security during economic insecurity and instability

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Food Security means that all people always have physical & economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods, which are produced in an environmentally sustainable and socially just manner, and that people are able to make informed decisions about their food choices. The FAO defines the four pillars of food security as availability, access, utilisation, and stability of food.

Whether it is from a Sri Lankan context, or more generally from a global context, ensuring food security is a complex subject that has no easy answers if all aspects of it are to be considered. Broadly, food security is the availability of food and the ability of all people irrespective of ethnicity, religious beliefs, economic class, gender, which part of the country they live in etc, to physically and economically access food. The target is therefore for an entire population of the country to have easy access to adequate quantities of basic, safe, preferred food items, at affordable prices. This is a foundation for building a nation of healthy people and preventing hunger, malnutrition, and starvation.

In Sri Lanka, the economic debacle faced by the country has already had an impact on the people with 9.6 million people reportedly in poverty according to a study by Peradeniya University and malnutrition rose sharply alongside. Clearly, indisputable food insecurity signs are there and are clearly visible. However, what is also visible is the general apathy and indifference shown to the debacle of food insecurity.

As with many activities, ensuring food security involves a chain of activities and the involvement and input from many players. A key feature of a supply chain is the importance of realizing the underlying principle of a supply chain that “the strength of a chain lies in its weakest link.” If ensuring food security is considered from the prism of a chain of activities, then, the above principle defines the success or failure of the system whenever one section of the chain fails to deliver resulting in food insecurity. Very fundamentally, food insecurity arises when there is a failure on the part of the producer to produce quality food, the failure of the intermediate systems like the wholesale buyers of the products who fail to provide a decent price to producers, an inefficient transportation system that fails to get the food to retailers and consumers in a timely manner in good condition, inability to source from overseas the essential basic foods that are not domestically available in adequate quantities, and the inability of all or some of the population to access the food based on economic grounds.

The complexity of this supply chain deepens when factors such as environmental sustainability, cultural appropriateness, and nutritional values are factored in. Food security is a supply/demand phenomenon where the demand for nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate food needs to be supplied in the right quantity, right quality, the right price, and right place in an environmentally sustainable manner. The inherent complexity of the supply chain makes it difficult and even impractical and probably inadvisable for assigning the management of all aspects of food security to a single entity. It is perhaps addressed best by market forces, but where the responsibility for some policy settings may be assigned to the State.

A key requisite for achieving food security and often not given the attention it deserves is theability of the people who produce and supply such footwear a decent, living wage, growing, catching, producing, and where appropriate, processing, the food produced.

The intervention of middlemen between producers of food, and the transporters, wholesalers, and eventually retailers has been and still is a major challenge to food security in Sri Lanka. Ensuring food security is therefore not a simple phenomenon of just growing food without considering all the above aspects.

Food safety plays an integral part in food utilisation. How food is metabolised by consumers, storage issues such as the length of storage and method of storage, and preparation for consumption (cleaning, level of heat treatment provided in cooking, not mixing ready-to-eat food with raw items etc) contribute to food safety at the household level. Providing simple information to the public on how to maintain food safety at home will help. Levels of sanitation at home and availability of good, affordable health care will also help.  

Food security is also threatened by natural disasters, climate change, non-availability of sufficient water, pests / agricultural diseases, wasting food, and politics/poor governance. Some of these factors are avoidable if mitigation plans are made in advance.

Sustainable Food Systems

A healthy, sustainable food system is one that focuses on Environmental Health, Economic Vitality including marketability, and Human Health & Social Equity.

  • Environmental Health – ensures that food production and procurement do not compromise the land, air, or water now or for future generations.
  • Economic Vitality & Marketability– ensures that the people who are producing the food are able to earn a decent living income wage doing so. This ensures that producers can continue to produce our food, and what is produced can be marketed. Often, sudden, or seasonal rise in prices, especially of fruits and vegetables, leads to large-scale cultivation of such items which results in overproduction and consequent drop in prices for such items. This results in producers having to even sell for prices much less than their cost of production
  • Human Health & Social Equity – ensures that particular importance is placed on community development and the health of the community, making sure that healthy foods are available economically and physically to the community and that people are able to access these foods in a dignified manner. Promotion of the health (and unhealthy) aspects of food is a major task that could and should be undertaken by the media and organisations specialised in such activities including the State and private sector healthcare institutions.

Food security strategies

It is politically convenient but shortsighted to take the stand that assuring food security is merely growing more food. Opening large swathes of unutilised and or underutilised land for cultivating more food without considering the numerous aspects associated with food security mentioned above does not assure real food security. In fact, more environmental damage which in turn exacerbates food insecurity can be caused unless intelligent planning accompanies food security strategies.

Of course, more food has to be grown if the country is short of food. But the important consideration is which food is to be grown and where, and whether such food provides the nutrition(protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins/ minerals)that human beings require.

Food security also tends to be viewed only from the prism of what can be grown, meaning, grains, vegetables, and fruits. Meat and fish are rich sources of proteins and other vital nutrients for human beings, but they also contain unhealthy aspects as well, as do some non-meat or non-fish food items. This is where health professionals come in to provide relevant information on health and unhealthy aspects of food items. The meat industry in particular has religious imperatives and these need to be factored in when discussing food security.

The following three key proposals are presented for consideration by readers and advocates of a food security policy and program for the country.

  1. A national committee consisting of agriculture and dietary experts drawn from the academia and professional bodies to develop a national food security strategy. Such a strategy should identify most appropriate geographic crop cultivation opportunities based on soil conditions, water availability, rainfall patterns etc. Guaranteed prices could be fixed for growers of commodities determined by this committee.
  2. A public/private sector partnership to manage the procurement and transportation of commodities from the growers to retail markets. Such a partnership could include rail transportation, lorry transportation and retail outlets such as supermarkets and cooperative establishments. This entity could establish buying prices from growers and recommended retail prices based on demand/supply considerations.
  3. An entity to provide information (online, print and TV) to growers and consumers on (a) growth strategies and plans as determined by the national committee of agriculture & dietary experts, (b) procurement prices for produce and recommended retail prices and (c) dietary and food health information.

The above three committees could co-opt provincial and/or district-level institutions and entities to promote and support the national food security strategy. It is strongly suggested that considering the critical importance of food security to all people of Sri Lanka, the national strategy formulation and the national planning, execution and monitoring process be a task assigned to the President.

Amongst key strategies that may be considered are

  1. The promotion and support for the domestic agriculture sector to improve and increase the output. Farmers, large and small, should be provided easy access to knowledge in the appropriate use of fertiliser, use of different methods of irrigation/watering (drip irrigation, sprinkler systems, fertigation etc.), use of modern equipment, crop diversification, managing issues relating to pests, weeds etc. Such information may be made specific to the different areas in the country.
  2. Exploration of the cultivation of strains/varieties that provide higher yields using less land. Seeds of such varieties could be made available to farmers.
  3. Ensuring that the farmers get a fair deal for their effort. That is, make sure that it is economically viable for the farmers.
  4. Developing methods to make water available to farmers, specially those working in arid areas.
  5. Encouraging households to grow some fruits and vegetables at home. Promotion of cultivating in pots and used fertilizer. flour bags should be promoted and encouraged.
  6. Discouraging food waste at all levels.
  7. Examining and improving where necessary, the storage facilities, transport facilities, at the various stages from farm to retail and the packaging used, in the pursuit of minimising food waste as well as maintaining food quality/food safety.

Ensuring food security and all aspects of food security as discussed here for all people of the country cannot be assured by politicians who are divided on every national issue that matters to the people. They have demonstrated their love for themselves ahead of the people of the country when the economic edifice of the country has cracked and fallen apart around them. Judging by the failure of Opposition politicians to support national effort to address the economic debacle of the country, it is certain that a national effort to ensure food security will not be a priority for the Opposition politicians, who will only look for political opportunism to further their political ambitions. Hopefully, promotional efforts to ensure food security will be provided by civil society institutions, religious bodies, academic & professional institutions, health institutions, women’s organisations, and importantly, media institutions.

Acknowledgement – The technical advice, information and support provided by Food technologist Mr. Sanath Nanayakkara, a graduate of the University of Colombo and holder of a master’s degree in business administration from Macquarie University, Sydney, and who has worked extensively in technical and managerial roles in the food industry for 48 years both in Sri Lanka and Australia is gratefully acknowledged.