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Protectionism and food safety


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President Maithripala Sirisena’s call for protectionist taxes to be increased on imported fruit to benefit local consumers has triggered a renewed discourse on food security and how Sri Lanka can ensure that the poorest segments of the population are given access to affordable food. 

South Asia, despite decades of impressive growth, has startlingly high levels of food insecurity with none of the major countries managing to rank in the top 50 countries in the Global Food Index 2017. This is largely attributed to mismanaged policies, inconsistency and outdated views on how nutrition relates to trade.       

The definition of food security includes food access, availability, food use, and stability. Availability is determined by food supply, primarily at the national level. However, the perception on what food security means is vague in Sri Lanka as often, national level food security is generally confused with food self-sufficiency. With this in mind successive governments have introduced tariffs and para-tariffs that has left an illogical mismatch in terms of food security. Important sectors such as preserving fruit and vegetables, bakery products, dairy and even pasta production is among the top most protected sectors in Sri Lanka. But these are not strategic or high employer sectors but they do serve to drive up consumer prices.   

A country need not achieve self-sufficiency in food to achieve food security, because, national food security is attained when a country produces adequate food for its people or has the capacity to import its food requirements by its export earnings or a combination of both. Food imports, even though they are usually frowned upon, may actually provide food at a cheaper rate to households, thereby increasing food security.  

Accessibility depends on the individual’s capacity to purchase food at the household level, and utilisation depends on intra-household distribution of food and the nutritious use of food by the individual. The fourth dimension of food security, i.e., food stability, ensures the access to food at all times and covers the physiological, economic, social or political vulnerabilities of the population to food security. This is less universal in Sri Lanka. 

Ironically in Sri Lanka it is farmer families that are also most food vulnerable. Last year when the worst drought in 40 years hit and wiped out half the harvest over a million farmer families around the country became food insecure, some forced to reduce food intake to one meal a day. This is partly because the agriculture industry despite only contributing about 9% of GDP nonetheless employs about 25% of the labour force and has little capacity to save for when times are hard. The sector also has a large number of women workers, usually at informal level, making it harder for them to absorb market shocks. 

However, this does not mean that food insecurity is limited to just the rural poor, pockets of urban communities also struggle because access is hard for them. However, it is more economic issues, particularly inflation, that has a telling impact on these communities. Evidence also indicates that rather than harping on self-sufficiency Sri Lanka stands to gain more by focusing on building a robust economy based on exports and investment to be able to afford to feed its population.       

This means that maintaining a stable economy able to provide more jobs with stable incomes and absorb labour from the less productive segments of the economy is imperative to ensuring food security for all Sri Lankans.  


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