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Weather and agriculture

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Agricultural officials have warned farmers to use water sparingly in the first three months of the year despite few indications of possible drought later in the year. The overwhelming attention to weather and its continued impact on agriculture would have serious impact on Sri Lanka’s food security.    

Sri Lanka has been ranked the best in the South Asian region in the recently-published Global Food Security Index 2017, which comprehensively examines food security in 113 countries. However, food security in Sri Lanka also encompasses issues of household access as well as the overall economy, making it a critical component of policy making.    

As per the Index compiled by The Economist, in South Asia, India ranked, 74th while Pakistan was placed 77th. Nepal ranked 81st in the index and Bangladesh ranked the lowest at 89th. 

The definition of food security includes its multi-dimensional nature and 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. 

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. As seen earlier this 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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