Food security was an initial focus of the Government, which has obtained $20million recently from the World Bank to improve production and access of food to Sri Lankans but the issue remains a complex one.
The latest edition of the annual UN hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 (SOFI), states while Sri Lanka has made progress, it has however yet to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 1c target. The proportion of undernourished in Sri Lanka stands at 22.0% in 2014-16, down from 30.6% in 1990-92 but this still adds up to a startling 4.8 million people being vulnerable.
Such numbers are also shocking given the efforts made by successive Governments to reduce poverty. This is despite Sri Lanka making significant budget commitments to increase welfare handouts, raising per capita income, growing at an average of 7%, having single digit inflation and becoming self-sufficient in staple food rice. The new Government for the first time appointed a Food Security Ministry but it has had little opportunity to improve sustainable development.
Sri Lanka has also been impressive in meeting other MDGs such as reducing child and maternal mortality, achieving universal primary education, gender equality (outside of politics) and developing global partnerships for development but the possibility it is lagging in this crucial sphere is cause for alarm. While studies can be contested, there is significant Government produced data showing large numbers of people on Samurdhi and household income figures that show growing inequality.
Moreover, political changes in the past year hobbled policy decisions, which are just emerging into some form of stability. Food security is a knotty problem that has to be handled over a long period of time and requires national policies that will work with other line ministries and institutions, including agriculture, education, trade, technology and finance. Taking action at present would be of little use if ministers and other officials are swapped around after the next round of polls. Continuity is a massive challenge.
Trade is another key tool to bring food security to people who remain chronically undernourished. Many countries need reliable access to international markets to supplement their inadequate domestic food supplies. Better policies to make agriculture in Sri Lanka more productive and profitable, including via exports, would also help alleviate food insecurity and reduce poverty. Stronger international trade rules would help by constraining the beggar-thy-neighbour policies that distort trade, contribute to price volatility, and discourage investments in developing-country agriculture.
In Sri Lanka entrenched practices of protectionism and decades of low resource investment in agriculture also compound these challenges. High usage of natural resources such as water and land along with a reducing workforce available for growing food has also contributed to making the quest for food security harder. Regional efforts such as establishing a seed bank for the south Asian region has seen little mobility from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and intra-regional trade remains shackled by tough trade restrictions.
Global hunger has continued to decline, gradually, to an estimated 795 million undernourished people, or a reduction of 167 million hungry people over the last 10 years. This decline has been most pronounced in developing countries, despite significant population growth, proving all it takes is will power.