Wasted food is a crime in any country, but it is particularly puerile in a developing country with Sri Lanka’s statistics on malnutrition. For a country that suffers no significant food shortages and provides extensive and free maternal and child health services, it is rather paradoxical that malnutrition affects nearly one-third of children and one quarter of women.
Over the past week, there have been shocking stories of vegetables being used for fertiliser, rice farmers not being able to sell their crops and dairy producers dumping thousands of litres of milk in Hatton because there are no buyers. This is a shocking and inexcusable situation.
According to the United Nations agency for children, UNICEF, almost one out of five children in Sri Lanka is born with low birth weight. Around 29 per cent of under-fives are reported to be underweight, rising as high as 37.4 per cent, in some deprived districts.
They also point out that 14 per cent of under-fives suffer from acute malnutrition (wasting) when their weight is compared to the weight of a normal child of the same height. Nearly 58 per cent of infants between six and 11 months and 38 per cent children between 12 and 23 months are anaemic.
Such statistics are truly shocking given that Sri Lanka’s food production is adequate to eradicate malnutrition. However, consistently bad policies and even worse implementation has derailed these efforts. Moreover, the Government spends millions of dollars on special programmes to reduce malnutrition, which could be used for other purposes if basic adjustments are made to trading and transport of food.
People were stunned when dairy farmers in Hatton threw away an estimated 12,000 litres of milk and even bathed in it as a protest to call on the Government to intervene and purchase their produce. It will be remembered that in a previous Budget, the Government gave special provisions to dairy farmers in an attempt to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in milk supply, but these policies seem to have overlooked the mechanism of distribution and market place dynamics.
Milco has come forward to buy the excess milk as officials and ministers scrambled to find solutions in the wake of growing public criticism. Yet, reports point out that actual purchases are yet to be made and every hour delayed increases the risk of the milk becoming too sour for consumption. Duty on milk powder was also re-imposed in an effort to provide a more sustainable solution.
It is clear that the real answer is for the Government to establish proper infrastructure such as cool rooms and competent railway networks for transportation. Educating farmers on varied foods and earmarking them for export from the inception is also another point. Proper preservation systems and organic farming is another aspect that the Government can concentrate on so that a better export market as well as sustainable practices are introduced to the local agriculture sector.
It is indeed a pity that the Sri Lankan Government can spend millions of dollars on unprofitable harbours, substandard coal power plants and impractical airports, but cannot find enough in its coffers to implement measures that would feed the people. A greater failure can hardly be imagined.