Food for thought

Monday, 18 January 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Government’s decision to move the Manning Market to Peliyagoda at a cost of Rs. 4 billion to the taxpayer is an attempt to make Colombo a more liveable city but it overlooks the very real problems of collecting, storing and transporting food that is an integral part of reducing post-harvest losses.  

Sri Lanka’s post-harvest losses are estimated to be as high as 40% and according to a global organisation, not such an aberration at a regional level. Around 35% of food is lost between harvest and distribution across the Asia-Pacific region, depriving millions of nutrition and posing fresh challenges to ending hunger.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says poor production planning, a lack of storage, weak transport systems, crop disease and parasites cause some 30% of cereals and 42% of fruit and vegetables to be lost before reaching consumers. They believe that more effort is needed to raise global awareness of the critical issue of food losses and particularly post-harvest losses, as well as food waste, which is increasing. AFP reported that last year the Asia-Pacific “was home to 536 million hungry people”.

The FAO defines “loss” as food which does not make it from harvest to the market, while “waste” is food thrown away by consumers, restaurants and supermarkets – a trend that increases with greater urbanisation.

The issue remains a cornerstone of development discussions, according to M.S. Swaminathan, who helped shape India’s ‘Green Revolution,’ which boosted crop yields. He has insisted that post-harvest losses should be added on to and considered as part of land and water wastage.

Food loss is becoming an integral part of food security and sustainable development. The discussion at home, however, has petered out since the former Government’s contentious efforts to introduce plastic crates for vegetable and food transportation. Even though the policy was partially implemented, the hundreds of kilos of produce that are being thrown out at economic centres spread around the country have gained no attention from policymakers. There is also little attention paid to crop diversification, export promotion and equitable management of food stocks.

Even worse the new Government does not see food security and logistics problems as deserving key reform. Instead concentrating on expensive beatification, which does not directly impact food quality and access to food by vulnerable groups or improving farmer returns.  

Sri Lanka’s high production prices result in exports being uncompetitive, but poor infrastructure to preserve, store and transport fruits and vegetables remains a serious issue. The Government’s infrastructure drive has not focused on basic aspects such as freezer units for the economic centres scattered around the country where unsold goods can be stored. Train services combining these spots with Colombo would also be a huge advantage in collecting and transporting produce with less cost and speed as a long-term investment.

Businesses need to be encouraged to come up with innovative ways to process, packet and market food items. Attractive and convenient packaging of fruit along with easy availability would reduce much of this issue. It is tragic that so much food is wasted in a country where some people still struggle to purchase three full meals a day.