By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network held its sixth bi-annual gathering on Thursday, bringing together stakeholders of the food and nutrition industry and highlighting key issues like the traffic light labelling system for sugar sweetened beverages and nutritional wellbeing in Sri Lanka.
In March 2019, the SUN Business Network was inaugurated in Sri Lanka. It is implemented in Sri Lanka by the Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL).
“The SUN Business Network was formed as a common platform to bring Government agencies, civil societies, UN agencies, donor agencies, the private sector and also the Government or the stakeholders who come to the same platform,” FCCISL Secretary General and CEO Ajith D. Perera said.
The SUN Business Network has comprehensive coverage and Perera said the FCCISL has a widespread network as well, with regional chambers and over 25,000 SMEs, the majority of which represent the food sector.
“Our SMEs need a lot of guidance and advice from a program like this, especially to introduce good nutrition practices at their workplaces,” Perera added.
He went on to say that the FCCISL and the World Food Program (WFP) conducted both physical and online educational programs during the past year and a half, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs aimed at upgrading the capacity of SMEs, including financial literacy, packaging and branding, compliance and marketplace.
The SUN Business Network is co-convened by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the World Food Program (WFP). “As a UN agency that also works with government agencies, we have realised that nutrition is a responsibility of everybody. A very important player is the responsibility of the businesses,” WFP Sri Lanka Deputy Country Director Andrea Berardo said.
He added that good nutrition and ending malnutrition requires cohesive effort from food producers, explaining that we cannot wait for the government or businesses. “We cannot wait for the UN to take care of that. Working together is the way to go,” Berardo added.
He went on to say: “The SUN Business Network is the only dedicated global platform of businesses for nutrition and it was formed to really reduce malnutrition, engaging and supporting businesses to invest and innovate different solutions to improve nutrition standards.”
“We are working together and trying to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to re-establish the National Nutrition Secretariat, which was functioning in the past and used to also function as the secretariat for the SUN Movement, to which the SUN Business Network is part of,” Berardo said, adding that this will help energise their work for the SUN People’s Forum, SUN UN Network and the SUN Business Network.
Impact of traffic light labelling (TLL) on sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) choices
At the bi-annual gathering of the SUN Business Network, Institute of Policy Studies Research Economist Priyanka Jayawardena shared the findings of a study conducted on the impact of traffic light labelling (TLL) on sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) choices.
“In Sri Lanka, there are so many policies and regulations but there are very few studies carried out on the impact of these policies and regulations. To fill this gap, Institute of Policy Studies carried out a study on strengthening the fiscal policies to promote healthy diets in Sri Lanka,” Jayawardena said, adding the study on the impact of TLL on SSB choices was part of this larger study.
According to Jayawardena, there are two key ways of reducing unhealthy food consumption. One is reducing the affordability of unhealthy food choices, mainly through taxes and the other is increasing consumer knowledge and awareness.
Carbonated beverages, fruit nectars, fruit juices and ready-to-serve beverages except for milk-based products are required to include the sugar content of the products using a traffic light labelling system, where red is high and green is low.
“Traffic light labelling on SSBs has been adopted for more than five years but the effectiveness of traffic light labelling has not been formally evaluated. Evaluation of the SSB regulations is very important for successful implementation. It is necessary to assess the compliance, effectiveness and public understanding of this traffic light labelling system,” Jayawardena explained.
With 2,500 respondents, the study covered 14 districts and all nine provinces. Consumers from both rural and urban areas were approached in supermarkets, mini-markets and Sathosa outlets.
The study found that only 66% of the sample were aware of the TLL system. Of the sample, 80% of those aware of TLL have a diploma, degree or higher level of qualification. In terms of income, 78% of persons who knew about the TLL system earned an income that exceeded Rs. 100,000.
Over 70% of the respondents from Colombo, Kandy, Kurunegala and Gampaha were aware of TLL, while less than 50% of the respondents from Jaffna and Rathnapura were aware of TLL. According to Jayawardena, 72% said their source of TLL information was self-observation, 29% said TV or radio, 29% said social media and 26% said newspapers.
The majority of persons aware of TLL said it was very important when making an SSB choice, while the majority of persons unaware of TLL said it was not important. The study found that 64% of persons said price was a very important factor on SSB choices and 28% said it was fairly important.
A key finding of the study is that awareness of the TLL system is clearly associated with making healthy food choices and the probability of choosing a healthy product and avoiding an unhealthy one is greatest when TLL appears on the pack.
In addition to this, the study found that SSB choices are significantly negatively affected by price and that awareness of TLL differs across socio-economic groups.
The policy implications of the study as shared by Jayawardena state that SSB regulations should be strengthened by expansion to cover milk-based products, as they are more widely used than other SSBs.
In addition to this, awareness campaigns targeting different groups of people are necessary to increase consumer awareness of the TLL system. Jayawardena said that these awareness programs should target low-income groups and less affluent people. Another policy recommendation of the study was the introduction of subsidies that could improve affordability of health SSBs.
Securing nutritional wellbeing in Sri Lanka
An informative presentation made by Peradeniya University Agriculture Faculty professor of agricultural economics Prof. Jeevika Weerahewa was titled ‘Securing Nutritional Wellbeing in Sri Lanka in the Midst of Cascade of Crises’.
According to Prof. Weerahewa, data from the period between 2018 and 2020 showed that 1.4 million people were undernourished in Sri Lanka, 0.3 million pre-school children were wasted, 0.3 million pre-school children were stunted and 1.8 million women in reproductive stage were anaemic.
The country is thus facing the triple burden of malnutrition: under-nourishment, hidden hunger and over-nutrition. Giving background on the cascade of crises during 2019 and 2022, Prof. Weerahewa said Easter Attacks in 2019 affected tourist arrivals, while the COVID-19 pandemic created multiple shocks with market closures, lockdown and health cost.
Other contributing factors include the green and self-reliant agricultural sector that resulted in organic agriculture and food import restrictions, rising fertiliser prices in the world market and weather shock that affected agricultural production.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict and rising oil prices as well as sudden exchange rate float also contributed to the current situation.
In addition to perennial problems of poor macroeconomic management, fixed foreign exchange rate, low tax collection, loss making SOEs, etc., were other factors that impacted the situation. According to Prof. Weerahewa, high food inflation and resulting low food affordability are issues currently faced in the country. There was also food loss and waste due to supply chain disruptions, which are a result of the closure of wholesale markets during COVID-19, climate shocks, unavailability and inaccessibility of fuel for food transport, and losses in international trade due to sudden imposition of food import restrictions.
These crises affect the poor and vulnerable in various ways. Prof. Weerahewa explained that poor people spend a larger fraction of their income on food and their purchasing power will reduce due to high food prices, low wages and unemployment.
The primary cause of malnutrition is income, she said, adding that the poor and vulnerable have little capacity to adapt. Their health is being sacrificed as a result, as they will sacrifice clean water and sanitation in addition to nutritious food and a balanced diet.
During her presentation, Prof. Weerahewa proposed short-term solutions to the problem. In terms of food availability, it was recommended that domestic production of rice and other food crops be restored, the chemical fertiliser subsidy is reinstated and importation is facilitated.
High taxes and import licensing on commonly consumed food items should also be removed, while low-cost food supplements must be promoted.
A public distribution system and targeted subsidies could improve food affordability and buffer stocks and information systems could improve food stability. Conditional cash transfer programs, safety nets and the use of complementary food supplements were suggested for food utilisation.
However, looking at a long-run development agenda is important. Prof. Weerahewa suggested that nutritional security is driven by income, adding that market-based solutions are needed while safeguarding the poor and the vulnerable.
She also suggested onward oriented strategies, reliance from gains from trade and foreign direct investments to improve incomes. Another long-term solution would be to leverage agriculture for nutrition.
Having shed light on what can be done to address the issues in the country, Prof. Weerahewa also spoke about recent reforms introduced in Sri Lanka, most without much success. Such reforms include domestic food production, food import restrictions, home-gardening programs, and the organic agricultural policy and ban on chemical fertilisers.
She explained that unrealistic targets and self-sufficiency drives affected dairy and sugar, while ad-hoc and inconsistent import policy measures affected edible oil, like coconut oil. Un-targeted price policies are costly and affect rice, milk and sugar.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara