The ban on the import of chemical fertilizer makes sense to some and not to others; however it has far reaching implications for food security.
In the pre independence era, the population of the country was around five million with over 80 per cent of the land mass under forest coverage and massive tea, rubber and coconut plantations producing sufficient for export and earning foreign exchange with which to purchase food and other consumer items. Sri Lanka had a standard of living in the top 25 per cent quartile of the world. There is no possibility of returning to that era, no matter what we do.
The population has increased four fold and the aspirations of the materialistic middle class – vehicle owning and acquisitive of the latest TVs, refrigerators and smart phones – have changed our lifestyles to a degree where no edict can change the status quo. We have a high percentage of homes with electricity and water supply and the quality of life of the people has definitely improved.
But those who engage exclusively in farming have borne the brunt of the disparity of the quality of life. Less than five per cent of the population depend on agriculture for more than 80 per cent of household income, despite the figures saying that 30 per cent of the population is engaged as farmers and described as such by the Government. Most of these households have members in other fields.
I will therefore concentrate not on the farmer but on the consumer of Sri Lanka and propose a long term solution, not the short term fix as proposed.
Nutrition or the lack of it is the biggest issue today. If we look back in history where it is said we exported rice, we had surpluses to export because our population was much much less and our nutritional habits were completely different.
In subsistence agriculture of the past and practices adopted, where all food was organic, rice formed a tiny part of our overall diet. Legumes, of which we have more than 90 varieties that are native, formed at least 50 per cent of the intake; they were much easier to grow, nutritious and plentiful with no seasons as such. Native medicine physicians were able to suggest natural remedies for common health complaints and the population was broadly healthy.
If we want to return to some semblance of that we have to completely change our dietary habits and this can only be done with the children and pre school education. New eating habits have to be implemented but there is no push in that direction because it is a long term solution and not a quick fix.
The milled flour and rice we eat is unhealthy for the human body, made worse by the ingestion of a much higher per capita sugar consumption than most societies, 80 per cent of which is satisfied by imports. We will see a healthier society if sugar is taxed so it is double the price rather than banning chemical fertilizer in the short term, while saving more foreign exchange than from fertilizer imports.
It is clear that the decision makers have not considered alternatives since the concentration of the debate has been on the chemicals in the food we eat without acknowledging that sugar is worse than tobacco and alcohol in a diet; both tobacco and alcohol is taxed at over 90 per cent of retail value while sugar is not.
The international sugar industry was sufficiently powerful to redirect emphasis of the obesity epidemic on starch and fats instead of sugar to such a degree that the global epidemic of Type 2 diabetes has been blamed on all other food excesses and not on the consumption of sugar.
Policymakers have missed the basics of economics, namely, supply and demand. This simple formula determines price, availability, production and consumption. The concentration of Government policy on the availability or lack of inputs affects supply while keeping the demand unchanged, creating dissatisfaction among the populace; demand has to be changed, and that is a long term prospect.
If the ban in chemical fertilizer is implemented, there will be a massive reduction in agricultural output in the near term creating shortages, riots and unprecedented price rises of products and we will simply not be able to feed the population without a substantial increase in imports.
Under the current exchange rate we can import every food item for less than we can currently produce, and if this policy is implemented, you will see that the disparity of the local cost and price versus import would be more than three times. If food imports are banned, starvation will result.
The only sensible approach is to immediately adopt a change in nutrition to reduce eating rice and switch to other forms of starch consumption from locally produced sources. Sri Lanka cannot produce dhal, so an import substitution of this protein pulse is not possible. Even the production of green gram locally is fraught with unbearable costs because we cannot mechanize to the extent that large producers such as Australia can to reduce the cost of production. Our cost of production is nearer Rs. 800 at the farm gate while we can import from Australia at Rs. 300.
Due to land use policies and risk of losing tenure, about 50 per cent of our arable land is not utilized for food production. We do not have to cut one more tree or forest to increase our agricultural output; we just need to change the policies, allowing those to rent land without the owner of the land having a problem of losing control of his land.
Most people who own land, other than the few subsistence farmers who form a small percentage of the farming communities, do not cultivate their land to the fullest extent to achieve productivity because the risks outweigh the rewards.
Many subsistence farmers simply don’t have the resources to farm all their land and let much of their agricultural land fallow for most of the year as they don’t have the funds to cultivate after having lost money due to poor harvests.
These are some of the barriers to food production. Do you think that further destruction to inputs is going to increase agricultural activity even if there is a belief that prices at the farm gate will increase? No.
There has to be way out of this Catch 22 situation if the country is to face the consequences of the expected drastic drop in food supply. Home grown and pot grown vegetables by consumers have been tried for decades and have not made a dent. This activity will increase for easily growable items such as a couple of chillie plants or the odd brinjal or ladies fingers. It will not be possible to counter the 30 per cent to 50 per cent drop in paddy production and the resulting increase in the price of rice.
Farmers confirm the massive reduction in output, with many wondering how they could survive unless prices more than double at the farm gate. The level of ignorance of the non farming consumers who believe they are eating poison and who think this ban is a good thing is surprising. They are only thinking that they will consume wholesome food without regard to prices they will have to pay, which means they will not be able to afford a fraction of what they consume today.
Prices will rise to levels where few can afford to pay for food, resulting in riots or theft of farm gate products to keep families alive. As a nation we are very bad at anticipating the outcomes of actions until it is too late.
There is no engagement of the state officials because no one wants to discuss it, hoping it is just another gazette notification that will be reversed at the last minute. This kind of uncertainty does not bode well for the country’s food security. Policy initiatives beginning with the inalienable right to ownership being sacrosanct from tenancy is the first step.