Photo courtesy of National Review

Colombo’s mayor, Rosy Senanayake, has cautioned that Colombo might run out of food by September.  The prime minister has warned that Sri Lankans will not be able to eat three meals a day for too long. Meanwhile Colombo clubs continue their invites for special Mongolian dinner nights, traditional yellow rice Sunday lunches and weekend starter breakfasts while a leading local cosmetic firm launches a skin care product for all women in Sri Lanka using our heirloom rice as its main ingredient!

Thinking about these contradictions, the impending food shortages, attendant malnutrition and starvation possibly for the first time in Sri Lanka, I am struck by a global news item that says that Africa could also be facing the spectre of famine not because of droughts or failed harvests or conflicts or bad national policy decisions within the continent but because of the Russia-Ukraine war. The threat is so real that the head of the African Union and president of Senegal sought it fit to visit President Vladimir Putin in the southwestern Russian city of Sochi to ask him to free up stocks of cereals and fertilisers, the blockage of which particularly affects African countries. Meanwhile other countries are reacting to soaring domestic food prices by banning food exports: Argentina has banned beef exports, Kazakhstan wheat and wheat flour exports and Indonesia the export of palm oil while Malaysia’s ban on the export of chicken has adversely affected neighbouring Singapore.

Globalisation seems to be coming apart at its seams. The much-vaunted allocative capacity of markets and the efficiency of international trade systems that are based on comparative advantages and specialisation seem to be failing. The COVID-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine has aggravated what has been going badly wrong with the globalised food system for some time. Sri Lanka’s food crisis can be blamed primarily on some insane government decision making but what has caused  the number of hungry people in the world to rise from 650 million in 2019 to 811 million in 2020? [1] And how did this happen at a time when increases in food production was commensurate with population growth? The old story that there are too many mouths to feed is not the issue.

Four decades ago Amartya Sen pointed out that the reason for starvation is lack of access to food and not the lack of food itself. [2]  Globalisation of the food trade has created this lack of access by removing agency from local farmers and producers of food and placing control of food systems in the hands of giant food commodity, chemical and seed companies. Four corporations control 90% of the global grain trade and they also make significant trade in seeds, agrochemicals, processing, packing, distribution and retail. Just four crops – wheat, rice, maize and soy – account for almost 60% of the calories grown by farmers. Their production is now highly concentrated in a handful of nations, including Russia and Ukraine. We could say that there is a Global Standard Diet grown by a Global Standard Farm supplied by the same four global corporations with the same packages of seed, chemicals and machinery, and vulnerable to the same environmental shocks.[3]

Farmers’ movements around the world have over the last 15 to 20 years advocated for a more just and equitable global food system that moves away from globalisation to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty  goes beyond mere food security (which is limited to the availability of food and people’s ability to access it) and is based on six principles: it focuses on food for people, it values food providers, it localises food systems, it rejects corporate control, builds knowledge and skills and works with nature.  Food sovereignty means having the self-respect which comes from self-reliance in food production and distribution and for some it conjures a return to an idyllic agrarian past and a localised food system driven by small farmers. Small farmers are a valuable source of global food supply; they produce 30% of the world’s food. However neo-liberal proponents of globalisation would maintain that a localised system would neither provide food security nor meet nutritional needs and that local food production would be vulnerable to crop disease and natural disasters. And in that sense they could well be right.

What we need is not one or the other but a blueprint for a system of food production that puts farmers (not corporations) back in control and that allows for an international trade regime that supports (not exploits) small holder farmers and provides them opportunities to equitably participate in higher value export production.

Sri Lanka’s national food production policies since independence have targeted self-sufficiency at least in rice. Articles written in and around 2015 and 2016 suggest that that we have been more or less reliant on our own rice production and that given our low population growth we could meet the domestic demand. According to the Hector Kobekkaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute we were able to produce 79% of roots and tuber, 30% of pulses and nuts, 82% of vegetables, 83% of fruits, 98% of meat, 100% eggs, 90% of fish, 81% milk and 98% of oil and fats that we required.[4] Dr Nimal Sanderatne indicates that even as recently as 2020 “.. with a population of 22 million we were about self-sufficient in rice and many other foods”. But he, like many other classical economists, extols the virtue of  food security suggesting that “the most food secure countries in the world, Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong produce little food but are food secure as they have the capacity to import food”.

When President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office in 2015, he had an ambitious agricultural plan that reimagined Sri Lanka’s agricultural future based on the principles of agroecology working towards self-sufficiency in agricultural production and minimising the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. His plan also discussed the promotion of traditional seeds, subsidies for organic fertiliser, encouragement of smallholder farming and improving irrigation systems. MONLAR and heavy weights like Ray Wijewardene and  MONLAR’s founder Sarath Fernando had been advocating this for the longest time. Vandana Shiva, whose book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development inspired me as it did many others, has been advocating for seed sovereignty since the 1980s and countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal, Senegal and Egypt have integrated food sovereignty into their national constitutions or laws.

Whether it was because of the political bickering and struggles for power that plagued the Sirisena presidency, the lack of support from within his government that was still keen on models of economic development based on large-scale commercial agriculture, bureaucratic inefficiency or the battle between the rights of smallholder farmers and commercial interests, President Sirisena’s plan scarcely took off. We lost the opportunity to transform our agriculture and become as he envisaged a toxin-free nation. And now, the juvenile decision making of our current head of state, has plunged our agricultural production into an abyss. Post the recent overnight ban on chemical fertiliser, agricultural yields have dropped to about 30% of the usual output. This is about the same amount that farmers kept for their own consumption so while it is unlikely that there will be widespread hunger and food deprivation within the farming communities, those who rely on the market for their sustenance, the landless labourers and the urban poor will suffer the most.

It seems to me that working towards food sovereignty (not just food security) and creating a more just and sustainable food production and distribution systems within our country should be the way to go. This would require extricating our food production and distribution from heavy dependence on a globalised food system and engaging with global food markets from a position of strength and on our own terms. Crises often precipitate transformational change by disrupting the status quo and releasing energy.  If we can use the current crisis to reconsider some of the toxin free nation proposals and others that will help take us towards this long term goal of food sovereignty, the difficulties that we see looming ahead of us could be just about bearable.

[1] The banks collapsed in 2008 – and our food system is about to do the same | George Monbiot | The Guardian 19 May 2022

[2] Poverty-and-famines│Amartya-Sen│1981.pdf (

[3] ibid

[4] Henegedera, G M (2018) Issues in Food Security and Domestic Food Production in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Journal of Economic Research Vol 5(2) March 2018