Photo courtesy of Sky News

Diminishing crop yields, high inflation, along with disruptions to global supply chains, and bans on  imported items have left Sri Lanka grappling with serious and worrying levels of food insecurity. For those based in Colombo, the risk of food insecurity is much greater compared to rural areas, considering they bear a higher degree of expenditure on non-food items such as rent and transport, leaving only a little to be spent on food. This, combined with the higher prices of food in Colombo compared to other areas of the country, leaves Colombo exposed to a greater degree of risk of food insecurity. With the city’s population expected to grow to nearly 3 million by 2035 the need to build resilience in the city by strengthening food systems interacting with Colombo is essential to ensure food security for its residents. With the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) piloting urban agriculture in their gardens, perhaps the time has come to think of moving production closer to the capital.

The problem

Despite its population density, there is close to no agricultural production being undertaken in Colombo to support the demand for food. Currently, distribution of food to the city of Colombo is not planned according to the closest production source, which has resulted in food being transported across the country from the North Central and Eastern Provinces, approximately 265 km away from Colombo. Variation in distance has resulted in fluctuating food prices with the price of food being higher in Colombo compared to other regions that are closer to the source of production. As highlighted in this article, while your food could be grown in your neighbourhood, it is likely that it will travel all the way to Dambulla before it finds its way back to Colombo.

Furthermore, the poorly planned food distribution system is worsened by the lack of supporting infrastructure to transport food across the country to Colombo. Lack of robust storage and refrigeration facilities along the value chain and in Colombo results in food spoilage and wastage. A 2020 report conducted by the National Audit Office revealed a post harvest loss of between 30%-40% of fruits and vegetables owing to unsuitable packaging and transport among other reasons. This translates into increased prices for residents in Colombo as the supply of food coming into Colombo is diminishing.

These underlying weaknesses in the system have been further compounded by rising fuel prices. Mahen*, a vegetable seller in Wanathamulla who is severely affected by the rising price of food said, “The price of vegetables in the wholesale market is unaffordable.  Not only has the rise in fuel prices increased the price of vegetables but as less vehicles are carrying vegetables into Colombo due to the fuel shortage, this reduced supply has further increased the price of these goods. I also have to spend more money to travel back and forth from the wholesale market – the cost of my trip has doubled. My clientele also can’t afford to spend too much money on vegetables, so there isn’t even a demand for what vegetables I bring to sell.”

The complexity of existing value chains transporting food to Colombo has led to high food miles, which can be defined as the distance food travels from source to consumption. Increased food miles can result in increased greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, further reiterating the necessity to move production of food closer to Colombo and peri-urban areas.

Re-building food systems

The need for resilience in times of crisis cannot be underscored enough. Drawing from the works of Johannes Langemeyer we take resilience to mean the “capacity of an urban system to absorb disturbances, reorganise and maintain essentially the same functions during its development along a particular trajectory”. In this regard, preventing and reducing the impact of disruptions such as fuel shortages, price increases and improper storage and transportation to the food value chain can better help to mitigate the severity of food insecurity for Colombo.

Urban agriculture can be defined as “the production of crop and livestock goods within cities and towns”. While the term is facing increased popularity now, it has very much been a part of past policy interventions. For example, in 2014, in partnership with the international network of Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (RUAF), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), UN-Habitat Wageningen University–PPO and the School of Forestry at University of Florida, the Western Province undertook a project in the city of Kesbewa to rehabilitate abandoned paddy lands for crop cultivation under the banner of urban agriculture. The Divi Neguma programme under the Mahinda Chinthanaya in 2011, also promoted urban agriculture in the form of home gardens. More recently, the CMC in partnership with Cargills Ceylon, has started growing vegetables on the grounds of the Town Hall, with the CMC expected to expand its urban agriculture programme to Viharamahadevi Park and other CMC lands.

Urban agriculture has long been considered a viable option to  counter crises and shortages in food. Expanding food production closer to the city can help to reduce food miles and associated greenhouse gas emissions, minimise food wastage during transportation and counter shortages of fuel which could in turn help to counter the increased price of vegetables and fruits in Colombo. In addition to this, urban agriculture has been reported to have supported employment, inclusion and empowerment, especially in the global south, which can help to reduce inequalities that have been heightened by urbanisation.

Thinking ahead 

If Colombo is to truly fulfil its commitment to urban and peri-urban agriculture it is essential that certain factors are taken into consideration. The first is ensuring that urban wetlands and other ecological sites are not destroyed for the promotion of urban agriculture. Rather than destroying or replacing these sites, it is important to do it in a way that it complements the existing ecosystem. This also includes sustainable ways to irrigate such as rain water harvesting and the use of organic waste as compost to name a few.

Urban agriculture also does not need to merely take the form of land use in urban and peri-urban areas. Emerging alternative methods include various forms of vertical farming such as hydroponics that can be used in indoor, space constrained areas or even rooftops have gained popularity in cities worldwide. In Singapore, 10% of leafy green vegetables are produced through indoor farming mechanisms. In Japan, commitment to indoor agriculture has resulted in companies moving production of crops to indoor environments. The Mirai Company in Japan has built a 25,000 sqm indoor farm producing lettuce at 100 times more per square foot compared to traditional methods. Compared to traditional methods of land use farming, their endeavours have resulted in energy usage reducing by 40%, 80% less food waste and 99% less water usage. Indoor/vertical farming has the potential to help reduce the burden of land use, especially in space constrained areas where traditional farming is not an option. It is also a way in which production can move closer to the city to better help food supply into Colombo.

The transition to urban agriculture is not an opportunity for the private sector alone, nor should be seen as one that justifies the acquisition of land in the name of city resilience. Herein lies a unique opportunity to also support the urban poor better with access to food. Allotments in urban areas have been a popular part of urban planning in European cities; in Germany and Portugal, allotment gardens have been created by Local Government to give access to the urban poor to grow their food and better weather against food insecurity. Following similar principles in Colombo could better support Colombo’s urban poor, as many struggle with adequate space to grow at home. Moving production closer to home in the form of allotments could also take into account empty spaces in high rise buildings, such as the UDA high rise buildings used to relocate the urban poor. Creating allotments in urban spaces such as this could better support their access to food without having to travel great distances to reach their allotments while also creatively using empty spaces. The many forms urban agriculture can take is vast and, more importantly, its potential impact to food systems and food security especially for the urban poor cannot be underscored enough.

However, merely growing food closer to the city is not enough. More needs to be done to strengthen the existing infrastructure in the food value chain. For example, the creation or better use of distribution hubs closer to the city can help to ensure that food is not travelling great distances before it reaches a collection/sorting hub. This can help to prevent wastage during transportation, and also reduce greenhouse emissions. Additionally, further strengthening cold storage along the value chain can better help to mitigate the wastage that is experienced post harvest.

Thinking more long term, it is important that food systems are thought of as part of city planning and not outside it. In this way, there is better commitment to ensuring food is more accessible for residents in cities as opposed to re-actively introducing crops into existing urban infrastructures retrospectively.

Anisha is a researcher at Colombo Urban Lab and this article was written as part of ongoing research on the infrastructure – nutrition nexus in Colombo.