Columns - The Sunday Times Economic Analysis

Persistent misconceptions on food security

By the Economist

Food security is a popular subject of discussion at various seminars. This is particularly so after the world food crisis skyrocketed food prices. Unfortunately these discussions tend to perpetuate misconceptions rather that suggest pragmatic and economically sound policies. Most discussions of food security deteriorate to one of thinking that food security is the same as being self sufficient in food. Food security is considered as synonymous with self sufficiency in food requirements or of producing within the country all its food needs. This advocacy of food self-sufficiency is a traditional notion that is politically popular and panders to nationalistic feelings. It evokes emotions of a past glory when the country is deemed to have been the granary of the East having exported rice to other countries.

The advocacy of food self sufficiency has gained a renewed popularity with the hike in imported food prices. The call by many a “nationalist” is that we must be self-sufficient in all our food requirements. This is in the first instance an unrealistic goal to pursue, as we do not produce in the country some of the most important food imports such as wheat and lentils. We do not also have adequate resources of land, water and people willing to work in agriculture. Apart from the impracticality of achieving this, it is economically irrational and goes against the self-interest of the country to produce some commodities at a very high cost. The resources expended on the production of such commodities for which we neither have, nor can expect to have a comparative advantage, is contrary to the country’s welfare.

In a recent seminar, the discussion of food security was confined to the question of having adequate rice for the people. In other words food security was tantamount to having adequate cereals in the form of the domestically produced paddy. It is often a discussion confined to self sufficiency in rice with the neglect of the variety of commodities that constitute a basket of food consumption. First of all food security is not achieved by people having an adequate quantity of rice or another cereal such as wheat. Even the poorest of households require additional items of food. Therefore a household attains food security only when they can access a reasonable quantity of a basket of commonly consumed food items.

These misconceptions lead to wrong policy perspectives. Therefore it is necessary that we clarify the ideas on food security. Misconceptions on food security could lead the country into adoption of economic policies that are not in the best economic interests of the country. Food insecurity in as far as Sri Lanka is concerned must be viewed at two levels. One is the issue of food security at national level. This is whether the country could fulfil its food needs either by producing its food or by importing its food requirements. In the modern world based on international trade on the basis of comparative costs of production, most countries are food secure as they can meet the deficits in food by imports. Developed countries like Singapore and England are food secure because they have adequate capacity to import the food they cannot produce within their countries. In fact very few countries are self-sufficient in food though they are food secure. The United States is perhaps the country that comes closest to a self-sufficient status in food, owing to its largeness and variety of ecological conditions.

Sri Lanka is food secure at national level. Although the country does not produce all her food needs, we are able to import the deficit. In fact the expenditure on food imports is less than 10 per cent of all imports. The earnings from tea exports alone are adequate to import the food needs of the country. This does not mean that we should not increase food production to save expenditure on food imports. What it means is that there must be a balanced view based on economic advantage. There are some commodities like sugar, where we import 85 per cent of the needs. There is no way we could produce all our sugar needs, but some measure of increase is possible though it may be at high cost. The issue with respect to milk production was discussed in this column a few weeks ago. Again there is a prospect of increasing milk production in the country though attaining self-sufficiency may be difficult owing to resource constraints.
The real problem in food security is that there is a substantial number of people who cannot access their food needs with their incomes and the prices of food. As a consequence about 25 per cent or more of the population remain food insecure. It is by increasing productivity in agriculture, improving employment opportunities and enhancing incomes that the problem of food insecurity at household level could be addressed. It is the problem of people being able to access their food needs at prices they can afford that is the actual problem.

Food security in Sri Lanka could be strengthened by increased national production of food, increased diversification of the economy, increased employment and income generating opportunities and better management of the economy to achieve higher economic growth. Yet even with such an achievement there would be a proportion of the population left behind whose entitlements would be inadequate to meet their food needs. This implies a need for an interventionist programme to ensure that they obtain their food. The capacity of a government to intervene effectively depends very much on its financial and fiscal situation.What is needed to ensure food security in the country is a several-pronged strategy in which an increase in agricultural production through enhanced productivity of major crops is important. This applies not only to food crops but also cash crops that are exportable as these earn valuable foreign exchange that goes a long way in enabling the import of the deficit of domestic food requirements. Besides this it must be recognized that the development of other sectors in the economy plays a vital role in food security. The higher value industrial products bring in a significant amount of foreign exchange that enables the import of food.

Therefore the objective of ensuring food security requires both an increase in domestic food production, as well as the development of the non-agricultural sectors. It is by the development of all sectors in the economy that national food security could be attained. The problem of high prices for food is not an agricultural problem alone. It is a national economic development issue.

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