Business Times

Wish list for 2011: Ensure proper food policy

The manner in which Sri Lankan authorities are tackling a current food crisis is not only appalling but highly amusing. A shortage of eggs, chicken and coconut has led to calls for imports and in the next week, a country that was self sufficient in this food, is being forced to import its requirements to meet domestic demand.

Have the authorities blindly jumped into imports throwing caution to the winds instead of analyzing the issue? It appears so. In the first place, the opposition says coconut can be imported only for research purposes and not trade under the Plant Protection Act. And that is true according to experts and scientists! If so the authorities have faltered even though it seems officials claim the law can be amended to allow imports for trading purposes.

How the Minister and the authorities missed this crucial point is unbelievable! In fact a disease called the Weligama wilt that has attacked coconut trees in Weligama last year is said to have originated from Kerala, where the coconuts are expected to be imported from. Transport of coconuts and coconut-related products from Weligama is now banned under a gazette notification.

Another issue raised by local producers is that coconuts from Kerala in India are smaller than the Sri Lankan coconut. So the price benefit would be less than earlier expected. In terms of chicken meat imports the authorities have to be cautious about all kinds of chicken-related diseases. Millions of Indian eggs are already in the market but would short-term solutions like this auger well for the future? Don’t we need a proper, well-thought out policy on food imports instead of a jack-in-the-box or bull-in-a-china-shop approach? As we said some weeks back, a similar effort to import eggs during the time when the late Kingsley Wickremaratne was Trade Minister ended up with the poultry industry protests and the imports called off. The food issues that we have seen in the past few weeks has led to a clear belief that what Sri Lanka lacks is a proper food import policy. And such a policy, to be effective, needs to come through a coordinated and pragmatic strategy in which all political parties are consulted so that such a policy will remain forever or as long as possible irrespective of whichever party is in power.

Too much to ask from the leaders of the two main parties – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe? A rational food policy that would have strategies for production, subsidies, exports, imports and other related issues will help the country overcome shortages, surpluses and ensure a decent price both to the producer and the consumer. This country is not short of solutions: Newspapers and the media have carried many artistes and proposals by agriculturists and others on the way forward in the food crisis.

Stable prices for both ends of the market is one way towards resolving this problem, according to economist Dr Harsha de Silva. The UNP parliamentarian, who says he has been raising food issues in parliament and outside in recent weeks as a national priority and not a party-related topic, feels the revival of the National Development Council (NDC) is a good starting point towards bringing in long-term solutions on food.

“Unfortunately when (former President) Chandrika Kumaratunga launched the NDC she was opposed to opposition involvement in the council. If that had happened (the NDC continued) and a national policy enunciated by all parties, situations that we are facing today wouldn’t have happened,” he told the Business Times. The NDC could be used as a think-tank and an institution above party politics.

Unlike seeking agreement on political issues (peace or power sharing), agreement on the formulation of a council that would be represented by all sections of the community including farmers and other interested groups shouldn’t be too hard to secure if there is political will amongst the parties. Ultimately it’s the country’s interests at heart that should be at the core of decision-making of Sri Lanka’s leaders.
Any opposition to such a move will reflect the insincerity of the President, the government, Wickremesinghe and the opposition.

The NDC could be used to formulate policies on the economy, health, education and social sectors. The education sector badly needs a national policy and to use a colloquial term, is in a ‘pol mess’ right now. The two ministers in charge of education are running wild with their suggestions playing around with the lives of young children and undergraduates with all kinds of changes and proposals.

So what is our wishlist (like the one sought in the BT poll conducted this week) for 2011? What the country needs in the New Year is a little courage and lots of statesmanship from our leaders to come together on these non-political issues. Education needs saner counsel; health needs wiser policy and the economy needs a heads up from wise, incorruptible and accountable men and women.

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