Had it not been the President himself who warned of an impending food crisis, one might be accused of inciting dissension against the incumbent Government.
Not long after the Presidential caution, the Minister of Agrarian Services (and Wildlife) has gone on record to say that the recent rains have inundated 400,000 hectares of paddy fields in the 'rice bowl' areas stretching from Anuradhapura, through Polonnaruwa to Batticaloa and Ampara - a quarter of the area still submerged. This is apart from the vegetable fields, thousands of home-gardens and the 100 tanks that have been destroyed.
The economic damage has been estimated in the region of Rs. 50 billion which is not a small sum, quite apart from the 43 deaths, four missing persons and more than a million people affected with 6,400 houses damaged very badly.
This year's paddy harvest was expected to be a bountiful one and the immediate impact would be the shortage of vegetables, the resultant high prices with some items like onions going at Rs. 350 a kilo and green chillies at Rs. 425 in Colombo's Manning Market, much more elsewhere. Coconuts have risen to more than Rs. 65 each and fish is available at fantastic prices even though these have nothing to do with the floods. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Sri Lanka is not alone in having its fields flooded out. There is a soaring global food price hike anticipated as a result of the freak weather worldwide sparking fears of social unrest.
According to the food price index of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a formula based on the wholesale price of 55 products including rice, meat, wheat, milk etc., prices reached record heights last month (December, 2010).
The index has kept rising over the months and reached a record 214.7, the previous record being 213.5 set at the climax of the food crisis in June 2008, when soaring prices fuelled riots in several countries like Haiti, Somalia and Cameroon while countries like India and Vietnam had to restrict rice exports to feed their own people. Sri Lanka had to import rice from Myanmar, but some of these countries have themselves been hit by torrential rains in recent weeks.
The Government's plans to steer the eating habits of Sri Lankans from bread to rice have taken a major blow, but even wheat is in short supply in world markets now owing to chronic weather patterns. The winterkill in the northern hemisphere especially in Canada, Russia and Ukraine has devastated wheat crops, while flooding in parts of Australia -- and a drought in Argentina (also a major soybean exporter) -- has wiped out acres upon acres of wheat crops. The price of wheat has jumped by 17 percent in the past few months and sugar is facing the highest prices in 30 years.
The hardest hit inevitably by these price hikes would be the economically developing countries, and there too, the economically poorer segments of the populace where food amounts to a very significant portion of the household budget.
Long-term prospects are equally gloomy. According to the FAO, as the world's population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 (from the current 6.8 billion), food production will need to increase by as much as 70 percent of what it is now - unless, of course, scientists find a substitute for food.
These projections, chilling as they may be, are best left to the planners, though the statistics cannot be easily ignored. There is a need to lock the country's economic development strategies to these future needs. For the present, however, there is a real crisis at our door. There might not be food 'for love or money' as a one-time Finance Minister was to say during the global food shortages of the 1970s. Our disastrous foreign policy which has antagonised half the world is not going to help in times of crisis.
The UN has chipped in with food aid following the current floods, as it should be doing - despite our chest-beating anti-UN politics at home. Analysts say that the key difference to the anticipated global food crisis to that of 2008 is the price of oil. In 2008, a barrel of oil was at US$ 140, while it is at US$ 90 now. This has helped keep fertilizer prices down.
Furthermore, there is always the danger of food speculators entering the fray in such situations driving up prices, especially of wheat. The UN has been blamed for acting soft on these speculators because most of them come from the US, Canada and Britain, each big sponsors of the UN agencies.
At home, emergency measures aimed at controlling skyrocketing food prices have been set in motion; one of them being the deployment of the Army to sell vegetables to consumers short-circuiting the middleman mafia. Controversial has been the decision to do so. While the Army can, in fact must, be deployed in cases of food emergencies, to deploy them to do the job of a Marketing Department or that of traders for a long period of time leaves much to be desired.
Quite apart from getting the men in uniform to handle cash with the public not being receptive to this change in 'image', a letter to the editor of a daily newspaper this week by a former Commissioner of the Department of Marketing offers valuable advice. He says that there are massive hidden state costs in getting the military involved in these exercises. One of these hidden state costs would undoubtedly be the discounting of the fuel cost that has to be borne by the middleman - which now will be borne by the tax payers of the country.
Consumers may get their vegetables cheaper, but the citizen is footing the balance in other taxes. He says that market forces must be allowed to play (with supervision, surely) and that the middlemen are still doing some service to farmers by buying their crop. Simply put, the Government must stay out of doing business. Big state ventures like the CWE, Salu Sala, the Building Materials Corporation, CTB etc, which stepped in to bridge the gaps with all good intentions became bloated, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies that sapped the wealth of the people. The Army should not be reduced to this.
This does not mean that the Government must watch idly at the politically involved paddy monopoly and vegetable mafia operating at the Dambulla Economic Centre. Greater attention must be paid to dismantling these monopolies and mafias and to farmers and peasants and all those who grow more food.
There must indeed be the right balance between consumers and producers, but the needs of the producers must override the needs of the consumers however hard pressed they may be. For given the FAO's gloomy predictions for the future, food production is going to be a very important issue in the times ahead.
||From : P.L.J.B.Palipana
The President has agreed to provide 13+ for the Tamil people. The only solution is to provide a sophisticated road network connecting Jaffna to Colombo within the range of journey time 2-3 hours. To do those things and to save resources that can be used for these projects, the useless Provincial Councils system should go.
From : Lion
Dont waste your time by writing editorials like this.How long you have been writing gving suggestions of good governece? these corrupt rulers will never take any notice of it.This country will go bad to worse.Even UNP comes to power what hold for this country.That is the another set of corrupt politicans.