Mitigating the effects of global food crisis in Sri Lanka

Don’t limit cultivation of home or kitchen gardens to rural areas
By Visakha Tillekeratne

World Food Day that falls today, October 16, has as its theme this year “Food Prices – from Crisis to Stability”. The National Nutrition Alliance tries to argue out a solution by asking the question; “Can traditional crops and consumption of fresh, unprocessed food, mitigate the effects of the food crisis in Sri Lanka?”

In May 2011 it was reported by the UN “that Sri Lankans are experiencing steep increases in two staple food sources, rice and wheat, because of severe floods and global shortages. A World Food Programme (WFP) analysis states that rice and wheat prices increased by 30 and 26 percent respectively on a year ago, making Sri Lanka one of the worst affected by rising food prices in South Asia.

While 21% of children under five years are underweight, Sri Lanka today is home to at least two million diabetics and 25% of women in urban areas are overweight according to an MRI Survey in 2007. Micronutrient deficiencies too are wide ranging. This seems to be a result of mal-distribution of resources as well as wrong utilization.

Sri Lanka is connected far closer to the global market through the consumption of wheat flour, which has of course gone down as rice per capita consumption has increased. Nevertheless, all global food prices on average have gone up over the past five years by as much as 34% according to world trade figures. As is well known this has a variety of reasons and in general diverting cereals to bio fuel and the economic crisis are prominent.

Another reason that we are trapped in the vicious cycle of price hikes is being caught in the agribusiness trap of propagating varieties developed by these companies, with a full package of fertilizer and pesticides which must be bought to complement each other. As evinced recently an example is Dole Cavendish banana spreading like wild fire across the country, even the Northern Province. Traditional varieties of papaw seem to be a dream of the past together with the delicious and highly concentrated taste of our own guava. Even the pomegranate is an imported variety. These are all results of short sighted agriculture policies and quick fix remedies which came in with the green revolution.

Looking at averages of cost additions in the processing of food, when comparing with the straight consumption of the same food unprocessed, the top up cost of processing is at least 35%. Furthermore processed food is not so salubrious for health unlike fresh food consumption in relation to destruction of nutrients, the addition of preservatives, sugar, colour etc. This too adds to the price fluctuations as there is an energy crisis as well.

As Sri Lankans how do we mitigate the impact of food prices owing to changing weather conditions, agribusiness, processing and less than prudent policies in agriculture and the economy?
Breaking the agribusiness trap requires more vigorous policies on growing traditional varieties and the organic way of farming, even though the yield becomes less than “chemical farming”. The National Nutrition Alliance members have solutions in their own locality of programme implementation. Examples can be cited from the Community Development Centre, a member of the Alliance propagating traditional varieties of yams and tubers, when an alternative to rice is required. The Community Development Centre has kept alive traditional yams and tubers not seen by many Sri Lankans. The Janatha Sanvardana Padanama Ratnapura strengthened the kitul treacle and jaggery industry which was prolific in Sabaragamuwa, but not streamlined.

Another NGO member, Human Development Foundation in Kegalle, has for a decade or more been preserving and strengthening the seed bank of traditional rice varieties. It is well known that traditional rice varieties such as Suwandal have a low glycaemic index suitable for diabetics. The world only talks about Basmathi, which has now literally been gobbled up by the agribusiness giants. These are but some of the examples of solutions in food security.

It is a well known fact that it is far better to eat a whole fruit rather than drink its juice. Eating the whole fruit gives you the much needed dietary fibre as one consumes only the intrinsic sugar of the fruit and vitamins in their most active form. This is just one example.

There are many on the benefits of consuming fresh food in the form of salads and sambols. Consuming raw, well cleaned and washed of course, saves even the cost of fuel to cook, let alone the cost of processing. This could be a way of dealing in our own way divorcing ourselves from food processing giants and their trading practices.

The MRI recently spoke out about hidden fats in pastries and cakes. This is a good example of eating unnecessary and empty calories, consumption of bad fats, being caught up in the global fat and oil trading industry.

A pastry eaten once in a blue moon literally should suffice for yearning taste buds. But not on a daily basis. Today the pastry is the most prominent type of food in a lunch box, and this should be avoided. Brisk is business in a variety of pies, quiches, rolls and cutlets in well known establishments. The school canteen guidelines of Sri Lanka as well as what should go in the tiffin box should be followed closely. A pastry should be a once a month occurrence and not daily.

Cultivating one’s own home or kitchen garden, while exercising those unused muscles is a must in urban areas too. This is done to a great extent in rural areas. Imagine the increase in much needed dietary diversity, through all the varieties that can be grown in a small garden, the ease of practice of organic methods, freshness and having family time together in the garden, while saving money are only some of the benefits to be reaped.

While governments must take tough decisions on the economy, agriculture and trade at the top and not be bought over by agribusiness, we as citizens need to take ours at the lower levels. The state cannot do it without you and me.

(The writer is Advisor, National Nutrition Alliance)

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