Building a Pandemic-Resilient Food System in Sri Lanka
Published: 30 July 2021
A properly functioning market chain and flow of agricultural products are vital to ensuring food and nutrition security amid COVID-19.
The threat of rising food insecurity due to economic lockdowns and supply chain disruptions is among the many adverse impacts unfolding amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Sri Lanka. This has brought considerable damage as communities are increasingly dependent on markets for their food and nutrition supply.
In the past, the food system in the country has proven to be vulnerable and inefficient to cope with even much smaller shocks. Inefficiencies at various points along food supply chains are a perennial challenge. Likewise, malnutrition continues to be a persistent problem, with severe regional disparities in its prevalence.
Policy makers face the dual challenge of mitigating the short- and medium-term impacts of COVID-19 as well as future-proofing the country’s food systems.
Food system refers to the processes that bring food from farm to table. Sri Lanka’s food system involves several supply chains with large numbers of intermediaries handling agricultural commodities that are seasonal, bulky, and sometimes highly perishable.
Lockdown measures have exposed the vulnerability of the food system to disruptions. Even though supplies are available in the local markets, efforts to contain the outbreak, such as restricting the operation of transport and storage facilities and closing major wholesale and retail markets, gravely affected people’s access to food particularly in poor and marginalized households. This prompted panic buying, causing the prices of local and imported commodities to spike up, and added to the difficulties of the urban poor amid massive unemployment of daily wage earners.
COVID-19 Impacts on Food Systems
The benefit of price increases is not necessarily passed on to farmers. Organized traders typically purchase agricultural produce at relatively low rates and then sell these to retail markets for twice the price.
Direct impacts of the pandemic on agriculture are limited, as the virus does not affect the natural resources used to produce food. However, constrained labor movements due to mobility restrictions disrupted usual farming activities. Agricultural production systems in the country are mostly labor-intensive. Moreover, restricted access to important inputs, such as fertilizer and seeds, and lack of support services and infrastructure affected food production. Increased food loss and wastage because regional wholesale markets were closed, added further to losses suffered by farmers.
Digital market alternatives, such as online platforms and mobile applications, despite their potential to connect people under lockdown, failed to deliver early on primarily due to lack of capacity and unfair prices. As a result, even among relatively sophisticated middle-class consumers, initial hopes regarding online ordering and home delivery of food under lockdown conditions began to fade.
The supply crisis can also have a reverse impact at the producers’ end of value chains, resulting in income losses and low farmgate prices. As Sri Lanka is a net food importing country, global production, trade restrictions, and international prices affect the local food supply as well as local prices. Moreover, energy prices affect the domestic food system through both input and output markets, while exchange rate fluctuations have a compounding effect on domestic prices of imported goods.
The current pandemic emphasized the need to reassess vulnerabilities related to food systems to identify the investments and reforms that will help strengthen the agriculture sector’s resilience to future shocks, including other frequent challenges such as climate change. The following recommendations are made based on the author’s assessment of vulnerabilities.
Leverage data by establishing a regular food monitoring system.
Make Sri Lanka’s agricultural market systems more efficient and transparent by building an innovative food monitoring system with improved information and reporting, crop status monitoring, area estimates, and yield forecasting. This can become the basis of a coordinated policy action in response to market uncertainties, including international trade restrictions and possible malpractices by local traders during a crisis.
Enhance the capacity of national and provincial food banks.
Improve the capacity of the country’s food depots and maintain a buffer stock of essential food items. Systematic and timely food distribution mechanism especially in remote and vulnerable areas must be designed. The integration of food markets in the immediate region through existing frameworks such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Food Bank should be pursued more effectively to create opportunities for individual countries to make use of regional food reserves in crisis situations.
Invest in agricultural infrastructure.
Divert public investment allocations from inefficient subsidies toward socially profitable interventions, particularly agricultural infrastructure development and research and extension. Railway services should be utilized for efficient food distribution and transport of agricultural produce. Invest in cold storage facilities and refrigerated trucks to store and transport perishable products.
Increase access to new technologies and farming techniques.
Make sure new technologies and farming techniques, including micro-irrigation systems, are made readily available and support their adoption by farmers at affordable or subsidized rates, and increase their access to credit. Likewise, the seed and plant protection act and regulation must be amended to make sure that high-quality tools and inputs will be available to farmers.
Promote the use of digital marketing platforms.
Maximize the demand for digital marketing platforms and promote e-commerce at both ends of the food supply chain. These platforms can help reduce food miles and post-harvest losses, track and trace linkages and certification systems, and enable different actors in the food system to make better decisions.
Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). 2020. Building Food System Resilience During Pandemics. Policy Insights.
IPS. 2020. Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2020. Colombo.
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