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Sunday, 13 February 2011

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Grow essential items - food for thought

The rising prices of vegetables, fruits and a few other essential commodities seem to be a favourite topic these days for some Opposition politicians. Instead of projecting the true picture of the global food crisis, these opportunist Opposition politicians are trying to make a desperate attempt to capitalise on it to achieve their petty political goals.

The price increases in essential commodities have been the pet subject of Opposition politicians at election platforms and politicians of all hues have made various promises at successive elections ever since Sri Lanka gained independence.

What takes the cake was the pledge made by the then Opposition Leader J.R. Jayewardene at the July 1977 general election to provide eight pounds of grain to all. Although it turned out to be yet another election gundu, it helped the late Jayewardene to become Sri Lanka's First Executive President.

Nevertheless, it is now opportune for each and every one of us, irrespective of our political affiliations, to think in broader terms in the best interests of the nation and gear ourselves to meet future challenges. Sri Lanka was able to tide over the global economic crisis due to the right vision of the Mahinda Chinthana. Instead of making an umpteen number of election promises, President Mahinda Rajapaksa introduced a novel concept - the Mahinda Chinthana, a visionary policy statement during his presidential election campaigns in 2005 and 2010.

When the economies of some of the so-called big countries crumbled and some leading banks in the world collapsed, Sri Lanka stood its ground, thanks to the right economic policies envisioned in the Mahinda Chinthana. Even the recession in Asia did not have an adverse impact on Sri Lanka.

In this scenario, we too could face the latest global food crisis if we gear ourselves and make a concerted effort to face the challenges that lie ahead. Sri Lanka has the ideal climate and rich soil and we should make the best use of it to grow crops even on a small scale. People in the urban and semi-urban areas too could make use of whatever land in their compounds to plant vegetables or fruit trees for their consumption.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation has warned of a possible 'food price shock' if prices continue to rise. The USDA, in its report on global harvests of key crops, has predicted that future prices would surge, fuelling concerns over a repeat of the 2008 food crisis which sparked riots in over 30 countries.

The global food situation doesn't look too impressive either, following the floods in Australia and South East Asia. Excessive hot weather in Latin America has harmed harvests and put upward pressure on mounting prices.

Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand acres of paddy cultivation and over 500 reservoirs and anicuts have been destroyed by the current floods in Sri Lanka. It is estimated that the paddy production loss could be over 700,000mt. The damage to farmlands as a result of the recent floods is estimated to be billions of rupees. Economic analysts have predicted a difficult period ahead as a result and a major crisis in food security looms large on the horizon.

The wholesale cost of food commodities such as wheat, corn, rice, vegetable oils and meat, has already topped 2008's peak values, reaching 214.5 points. This upward trend would increase drastically this year. The USDA's decision to cut its global grain supply outlook, soyabean, corn and wheat prices have spiked, nearing or passing 30-month highs.

It was reported that food prices account for a large and volatile share of tight family budgets in the poorest countries. Rising food prices are re-emerging as a threat to global growth and social stability.

On the other hand, the prices of essential food items have been shooting through the roof due to the increased demand, especially from newly emerging economies in China and India. With lower crop yields resulting from adverse weather conditions and increased demand for food, the world is treading on a dangerous path.

Global food prices increased an average of 43 percent between March 2007 and March 2008. The International Monetary Fund reports predict that this could be even worse in 2010/2011. Wheat, soyabean, corn and rice prices have increased by over 150 percent, 75 percent, 40 percent and 30 percent. Moreover, sugar prices have reached a 30-year high.

Rising food prices have contributed sharply to a significant increase in food insecurity worldwide, particularly among developing and middle income nations. Over one billion people - or one-sixth of the world's population, subsist on less than one dollar per day. Of this population, nearly 170 million people survive on less than half a dollar per day. At the household level, increasing food prices have the greatest impact on the needy and insecure populations spend 50 to 60 percent or more of their income on food.

Sri Lanka could face the global food crisis if we make a determined effort. Sri Lanka had been a nation, self-sufficient in agro-based products. It is still fresh in our minds how most households grew crops, vegetables, mango or banana trees in our home gardens during the SLFP led 1970-77 government which had a closed economy. Had we maintained that trend, we would have been a self-sufficient and prosperous nation by now.

The open economy introduced by the Jayewardene regime since 1977 destroyed our agro-based economy. Rather than growing crops for our own consumption, we turned out to be a nation waiting eagerly until the ships arrive from overseas to fill our stomachs. We became heavily dependent on imported food items, irrespective of the fact whether those could be grown here or not.

There is no option whatsoever to the global food crisis, but to grow our own needs. This does not necessarily mean that all of us should take to farming. Growing some useful vegetables or fruit trees in our home gardens would not only make us more healthy, but also enable us to enjoy fresh food. This indeed is food for thought for one and all as the nation is gearing to face the daunting challenge, initially with 100,000 family home garden units.

All Sri Lankans must sink petty political differences and join hands to make a worthy contribution in whatever small way they could to grow at least some of our essential food items in our own home gardens.

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