Industrial farming and related supply chains have been successful in producing mass quantities of food for the global population in a cost effective and efficient manner, and these practices have been adopted by most countries, including Sri Lanka. However, these farming and food systems create a number of significant issues such as complex value and supply chains that are extremely fragile, increased contribution of greenhouse gas emissions, issues with market allocation of food, increased waste production, and the destruction of agricultural lands and ecosystems.
On a global scale, approximately a quarter of food produced goes uneaten due to losses and wastage along the food supply chain, while nearly one billion of the world’s population is in chronic hunger. This clearly indicates an allocation problem that can be attributed to market failure and inefficiencies in how food is harvested, stored, processed, and transported. Moreover, with global warming and the resultant rising heat, droughts, and flooding, agricultural lands are at risk, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the inefficiencies of existing supply chains. It is evident that there must be significant efforts on a global scale to ensure that food systems are resilient and able to withstand and recover from disruptions, ensuring a sufficient supply of food.
In Sri Lanka in particular, 1.7 million individuals are considered undernourished, which is approximately 8% of the population. Undernourishment is most common amongst children under the age of 5 years, with Sri Lanka having one of the highest rates of acute malnourishment within this age group in the world. Malnutrition is also prevalent among mothers, and sectorally is most visible in the estate sector. Simultaneously, approximately 30% of all food produced by the agriculture, fisheries, and livestock sectors is wasted due to inefficient production, consumer wastage, and transport and distribution issues. In light of the changing climate and other crisis situations such as COVID-19, it is important to gain insight into the functioning of Sri Lanka’s food system and its supply chains to understand the existing issues and potential solutions to ensure food and nutritional security within the country.
Sri Lanka’s food system comprises locally produced and imported food, accounting for 78% and 22% of domestic food consumption respectively. A majority of the domestic requirement of rice, meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, and fruit is produced locally. However, significant portions of wheat, canned fish, pulses, milk powder, sugar, and vegetable oil are imported into the country from India, China, United States, Thailand, and Ukraine.
Sri Lanka has been experiencing inefficiencies within its food systems for many years due to the complex nature of the supply and value chains that involve many intermediaries and intermediary processes. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular highlighted the vulnerabilities of Sri Lanka’s food systems. Distribution channels collapsed during the curfew period, food shortages in certain areas ensued, and rising food prices and price gouging were visible. Moreover, import restrictions were implemented, including restrictions on specific essential goods. This caused further shortages and affected the food production sector in the country as the import of inputs to the food system was halted, resulting in shortages of goods like veterinary medicine, chemical fertilizers, and high quality seeds. Whilst Sri Lanka has not experienced island-wide food shortages within the last decades, crises such as this can have detrimental effects on the livelihoods, nutrition, food security, and wellbeing of farming communities.
The agricultural sector contributes approximately 7% of the Sri Lankan Gross Domestic Product (GDP) while employing roughly 25% of the workforce. It is a key sector for Sri Lanka not only for economic but also for sociocultural reasons, and it comprises a complex system of farmers, intermediaries, consumers, and other stakeholders.
In general, the agricultural supply chain functions as visible below:
Input suppliers → Farmers → Traders → Food Companies → Retailers/Exporters → Consumers
There are four types of agricultural value chains:
Middlemen or collectors in the agricultural supply chain are generally viewed negatively as they are considered to be unnecessary additions to the supply chain, increasing supply costs. Further, they can also be considered a barrier in terms of upstream and downstream knowledge transfer. They create an asymmetry of information and leave farmers lacking in knowledge on market functions. Nevertheless, they are crucial for the purpose of bundling and transporting agricultural produce, and coordinating demand and supply between farmers and retailers.
The agricultural sector and its supply and value chains experience many issues that threaten the food security of Sri Lanka:
Fisheries and Aquaculture
The fisheries and aquaculture sector supply chain involves input suppliers, coastal, freshwater, and deep sea fishers/fishermen, wholesalers and retailers, local/regional fish markets, export processing centres, and consumers. The sector contributes approximately 2% of the Sri Lankan GDP with a workforce of nearly a million individuals. Fisheries provide a significant portion of animal protein to the Sri Lankan diet and are the primary protein source for many communities.
A number of major issues within the fisheries and aquaculture supply chains are highlighted below:
Poultry and dairy farming are the primary livestock-related productions that take place in Sri Lanka, with poultry accounting for 50% of livestock GDP. This sector has many stakeholders in its supply chains including input suppliers, cattle/poultry rearing farmers, collecting and chilling centres, processing centres, packaging and marketing centres, and consumers.
Sri Lanka’s livestock sector is plagued by many problems:
As is evident when considering the three primary food production sectors in the country, farming practices and supply and value chains in Sri Lanka are already experiencing several weaknesses and inefficiencies. Climate disasters and crises such as COVID-19 only worsen these structural issues, compromising food security and hurting both consumers and agricultural operators. Accordingly, a transformation of the Sri Lankan food system and its supply chains is vital.
Transforming the Sri Lankan food system into a resilient and regenerative food system is key to maintaining the sustainability of food production and ensuring food security within the country.
The regenerative property indicates transitioning from a food system that is carbon intensive to one that functions as a circular, carbon-negative economy with closed loops of energy and nutrients. The transition to regenerative food systems has begun on a global level, as is indicated by the Regenerative Organic Standard (ROC) launched in 2017. Creating a regenerative food system in Sri Lanka is vital to ensure food security whilst also repairing damaged ecosystems and protecting the livelihoods of those in the food production sector. Ensuring the resilience of local food systems involves strengthening food production and supply chains to withstand and recover from disruptions such as climate disasters and other crises, ensuring a sufficient supply of food for domestic consumption.
Specific activities that can be undertaken to enhance the sustainability and security of Sri Lanka’s food systems and promote regenerative and resilient production include:
Through the implementation of these strategies, Sri Lanka can work towards establishing a regenerative and resilient food system that can adapt to climate-related issues, contain the effects of other disruptions, protect food system livelihoods, and ensure food and nutritional security for the country’s population.
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Maleesha Fernando is an intern at SLYCAN Trust. She is a final year undergraduate at the University of Colombo reading for a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Economics. Her areas of interest include sustainable development, economic impacts of climate change, gender, environmental conservation, and sustainable food systems and agriculture. Maleesha’s undergraduate dissertation is focused on the factors that influence female entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka. She has previously interned at the Centre for Poverty Analysis and the Centre for Equality and Justice.