There are increasing concerns in food security during this prolonged period of an economic shutdown and island-wide curfew. Ensuring the availability and accessibility of at least minimum food requirements is of utmost importance during these days of battling the coronavirus.
To the credit of the Government, many efforts are being made to ensure people’s basic food requirements. Nevertheless, a proportion of the population would not have had adequate minimum food owing to the curfew, panic buying, demand for food exceeding the available food stocks and inadequate income to obtain food. Meeting the necessary food requirements is a formidable task during the current economic disruption and shutdown and prolonged island-wide curfew.
Ensuring the availability and accessibility of at least the minimum food requirements of people is crucial during this period. Inevitably, the current economic conditions and the continuation of the curfew are increasing food security concerns. Increasing unemployment, low income and the inaccessibility to available food supplies could increase the number of people with inadequate basic food requirements.
There are three prerequisites to achieve food security in the island. First, there should be an adequate stock of essential or basic foods available for distribution. This includes rice, wheat flour, vegetables, coconut, milk, dhal, sugar and fish.Second, there should be equitable access to these foods.Third, people must have the means to access their food requirements.There could be constraints and difficulties at each of these levels.
National food supply
The national food supply consists of domestically produced food and imported food items. Domestic food production alone cannot meet the people’s essential food requirements as basic food consumed by people includes imports. Imports could be difficult to obtain due to financial constraints and shipping difficulties.
The Government must ensure the country’s domestic food production is at a maximum. This is particularly relevant at this time of the Maha crop harvesting. Although there is a potential large rice crop adequate for the country’s requirements till the end of 2020 and beyond, there could be a shortfall in harvesting it.The curfew should not obstruct the availability of labour and machines for harvesting. This is however not easy during a period of country-wide curfew.
It is also important that large stocks of paddy are not hoarded to create a scarcity to increase prices. During most years, it has been difficult to achieve an equitable marketing of paddy. Effective measures are needed to ensure the availability of rice to people at a reasonable price, while giving farmers a remunerative price, at the same time.An adequate paddy harvest does not ensure an adequate availability of rice at affordable prices.
The other dimension in food security is the need to import essential food items inadequately produced or not produced at all in the country. This includes wheat, sugar, dhal and milk powder.There could be difficulties in importing these foods as the countries producing these are affected by the virus and shipping goods could be limited. Also, the country’s capacity to import food has been impaired by balance of payments difficulties, resulting from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
National food supply
The Government had assured there are adequate stocks of food for several months. Rice stocks are adequate till the 2021 Maha harvest. Prima, the sole importer of wheat and supplier of wheat flour, had also assured there are adequate stocks of wheat.The issue is whether panic buying and hoarding would create food shortages.
Even though there may be an adequate stock of food, availability and access to it could be difficult owing to the prevailing curfew, scarcities caused by excessive demand, remoteness of supply and inadequate purchasing power of the poor sections of the population, whose income sources may have dried up.
There are several ways by which food is being distributed to households that are relieving the difficulties of people accessing food. These include shops delivering food and other essentials in packs. Some shops are accepting delivery orders. Vendors are bringing vegetables, coconuts, fruits and bread to households. Arrangements have been made to distribute pre-packed packages to housing schemes and apartments that are densely populated. However, this is a limited coverage of households. The Government is also making arrangements to distribute free food to poor people.
The capacity to access food is dependent on a person’s purchasing power. The purchasing power of a large number of people have been severely eroded owing to the work shutdown. A very large number of workers have lost their jobs. They have no money to buy their food requirements.
Daily wage earners, self-employed workers and those in informal enterprises, the large number of agricultural workers and workers in export manufacturing have lost their income. These are the most vulnerable. They would have difficulties in accessing adequate food owing to their inadequate purchasing power.
Food for thought
Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen recalled he was in Calcutta when the Great Bengal Famine killed millions of people due to hunger. Yet, Sen says that he did not know a single person who did not have adequate food.This underscores the hard reality that it is a person’s capacity to access food rather than its availability which matters. It is a person’s entitlements that matter to access the available food.