Food safety - A major concern in National food security | Daily News
World Food Day tomorrow:

Food safety - A major concern in National food security

“Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together” is the theme of World Food Day celebrated on October 16 globally. The theme of this year encompasses the need for more food production, improving the productivity of our agricultural lands, demand for more nutritious food and the goals for sustainable agricultural ecosystems and food production systems.

It also highlights the imperative to achieve the expectations of the food sector through global, regional and local collective efforts of agrarian communities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, over two billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food and this would further aggravate with the increasing global population which is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. Nearly 690 million people are hungry, the figure is up by 10 million since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic could add between 83-132 million people to this number, depending on the economic growth scenario. The impact of malnutrition in all its forms including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, as well as overweight and obesity on the global economy is estimated at USD 3.5 trillion per year. The diminution of some aspect of the immune response due to poor nutrition would further upsurge the community spread of COVID-19, making the poorest strata of the society more vulnerable.

The FAO highlights that the COVID-19 global health crisis has been a time to reflect on things we truly cherish and our most basic needs. These uncertain times have made many of us rekindle our appreciation for a thing that some take for granted and many go without. Food is the essence of life and the bedrock of our cultures and communities. Preserving access to safe and nutritious food is and will continue to be an essential part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for poor and vulnerable communities, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, resulting in economic shocks. In a moment like this, it is more important than ever to recognise the need to support our food heroes, mainly farmers and workers throughout the food system, who are ensuring that food makes its way from farm to fork even amid disruptions as unprecedented as the current COVID-19 crisis.

A steady increase in hunger since 2014 together with rising obesity, indicate the need to accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen food systems and protect people’s livelihoods. We also need to revisit our agriculture development and expansion strategies to ensure sustainability and diversity in our food production systems. Today only nine plant species account for 66 percent of total crop production, despite the fact that there are at least 30,000 edible plants on the earth. Being a global biodiversity hotspot, we have a duty and a mandate to reflect the inherited richness and diversity of nature in our agricultural practices overcoming adverse impacts of the mono-cultural homogeneity in designing agronomic background. Our future food systems need to provide affordable and healthy diets for all and decent livelihoods for food system workers, while preserving natural resources and biodiversity, and tackling challenges such as climate change and agricultural pollution. In short, we need to grow a variety of food to nourish people and sustain the planet together.

Approximately 14 percent of food produced for human consumption is lost each year between the stages where it is grown or raised up to when it reaches the wholesale market. More food is wasted at the retail food and consumer stages. Although it is generally classified as post-harvest losses which range from 10 percent in grain and legumes to over 40 percent in perishables, further attention should be focused on the food wastage at the domestic and industry level and also on the loss in nutrition and safety aspects of food in the attempts to improve the keeping quality, shelf life of produce and consumer attraction due to addition of food preservatives, colourings, taste stimulants and other food additives.

Food safety has been a major concern globally, and nutrition and health impacts of unsafe food have been emphasized in our societies highlighting the ever-increasing non-communicable diseases in the community which has been attributed to the consumption of unsafe food and poor food habits, especially among the younger group of our population. Although several measures have been introduced to ensure equity in food consumption and nutrition, sufficient attention has not been paid towards the safety aspects of foods although our legislation includes a number of food safety acts and enactments.

Both Mahinda Chinthana versions include agrarian-friendly policies to achieve food security, empowering rural agrarian communities at subsistence farming level through the provision of subsidized inputs, competitive marketing platforms through guaranteed farmgate prices, agrarian insurance schemes, import levies and taxes, collection, distribution and delivery mechanisms of agricultural produce, however, food safety and quality related policies such as organic farming and safe use of agro-chemicals had not been given due prominence by the relevant agencies.

Fortunately, Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has proposed in the Chapter 5 under People-centric Economy, in addition to the introduction of advanced technologies for agriculture, to produce the total fertilizer requirement locally, promoting organic fertilizer production and use for our agriculture to ensure a diet free from harmful pollutants, leading to a healthy nation. It is also proposed to support organic farming through the conversion of traditional agricultural villages into organic crop production farms, the implementation of integrated soil fertility management approaches, the use of renewable energy sources for agriculture and the substitution of poor-quality food imports with local produce by enhancing production opportunities.

It has been noted that over three billion people in the world lack access to internet and modern communication and information-sharing technologies. Most of them live in rural and remote areas and the situation is more discernible in the agrarian communities in Sri Lanka. There are proposals to address this issue in the policy framework of Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour. Realizing the need of smallholder farmers for greater access to finance, training, innovation and technology to improve their livelihoods, approaches have been highlighted. Agriculture sector modernization requires these policies to make a reality on the ground rather than heeding to the advice of foreign consultants recruited at the expense a colossal sum of foreign exchange procured as agricultural loans.

Digital technologies are key to transforming the way food is produced, processed, traded and consumed and building more resilient and robust food systems. They have the potential to close the great digital gap between developed and developing countries, cities and rural areas, men and women, young and old. But digitalization is a distant reality for over three billion people in the world who lack access to internet, most of whom live in rural and remote areas according to the FAO. The Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has addressed this need through the introduction of the concepts of Technology for the Society.

New technologies promise revolutionary changes for smallholder farmers. This includes satellite imaging and remote sensing, mobile and blockchain apps with the potential to optimize food chains, increase access to nutritious foods, reduce food loss and waste, improve water management, fight against pests and diseases, monitor forests or prepare farmers for disasters. Intensive training to enhance farmers’ digital skills, and giving voice to their needs and ideas, will be essential, as well as incentives to encourage the production of nutritious and diverse food.

Together with the vision of the President towards the right direction, improved data analysis and situation assessments will be required for the relevant agencies to develop sound approaches to resolve the issues. Support is required to identify partnerships to make this a reality, including investment opportunities from the private sector. It will be crucial to build the necessary IT infrastructure such as broadband connections, data service providers and to host data centres or cloud platforms that support big databases with vital information. Technical support infrastructure is required for the digital transformation of the food and agriculture sector. A proper information network is essential for the assessment of food security and vulnerability status of our communities at divisional secretariat (DS) level in order to harness the existing human resource capital for the agriculture development initiatives.

With the support and funding from the World Food Programme, several studies have been undertaken for the assessment of status in rural agrarian communities. Since food security and vulnerability vary due to a number of spatially varying factors, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are useful tools for such assessments. The guidelines developed by the World Food Summit in 2002 are a set of coherent recommendations on labour, land, water, genetic resources, sustainability, safety nets, education and training and international trade dimensions. In view of these guidelines and subsequent research findings in the food market sector and value chain networks, it is necessary to have a detailed assessment on food security and vulnerability of communities for food-related issues extending up to hunger and malnutrition.

A comprehensive study was carried out to assess the food security status at DS level by collecting, compiling and analyzing the available secondary data. Data were categorized into four major areas related to food security namely, food availability based on food production, food accessibility and affordability, food utilization including nutritional status, and food production stability.

Food security, vulnerability and scarcity are concepts which do not have any direct measurement scales for assessment and statistical approach to derive the status. The statistical technique called factor analysis was used to reduce the dimensionality of the data collected on various related parameters. Further, in this assessment, classification was extended to identify the status of vulnerability towards food insecurity as it provides direct implications for policy formulation for each geographical area which consists of 317 divisions to cover the island.

Although it is understood that the composite food insecurity or vulnerability assessment would not provide any meaningful background for policy formulations, the composite status map would provide a generalized thematic product indicating the overall status of food insecurity and vulnerability of the country to address the issues in the correct geographical context. In order to develop the composite food insecurity and vulnerability ranking, individual outputs of the four main themes were combined to obtain values as an index. This would provide a quick overview at a glance for each DS and would provide useful insights for the actual causative factors for food insecurity and vulnerability in each division. A standard set of variables which describe food insecurity and vulnerability has not yet been agreed upon even at the global level. Further, it is not possible to define an empirical relationship as the status of food insecurity and vulnerability could change with time and space. Furthermore, the availability of the data of defined parameters would also pose a question in introducing such empirical relationships in different countries like Sri Lanka.

The selection of variables for the analysis was made through the consultation of a large number of experts using the expert opinion approach within the broad conceptual framework of food security assessment methodologies recommended by the FAO.

The results show that the status of food insecurity and vulnerability estimated through the considered variables has a significant spatial variability across the country. Therefore, different approaches are required to resolve the issues in each geographical area. According to the results, all DS divisions were classified into four categories and DS divisions in the Colombo South region appeared as food secure regions in the overall assessment. Some of the Jaffna and Mullaitivu DS divisions and Welioya are shown to be food insecure to a greater extent. It categorizes the Colombo District as the least vulnerable district having a majority of the DS divisions with food-secure status while Mullaitivu is having the worst food security status. When considering the country, most of the large-scale business owners and employees with high-income levels live in the Colombo District and most of the economic activities are linked with the Colombo District.

However, it conceals the plight of some parts of the city and suburbs where poor urban dwellers live within the district. Classification of Colombo into the high-income category makes the poor in Colombo from bad to worse since there will be less public expenditure allocated for Colombo. However, income disparities exist in Colombo should reflect from the other indicators such as health and nutrition. Colombo and Gampaha show considerable income difference when compared to the other districts. Further, it should be noted that the interpretation of the results must be based on the DS levels due to the fact that there are relatively poor DS divisions even within the Colombo District.

It is shocking to note that the main rice-producing districts are classified as critically food insecure and vulnerable due to the poor economic situation, limited infrastructure facilities and lack of proper knowledge and standards for balanced nutrition. In the assessment of food security and vulnerability, it was highlighted that the equity in food access must be improved considerably in order to reap the benefits of having a relatively high level of national food and nutritional security.

Nevertheless, agricultural policies of the country thus far had not been favourable for increasing overall food production growth and to reduce the dependency over the imported food commodities. The food production growth experienced in Sri Lanka is relatively low compared to that of the South Asian region and Asia in recent decades. Total calorie availability for consumption has increased marginally compared to the neighbouring countries and the dependency over the imported staple food commodities are relatively high compared to the region.

Dependency over wheat-based products, powdered milk and other imported foods has increased the food import bill which is not advantageous when the macroeconomy of Sri Lanka is concerned. Thus, a more conducive policy environment has been staged through the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour for import substitution and measures have also been put in place for increasing resource allocation towards national food production programmes in the long run. However, complementary short-term policies are also important to assure the availability of basic food commodities at an affordable price for vulnerable communities. Consumer food habits should be promoted to consume more locally-produced foods in order to facilitate a market for local producers. Particularly estate communities and Tamil communities in the Northern region are largely depended on wheat-based products while urban-related food habits are also approaching towards wheat-based products.

Restrictions to food imports imposed recently on the promise that it could trigger higher food production in the country could lead to food insecurity in a short period but in the long run, it can ensure the stability of local food production and less impacts due to global economic and environmental adversaries. It also addresses the issues related to the safety of food and ensures that the consumers are protected from pollutant loads that can enter the human food chains.

While joining the celebrations globally on the theme “Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together”, we should be determined to address the issues driving us towards the poor safety of our food commodities in the country.

(The writer is also the Co-Chairperson of the Presidential Task Force Core Group on Vocational and Professional Education in the Higher Education, Technology and Innovations Ministry, Competent Authority/Vice Chancellor of the Vocational Technology University in Rathmalana, Chairman of the Board of Study in Agricultural Engineering at the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture in the Peradeniya University, Senior Professor in Agricultural Engineering in the Peradeniya University and Former International Consultant to the FAO and World Food Programme.)