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Home > 2024 > Food Crisis: The Agony of Sri Lankan People Continues | M.R. Narayan (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 2 January 13, 2024

Food Crisis: The Agony of Sri Lankan People Continues | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 12 January 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy


More than a year after Sri Lanka plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis and uncertainty, a large mass of people in the island remain in the grip of painful poverty and resultant food insecurity.

When the 2022 crisis came with high inflation, soaring prices of essential commodities and depleted foreign reserves, it led to more than quarter of the island’s estimated 21 million people becoming food insecure all of a sudden.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 24 percent of the households are estimated to be moderately food insecure now. This is a slight deterioration compared to March 2023 when 17 percent of households were in this category. The increase is mainly due to reduced levels of food consumption among vulnerable groups including social assistance programme beneficiaries and daily wage labourers.

Improvements are, however, seen in coping strategies. A similar trend is observed in livelihood-based coping strategies.

According to the survey, the highest levels of food insecurity are in the tea producing sector, where 51 percent of the Indian Tamil households are said to be food insecure. This is followed by the rural sector (26 percent) and urban sector (15 percent). A larger percent of female-headed households is food insecure compared to households headed by men (31 percent).

Sri Lankan households relying on social protection schemes as their main source of income have the highest levels of food insecurity (57 percent). This is followed by households dependent on humanitarian assistance (49 percent) and unskilled agricultural labour (37 percent).

The lowest percentage of food insecure households are among those who have regular and stable income sources. Compared to the earlier March 2023 survey, agricultural producers reported a significant deterioration in food security status.

The survey points out that ironically a larger proportion of households which rely on the production and sale of vegetables and fruits as well as staple crops such as rice are actually food insecure.

According to WFP, 26 percent of the households are consuming inadequate diets, up from 21 percent in March. The lowest-consumed food groups were proteins, dairy products and fruits, all of which were consumed three or less than three days a week. But in comparison to March 2023, households are consuming more dairy products but less fruits.

Again, inadequate food consumption in the tea estate sector is highest at 42 percent of households. Also, inadequate consumption in male-headed households has increased by 6 percentage points compared to March 2023.
The tragedy is compounded when we learn that 42 percent of households are turning to food-based coping strategies such as skipping meals, eating less preferred food or limiting portion sizes. But notably, this is an improvement over March 2023 when this figure stood at 56 percent.

Nearly six in 10 households are relying on less preferred food or buying less expensive food. A striking 83 percent of tea estate households are compromising on the quality of their diets.

Substantial numbers are applying at least one livelihood-based coping strategy to cope with the lack of adequate food. One is to borrow money to buy food or purchasing food on credit.

The survey warns that households remain vulnerable to future shocks and stressors despite the coping strategies. More female-headed households are adopting more severe coping strategies such as selling assets and dipping into savings.

Household expenditure on food has stabilized, compared to 2022. In 2023, 19.6 percent of households spent over 75 percent on food expenses. Households with a high proportion of expenditure on food compromise their capacity to cover other essential needs and are highly susceptible to future shocks, the survey warns.

It is very clear that Sri Lanka is not out of the woods yet although long queues for food and fuel have disappeared. The economic crisis continues unabated because much of the economy has not returned to the pre-crisis levels. Naturally, millions in Sri Lanka face an uncertain future. It is amid this turmoil that the country may see a fresh presidential and, hopefully, general elections this year.

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