Opinion: The myth: Self-sufficiency guarantees food security

vegetables sri lanka

By Sathya Karunarathne

The novel coronavirus which drove cities and countries into lockdown has now sparked anxiety over a possible food crisis given the increase in export and import bans and disruption of global food supply chains. This uncertainty has left the Sri Lankan government to question whether these disruptions would affect food security in the near future and if ensuring self-sufficiency is the absolute and undisputed solution to this conundrum. In this attempt to achieve self-sufficiency in food the government has resorted to import substitution to strengthen domestic production. Keeping in line with these protectionist policies the government has indefinitely extended import controls that were initially introduced on the 22nd of May for three months “to be in effect till further notice”. Import controls in this degree and nature have not been seen since the 1970s and this has led policymakers and public debate to be heavily inclined towards the possibility of revisiting and reconsidering the socialist policies adopted by the Bandaranaike government.

How credible is the popular narrative?

The renewed vigor attached to closed economic policies and food protectionism through public discourse is perhaps understandable. Amidst a foreign exchange crisis in April, the government imposed import restrictions on 156 categories of products including essential food items such as rice, flour, and sugar. Although import restrictions on most of the essential food items have been removed, temporary restrictions have been extended indefinitely on grains, stainless steel tankers and bowsers needed for the distribution of milk and blast freezers needed for preserving poultry meat. While these restrictions have been put in place with the motive of protecting the depreciating rupee it carries a massive potential to further harm the domestic distribution and storage of food which is already in a fragile state.  Moreover, The latest Climate and Food Security Monitoring bulletin of WFP (United Nations World Food Programme) raises concerns of food security among vulnerable parts in Sri Lanka as a result of the impact and control response of the COVID19 outbreak. The report further elaborated that weather-related shocks combined with poor hygienic and sanitation conditions could result in an increase of acute malnutrition in the island. [1]

In response to these growing anxieties in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, the government put in place programs and policies to ensure self-sufficiency in food within the island. On the 28th of May, the government approved the importation of 2,500 dairy cows from Australia[2]. The motive behind this decision as stated by the cabinet spokesman is to ensure Sri Lanka’s self-sufficiency in milk by 2025, even though this measure failed just over a year ago with the death of 500 imported heifers that were ill-suited to Sri Lanka’s climate.

Furthermore, restrictions on maize imports that were imposed with the intention of strengthening domestic production has resulted in a lack of maize as feed for chicken. Available alternative feed is not as nutritious for poultry and has affected the quality and production of eggs. Egg production has fallen from 200-300 eggs per year from chicken to 200-240 eggs per year.[3] With the fall of production, prices have picked up.

On the 3rd of July, Senaka Samarasinghe, Managing Director of Harischandra Mills PLC stated to Ada Derana that import restrictions imposed on agricultural products such as ulundu, black-eyed pea, big onion, red onion, green gram, peanut, corn, and dried chili have affected manufacturers adversely resulting in a massive drop of production. These import restrictions have severely affected manufacturers who rely on ulundu as a raw material to produce products such as papadam, flour, thosai, wadai and dhal. Given the lack of raw materials Harischandra Mills PLC have had to reduce their production by a staggering 90%. Sri Lanka’s domestic ulundu requirement per year is about 12,000 metric tonnes (mt). The production of ulundu domestically has reduced to 5000 mt due to the drought. External factors that affect the domestic supply of food such as this calls for imports to fill the output gap. These import restrictions have adversely affected Sri Lanka’s already fragile export sector as well, as manufacturers have failed to meet the demand of international markets for products such as thosai mix. Harischandra PLC exports 15% of its thosai mix to markets in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. These protectionist policies that aim to protect the domestic producer and to strengthen their production, have resulted in achieving the very opposite of its intentions as small scale producers of ulundu have opted to close down resulting in reduced shop sales. Moreover, the ban has affected the production of kurakkan flour with producers resorting to completely stopping or reducing production. This fiber-rich alternative to wheat flour is widely consumed by diabetic patients, and is an important  part of their medically recommended diet.[4]

It is no doubt that the pandemic has brought to light the extreme vulnerability of Sri Lanka’s domestic food supply to external shocks. These policies have a demonstrated history of achieving quite the opposite of their intentions. The ’70s “produce or perish” economy is an excruciating reminder of this fact as bug-infested flour, hardly edible bread, and stone infiltrated rice was every Sri Lankan’s staple. Therefore the popular narrative that promotes restrictive policies has zero credibility as it will only tighten the already constrained food supply by repeating the mistakes of the past. Long term policy solutions to the crisis, therefore,  should focus on the sustainability and practicality of isolating the island from global trade and food supply chains and producing the bulk of our dietary needs domestically.

A sustainable approach to attaining food security: Lessons from Singapore

The Global Food Security Index (GFSI)  ranks countries’ food security based on food affordability, availability,  quality as well as an adjustment for natural resources and resilience.[5] Singapore was able to secure the title as the most food-secure nation for two consecutive years, with a high rank in all three core pillars. Singapore’s success is attributed to the government’s continued commitment to stay connected to global food supply chains and to strengthen local production. Singapore diversified its food import sources from 140 countries in 2004 to more than 170 countries and regions in  2019 [6]making the country’s food supply chain more resilient and has set a “30 by 30” goal to produce 30% of the country’s nutritional needs by 2030. Diversifying food imports and making the country’s food supply chain more resilient are two sustainable policy solutions through which Sri Lanka can ensure long term food security.

The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) states that the crisis we are facing is a global problem that requires a global response.[7] This calls for governments to collaborate to avoid further disruptions to food supply chains. Import diversification in the context of food security refers to increasing the number of countries from which we import food. This ensures an undisrupted inflow of food supply into the country ensuring both physical availability and choice of food in crisis situations. Import diversification is effective even in ordinary situations as loss in the harvest of one exporting country will not threaten the availability or supply of that particular product/produce for the importing country. Singapore imports over 90% of their consumption needs with only 13% of vegetables and 9% of fish being produced locally.[8]

Moreover, in order to avoid disruptions to the supply chain that may occur by depending on a single major import supplier Singapore has resorted to promoting frozen and powdered product alternatives. Sri Lanka cannot resort to these options by restricting the importation of freezers, tankers, and bowsers that are necessary for such alternatives.

The world is highly globalized and so are food supply chains. Isolating from this interconnected food supply chain will only exacerbate Sri Lanka’s food insecurity. This was evident in the 2007-2008 global food price crisis when export restrictions put in place by exporting countries to increase food security domestically led to serious disturbance in the world food market resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility. In a more local context, this was evident when the government banned the importation of turmeric along with other non-essential goods which led to a scarcity and the available being sold for an exorbitant price ranging from Rs 300-350/- per 100 g despite a maximum retail price of Rs75/- per 100 g.

Eradicating weaknesses and inefficiencies in the domestic food supply chain is essential to ensuring food security within a country. This is referred to as building a resilient food system domestically. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines food security as follows: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences[9]”.  The abrupt lockdown and curfew COVID 19 brought revealed that our domestic food supply chain does not offer economic or physical access to nutritious food. This was painfully apparent when people desperate to eat set off a stampede during a cash handout held in celebration of Eid, leaving eight injured and three killed.

This is an obvious cautionary alarm to the government to fix the inefficiencies of the domestic food system and to enhance emergency food assistance to the vulnerable communities, who most often end up bearing the brunt of such inefficiencies. Every crisis presents an opportunity to focus on rebuilding through a novel lens. This presents an opportunity for Sri Lanka to rethink its approach to food security and to branch out our policy solutions to more sustainable and timely options.


This crisis has proved that import restrictions and heavy gravitation towards self-sufficiency cannot solve the myriad of issues plaguing the country’s food supply system. Closed economic policies to achieve self-sufficiency, do not guarantee all citizen’s economic and physical access to nutritious food nor do they guarantee a resilient domestic food supply chain.

Investing in cold storages and strengthened logistics networks, shifting towards climate-smart agriculture, ensuring the supply of raw materials and agricultural equipment by making the eligibility verification process for tax exemptions less complicated and improving ease of doing business, removing import restrictions on veterinary medicine, chemical fertilizer, and other inputs,  relaxing restrictions on the cultivation of crops, strengthening emergency food assistance to vulnerable communities with linkages to local and provincial governments can be stated as policy priorities that can address the inefficiencies of the domestic food supply chain.

The way forward to ensuring the island’s food security is in improving internal inefficiencies while recognizing the extreme and timely importance of staying connected to global food supply chains through relaxing import restrictions and multiplying our food and raw material import sources.

Sathya Karunarathne is a Research Executive at the Advocata Institute and can be contacted at sathya@advocata.org or @SathyaKarunara1 on twitter. Learn more about Advocata’s work at www.advocata.org. The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, or anyone affiliated with the institute.

[1]  United Nations World Food Programme, and the International Water Management Institute. “Climate and Food Security Monitoring Bulletin ( Maha Season 2019 – 2020 ) ,” March 2020.

[2] Writer, Staff. “SL Govt to Import 2,500 Cows from Australia, Less than a Year after Scandal.” Newsfirst. News 1st, May 28, 2020. https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/05/28/sl-govt-to-import-2500-cows-from-australia-less-than-a-year-after-scandal/

[3] ,. “Sri Lanka Chicken Laying Fewer Eggs after Covid-19 Disruptions, Maize Import Controls.” EconomyNext, June 18, 2020. https://economynext.com/sri-lanka-chicken-laying-fewer-eggs-after-covid-19-disruptions-maize-import-controls-71195/ (accessed July 4th, 2020).

[4] Adaderanabiz,” we reduced our production by 90% due to lack of raw materials-MD Harischandra Mills”, July 3, 2020, http://bizenglish.adaderana.lk/we-reduced-our-production-by-90-due-to-lack-of-raw-materials-md-harischandra-mills/ (accessed July 4th,2020)

[5] “Global Food Security Index (GFSI).” , https://foodsecurityindex.eiu.com/ (accessed June 18, 2020)

[6] Agency, Singapore Government Singapore Food. “Our Singapore Food Story.” SFA, https://www.sfa.gov.sg/food-farming/sgfoodstory/diversification-of-import-sources (accessed July 2, 2020)

[7] “FAO.org.” Don’t let COVID19 become a hunger game | FAO in Sri Lanka | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, http://www.fao.org/srilanka/news/detail-events/en/c/1269076/ (Accessed June 18, 2020)

[8] Agency, Singapore Government Singapore Food. “Our Singapore Food Story.” SFA, https://www.sfa.gov.sg/food-farming/sgfoodstory/diversification-of-import-sources (accessed July 2, 2020)

[9] “Policy Brief – Food Security .” The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, June 2006. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/faoitaly/documents/pdf/pdf_Food_Security_Cocept_Note.pdf (accessed July 2, 2020)