Spiraling food crisis hits Sri Lanka as farmers abandon fields

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(Bloomberg) — For R. Daranagama, a 70-year-old rice farmer, the past year has been one of the most difficult of his life.

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As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades, Daranagama has barely touched his four-acre field this season. Without access to fertilizers, he and other farmers expect crop yields to plummet, threatening food supplies in a country already on the brink.

“I don’t know what the harvest will be,” said Daranagama, who grows rice in the coastal district of Gampaha. “I have never seen a situation like this.”

Fears of a hunger crisis are growing in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island south of India. Shortages of items like flour and powdered milk are widespread. Food inflation is hovering around 60%. Faced with exorbitant costs, many farmers like Daranagama have completely abandoned rice cultivation this season. It’s a frightening turnaround for a middle-income country that once had no problem feeding a population of 22 million.

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, the worst since the country gained independence from the British in 1948, has taken a heavy toll on the agricultural sector. Rice production from the last harvest season had already fallen by 40-50%. Now, seed and fertilizer shortages could reduce crop yields by up to 50% this year, according to Mahinda Amaraweera, the agriculture minister.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that tackling hunger is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges over the coming months, urging those with the means to start stockpiling supplies. The United Nations estimates that almost a quarter of the population already needs food aid.

Jayavardhana Pridarshani, a mother of four who lives in Hambantota, a stronghold of the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty, said her family used to eat fish or eggs daily. Nowadays, they can only afford to have these items once a month. She said schools had stopped serving meals to pupils and fishermen rarely went out to sea because of fuel shortages, even though there was an abundance of fish.

“The children here, including my own, suffer from fatigue and weakness,” she said, adding that a doctor had warned these were symptoms of protein deficiency.

The problem resonates throughout Sri Lanka. Sajith Premadasa, leader of the political opposition, said around 15% of children in the country are “wasting away”. This term refers to underweight children whose immune systems are weak, making them vulnerable to developmental delays, disease and even death.

At Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Colombo, the country’s largest for children, around 20 percent of patients are malnourished due to the current crisis, local media reported. Poor nutrition leads to a significant economic burden in terms of higher health care costs and reduced productivity.

Read: A powerful dynasty bankrupted Sri Lanka in just 30 months

Sri Lanka’s woes are due to depleted foreign exchange reserves, untimely tax cuts, loss of tourism dollars and disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the agricultural sector, political errors also played a role. In April 2021, the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, banned imports of synthetic fertilizers to push the country towards organic farming.

But without proper preparation, the plan backfired. Sri Lanka’s entire agricultural chain – about a third of the workforce and 8% of the gross domestic product – has been disrupted. Export earnings from tea, a key source of income, have dried up. As the backlash grew, the government began rolling back the ban in November.

President Rajapaksa said the ban on synthetic fertilizers was aimed at increasing farmers’ incomes by providing them with sustainable and cheaper alternatives. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he acknowledged execution issues.

“Our organic fertilizer makers didn’t have the capacity, but I wasn’t informed,” he said. “I did not receive the support of the responsible people.”

Without a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, many fear that Sri Lanka will now follow Venezuela’s path, with an essentially worthless currency causing hardship for years to come. For weeks, protesters have shut down parts of Colombo, the capital. Much of the public anger is directed at the Rajapaksa family, which has ruled the country for most of the past two decades.

The shock waves of the fertilizer ban continue to reverberate. Due to rising production costs – which can double for paddy crops – a smaller fraction of farmers have prepared for this year’s Yala harvest, which coincides with the spring season. monsoon ranging from May to August.

The situation has become desperate for the poorest Sri Lankans. Amaraweera, the agriculture minister, urged people to farm at home, saying it is the only solution to the crisis. For the next three months, the government has given state employees Fridays off to tend to their gardens. To cope with the shortages, Sri Lanka will have to spend more than $200 million to import fertilizers this year.

So far, the government expects a combined $150 million in aid from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, according to a senior official familiar with the matter. The Export-Import Bank of India has already provided a $55 million loan to Sri Lanka to purchase urea, a form of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And China has sent shipments of rice to fill supply gaps.

But with dwindling food supplies and record world grain and fertilizer prices due to war in Ukraine, Sri Lanka is running out of options. Even with humanitarian aid and a recent increase in cultivation, widespread famine is possible if more farmers cannot grow or harvest their crops due to soaring prices.

K. Sugath, a 52-year-old farmer, said the challenges keep piling up. Without access to urea, he has only planted one acre of paddy this season. Many farmers in his area have opted against the crop, arguing that the organic fertilizers available give limited harvests. High fuel prices also mean that operating a tractor now costs twice as much.

Sugath isn’t optimistic about his harvest, but he fears he has no choice if he wants to feed his family.

“Paddy prices have gone up but no one is selling,” he said.

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