By Visakha Tillekeratne –
Consultant – Nutrition and Food Security
The cabinet of Ministers was being revealed on the 12th of January 2015. This was just 4 days after the election and just a day after this particular promised milestone, as per 100 days.
There are many criticisms on the segregation and naming of portfolios, as well as the naming of Ministers. Some Ministers are really square pegs in round holes and defy explanation as to why they were appointed even to a 100 days cabinet. This aside, as a professional working for the last 15 years in a government/UN/NGO team trying to achieve some success in this daunting area, a Ministry of Food Security was a pleasant surprise. However, many Sri Lankans are not familiar with this concept yet and would like to hear the terms agriculture, livestock, fisheries and consumer affairs. One cannot blame the public who are used to detailed fragmentation of portfolios. This has also fragmented their thinking.
Food and Nutrition Security
So what is food security as per definition given by FAO? “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 for an active and healthy life”. (World Food Summit, 1996). This was a definition refined for over a decade. However food security is not complete without “nutrition security”. The nutrition focus adds the aspects of caring practices and health services & healthy environments to this definition and concept. This aims at what is more precisely called ‘Nutrition Security’, which can be defined as adequate nutritional status in terms of protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals for all household members at all times (Quisumbing).
An integrated Ministry
If the term food security is fully understood by the politicians, and all the logical sub sectors are knitted together, clustered when necessary with relevant portfolios, this may actually be a way of reducing the figures of 1 in 4/5 children and 1 in 5 adults malnourished in some way in the country. This integrated Ministry also gives a boost to positive steps undertaken by the previous Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the formulating of the Multi Sectoral Action Plan for Nutrition (16 Ministries in one plan) towards a “ Nourished Nation by 2016” and the setting up of a supporting mechanism through a central unit – the National Nutrition Secretariat within the Presidential Secretariat. (It should be recognized that some actions are positive, no matter who initiates them). However, though this concept of a coordinated response is the way forward in the world and an approach mooted by the development agencies, the GoSL could not gain much success in improving nutrition status, owing to the regional disparities in income and economic development and the lack of targeting of poverty reduction programs through meaningful social protection. The world’s economic setbacks and food crisis, as well as a series of natural disasters befalling Sri Lanka, sealed the fate of many, whose dietary intake and dietary diversity fell by the wayside.
More mature democracies such as the UK have taken this approach of combining all sectors that provide food resource requirements under one umbrella Ministry. The UK had a “Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food” from 1955 until 2002, which was then converted into the “Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs”, taking into consideration sustainable farming supported by holistic rural landscape development through an empowered and informed rural community. These countries follow careful policy considerations when demarcating Ministries. the Ministry up to 2002 was terminated by “dissolution” order unlike Sri Lanka, which suddenly pops out portfolios like mushrooms springing up from wet wood.
It is well worth noting that the National Nutrition Policy of Sri Lanka published in the extraordinary gazette No. 1639/5 of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka dated 2 February, 2010 mentions the necessity of food security in Section 5.4. So what would be the purview of this Ministry
What could be the areas under such a Ministry? Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture, several independent Authorities such as Hadabima?. What about pricing regulation? Would the Consumer Affairs Authority be under this Ministry or under Finance or Economic Development or Commerce? What about Trade? These sectors should look at the required quantity for the whole population and quality (especially the variety of food required for Nutrition Security) at affordable prices (increased access) and to reduce the distance between farm to mouth (increased availability), wherever possible. The popularization of rice as the main source of energy, affordability of meat and fish, freely available and affordable vegetables (especially dry zone) and fruits, marketing of the many types of green leaves should be actively taken forward, beyond 100 days of course. (Green Beans – Bonchi, at Rs 500/kilo even as a result of floods is UNACCEPTABLE)
As mentioned by Dr Ganeshamoorthy in an interview given yesterday, populist measures of just reducing the prices of food and other goods is not prudent and goes against the dynamics of economics. These measures will not be sustainable and make the government more unpopular at the end.
An integrated Ministry of food security is also a good move to promote organic agriculture. As there could be proper linkages to obtain manure from livestock and inland fisheries and vice versa for healthy feeding even of livestock. The Thai approach is this one.
Logical clustering of portfolios for best effect
An extract from Frankenburger 1996, “Nutrition status is affected by the caregiver’s status, relative to other members of the household. The caregiver’s knowledge and beliefs also are important resources that influence the types of health services accessed and the caring practices adopted.
Health and environment services include access to health care from affordable, qualified providers, and
safe water and sanitation services. Environmental safety, including shelter, is also critical. Poverty is a key factor affecting all underlying determinants. A person is considered to be in absolute poverty when s/he is unable to adequately satisfy his or her basic needs such as food, health, water, shelter, primary education, and community participation.
Smith and Haddad 2000, “Poor households are unable to achieve food security, have inadequate resources for care, and are not able to use or contribute to the creation of resources for health on a sustainable basis. Insufficient resources available at the country or community level, and the political, social, and economic conditions that govern how these resources are distributed are identified as the basic causes of under nutrition in this framework. For instance, the lack of food security at the household level, an underlying cause of under nutrition, is associated with household income poverty. Therefore an integrated approach is needed for addressing multi causality.
Actions for 100 days and beyond
- Identify purview of Ministry of Food Security
- Ministries essential to a multi-sectoral approach in improving nutrition and food security, such as Finance, Policy Planning and Economic Development, Fisheries, Lands, Irrigation, Industry and Commerce as well as Housing and Samurdhi and Health should work closely with the Ministry of Food Security.
- The price of food if reduced should be sustained with subsidies and technological approaches – integrated pest management, the use of more organic fertilizer, small scale machinery suited to small land holdings.
- A secondary cluster of Cabinet and State Ministries should work to promote food security and good nutrition. These are Media, Women’s Affairs, Children’s Affairs, Urban Development, Plantation Industries, Social Welfare, Education, the different religious Ministries and Culture and Arts.
- Avoid populist measures of food price reduction, make food accessible in a meaningful and lasting manner.
- Conserve the National Nutrition Secretariat in a suitable Ministry such as Policy Planning or keep it at the Presidential Secretariat as in many countries.
- Continue with Multi Sectoral Action Plan on Nutrition.
- Avoid harmful environmental degradation activities. Strengthen law enforcement.
- Revisit amendment to Seed and Plant Materials act