(Bloomberg) — For R. Daranagama, a 70-year-old rice farmer, this past year has been one of the toughest years of his life.
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As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades, Daranagama has barely touched its four-acre field this season. Without access to fertilizer, he and other farmers expect yields to drop, jeopardizing food supplies in an already on the brink of a country.
“I don’t know what the harvest will be,” said Daranagama, a rice grower in coastal Gampaha. “I have never seen such a situation.”
In Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island south of India, fears of a hunger crisis are growing. Shortages of items such as flour and milk powder are widespread. Food inflation fluctuates around 60%. Faced with exorbitant costs, many farmers, such as Daranagama, have given up rice cultivation entirely this season. This is a frightening turn for a middle-income country that once faced no food challenges for a population of 22 million.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, the worst since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, has taken a toll on the agricultural sector. Rice production has already fallen by 40-50% last season. Seed and fertilizer shortages could cut crop yields by 50% this year, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amarawir said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that fighting hunger is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges in the next few months, prompting people with means to start stockpiling. The United Nations estimates that almost a quarter of the population is already in need of food aid.
Jayavardhana Pridarshani, a mother of four who lives in Hambantota, a stronghold of the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty, says her family ate fish or eggs daily. These days, they can only afford to have these items once a month. She said schools have stopped serving food to students and fishermen rarely go out to sea due to lack of fuel even though fish are plentiful.
“The kids here, including mine, suffer from fatigue and weakness,” she said, adding that the doctor warned that these were symptoms of a protein deficiency.
The problem echoed throughout Sri Lanka. Sajit Premadasa, leader of the political opposition, said that roughly 15% of the country’s children are “wasting”. The term refers to underweight children whose immune systems are weak, making them vulnerable to developmental delay, disease, and even death.
At Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Colombo, the country’s largest children’s hospital, about 20% of patients are malnourished due to the ongoing crisis, local media reported. Poor nutrition carries a significant economic burden in terms of higher health care costs and reduced productivity.
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Sri Lanka’s woes are linked to the depletion of foreign exchange reserves, untimely tax cuts, loss of tourism revenue and disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the agricultural sector, political mistakes 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 failed. Sri Lanka’s entire agricultural chain – about a third of the labor force and 8% of gross domestic product – has been disrupted. Export earnings from tea, a key source of income, have dried up. As backlash mounted, the government began lifting the ban in November.
President Rajapaksa said the ban on synthetic fertilizers was intended to boost farmers’ incomes by providing them with sustainable and cheaper alternatives. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he admitted to having problems with the execution.
“Our organic fertilizer producers didn’t have the capacity, but they didn’t inform me,” he said. “I didn’t get support from responsible people.”
Many fear that without the help of the International Monetary Fund, Sri Lanka could now follow the path of Venezuela with a virtually worthless currency that will create difficulties for years to come. For several weeks, demonstrators closed off parts of the Colombo capital. Much of the public’s anger is directed at the Rajapaksa family, who have ruled the country for most of the past two decades.
The shockwaves from the fertilizer ban continue to reverberate. Due to increased production costs – twice as high for rice – a smaller proportion of farmers are preparing for this year’s Yala harvest, which coincides with the rainy season, which runs from May to August.
The situation has become desperate for the poorer people of Sri Lanka. Agriculture Minister Amarawira urged people to grow crops at home, saying it was the only solution to the crisis. Over the next three months, the government exempted civil servants from working on Fridays to tend their gardens. To make up the shortfall, Sri Lanka will need to spend more than $200 million importing fertilizer this year.
For now, the government is expecting 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 given Sri Lanka a $55 million loan to buy urea, a form of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And China sent shipments of rice to fill supply gaps.
But with dwindling food supplies and record global grain and fertilizer prices due to the war in Ukraine, Sri Lanka is running out of options. Even with humanitarian aid and the recent surge in farming, widespread famine is possible if more farmers are unable to grow or harvest crops due to price spikes.
K. Sugat, a 52-year-old farmer, says problems keep piling up. With no access to urea, he only planted an acre of rice fields this season. Many farmers in his area have abandoned cultivation entirely, arguing that the available organic fertilizers produce limited yields. High fuel prices also mean that tractors now cost twice as much to maintain.
Sugat is not optimistic about his harvest, but worries that he has no choice if he wants to feed his family.
“Rice prices have gone up, but no one is selling,” he said.
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