70-year-old rice farmer R. For Daranagama, the last year is the most difficult year of his life.
Sri Lanka is reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades, with Daranagama barely touching his four-acre farm this season. Without access to fertilizer, he and other farmers expect crop yields to plummet, threatening food supplies across a country already pushed to the brink.
“I don’t know what the harvest will be,” said Darangama, who grows rice in the coastal district of Gampaha. “I’ve never seen such a situation.”
Fears of a hunger crisis are rising in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island in India’s south. The shortage of commodities like flour and milk powder is widespread. Food inflation is around 60 per cent. Faced with exorbitant costs, many farmers like Daranagama have completely abandoned rice cultivation this season. It’s a scary change for a middle-income country that has never had a problem feeding a population of 22 million people.
Sri Lanka’s economic slowdown, the worst since the country gained independence from the British in 1948, has had a severe impact on the agricultural sector. Rice production had already fallen by 40% to 50% in the last crop season. According to Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, now, the crop yield can be reduced by 50% this year due to shortage of seeds and fertilizers.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that curbing hunger is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges in the next few months, prompting people to start rushing to supplies. The United Nations estimates that about a quarter of the population already needs food aid.
Jayawardhan Pridarshini, 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. These days, they can only buy those items once a month. She said schools have stopped serving food to students and fishermen rarely go to sea due to lack of fuel, even though there is an abundance of fish.
“The children here, including me, are suffering from fatigue and weakness,” he said. He said that a doctor had warned that these were symptoms of protein deficiency.
The problem is echoed across Sri Lanka. Political opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said an estimated 15% of children in the country are “wasted”. The term refers to underweight children who have a weakened immune system, making them more vulnerable to developmental delays, disease, and even death.
Local media reported that at Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Colombo, the country’s largest for children, about 20% of patients suffer from malnutrition. Poor nutrition carries a significant economic burden in terms of high health care costs and low productivity.
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Sri Lanka’s crisis traces back to depletion of foreign exchange reserves, timely tax cuts, loss of tourism dollars and disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the agriculture sector, policy missteps have also played a role. In April 2021, the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned synthetic fertilizer imports to push the country towards organic farming.
But without adequate preparation, the plan backfired. Sri Lanka’s entire agricultural chain faced disruptions to nearly a third of the labor force and around 8% of GDP. Export earnings from tea, a major revenue source, dried up. As the backlash grew, the government began to reverse the ban in November.
President Rajapaksa said the synthetic fertilizer ban is aimed at increasing the income of farmers by providing them with sustainable and affordable alternatives. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he acknowledged problems with the execution.
“Our organic fertilizer manufacturers didn’t have the capacity, but I wasn’t informed,” he said. “I didn’t get support from the people responsible.”
Without a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, many worry that Sri Lanka may now go the Venezuelan way, with an essentially worthless currency that could spell hardship for years to come. For weeks, protesters have cordoned off parts of the capital Colombo. Much of the public’s anger is on the Rajapaksa family, who have led the country over the past two decades.
Fertilizer ban continues to resonate shock waves. With the cost of production doubling for paddy crops, a small fraction of farmers have prepared for this year’s Yala crop, which coincides with the monsoon season that runs from May to August.
For poor Sri Lankans, the situation has become hopeless. Agriculture Minister Amaraweera urged people to grow crops at home, saying it was the only solution to the crisis. The government on Friday granted leave from work to state employees for the next three months to take care of their gardens. To make up for the shortfall, Sri Lanka will need to spend more than $200 million to import fertilizers this year.
According to a senior official familiar with the matter, as of now, the government expects a combined $150 million aid from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The Export-Import Bank of India has already extended a $55 million loan to Sri Lanka to buy urea, a form of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. And China has sent a consignment of rice to fill the supply gap.
But with dwindling food stocks due to the war in Ukraine and record global prices for grain and fertilizer, Sri Lanka is running out of options. The World Food Program has started distributing food vouchers to some pregnant women as part of its emergency response, which aims to provide assistance to three million of the most vulnerable. Even with the recent boom in humanitarian aid and farming, widespread hunger is possible if more farmers cannot grow their crops or harvest their crops because of very high prices.
52-year-old farmer K. Sugath said the challenges are increasing. Without access to urea, he planted only one acre of paddy this season. Many farmers in his area have opted for full-fledged farming, arguing that the available organic fertilizers give a limited yield. Higher fuel prices also mean that the cost of running a tractor is twice as high as it is now.
Sugath is not optimistic about his harvest, but worries that there is no alternative if he wants to feed his family.
“The price of paddy has gone up but no one is selling it,” he said.