Imported coconuts, camel milk and ostrich eggs

by FS

(December 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If we are to believe the politicians, then Sri Lanka’s new paradigm of development in that ‘isle of paradise’ is -- sipping imported king coconut, drinking camel milk, and eating imported chicken and ostrich eggs!

Are we going bonkers? Don’t we have enough sun, rain and land to produce our own food? Are we going to fail the generations to come?

According to reports, Sri Lanka is to import camels and ostrich (an African bird) next year for milk and egg consumption needs. Deputy Minister H.R. Miththapala who announced this in parliament on December 4 also said a feasibility study is being done to ascertain the impact and need while Mannar is seen as a favourable (climatic) area for breeding the camel and ostrich.

In addition to that the government is importing chicken and coconut for the Christmas and New Year season due to a shortage during the season, a government claim which chicken producers here are rejecting. Coconut however is in short supply, so much so that coconut per nut and a kilo of rice is the same price, unseen before in the history of Sri Lanka.

Today’s commentary is not about imports and meeting shortages but the rush for short term and quick fix solutions to meet long term needs. For example could the import of coconut and chicken for a specific period resolve a long term issue? In the mid 1990s, too there was a shortage of eggs in the market and during the December season, the then Trade Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne allowed cheap egg imports, drawing a chorus of protests from local producers. Local egg prices came down and powerful local interest lobbies led to the imports being called off.

More than a decade later, Sri Lanka still doesn’t have enough local supply to meet the demand, and during this period even rice has been imported. It would get worse in the next five years when income levels grow (based on post-war development) and chicken demand rises not only for domestic consumption but to feed an extra two million tourists the country expects to garner by 2016. Has any government agency – Finance Ministry, Economic Development Ministry, Sri Lanka Tourism or the Central Bank done a study or even begun a study process on how local production should be sharply increased to meet consumption and demand in the next five years? It’s still not too late for such a process to start.

Politicians? Don’t believe them, appears to be what most people say. Take a look at the comments by readers on a popular news website on the camel and ostrich story: “What next? Ostrich ‘Omelette’ and Camel ‘Koththu”?: “The Kotte area is a good place to breed donkeys”: “So they'll be milking the ostriches and getting the camels to lay eggs, no?”: “Maybe all the Middle East returnees would be asked to come back with a camel to solve the milk problem”: and “Yeah what a wonderful idea – We say NO to wheat imports and YES to camel milk and ostrich eggs”.

Here is another one for the road in the essence of fun and entertainment this Christmas season. Remember baila ‘chakravarthy (doyen of music)’ M.S Fernando’s famous ‘Pol pol pol pol ‘ song? Here are two lines from it: “Lankaway wathuwala wawayna pol (coconuts grow in abudance in Sri Lankan estates)” and “pitarata pattawana pol (coconuts sent for export)”. The veteran singer must be turning in his grave to learn that his beloved country – the land of coconuts or thambili (king coconut) -- has deteriorated so fast that Sri Lanka is desperately importing coconuts! Import of coconuts – maybe a song idea for the inimitable Sunil Perera from the Gypsies!

The main reason for the coconut shortage is that large extents of coconut land have been sold for other development activity and often for housing with groups like Ceylinco being one of the chief culprits in transforming fertile coconut land into huge housing schemes. No one denies the fact that housing is important but food production and food security is even more important. Governments (present and past) haven’t had a clue as to how to tackle a crucial production component of Sri Lanka’s food basket. All that has been seen and is being seen is short term solutions –imports. With coconut fast becoming an unproductive crop because of the high cost of production (particularly fertilizer), imports will further distance the state and producers, forcing them to sell their land for other development.

Producers of essential food like rice, coconut, vegetables and fruits, meats including chicken and fish are constantly complaining about the high cost of inputs which results in much higher prices of these products than in neighbouring countries, which in the future would necessitate imports. The Government has a delicate balancing act to play in looking after the interests of farmer/producers and consumers. Farmers need a decent price while consumers want affordable food.

But is the Government playing that role efficiently and effectively? Similar to the import of eggs in the mid-1990s, will egg imports this month solve an outstanding problem or should the authorities while importing eggs, chicken or coconut also work out a long term plan for food production based on supply and demand?

Though committees and committees are seen as a waste of time, may be it’s necessary this time for a Select Committee of Parliament from all parties to look into the issue of food production vis-à-vis consumption, demand and supply and formulate a long-term plan that would be above politics and based purely on national interest. Too much to ask from our ‘leaders’?

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