Sri Lanka has experienced long queues to buy essential items amid tight lockdown measures to control the spread of Covid-19.
Government-run supermarket shelves have been running low – some even empty – with very little stock of imported goods like milk powder, cereal, and rice remaining.
The government denies shortages exist and blames the media for instilling fear.
It comes after the government declared a state of emergency and the head of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank stepped down amid a currency crisis.
What has the government done?
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced strict controls on the supply of essential goods on August 30.
The government stated that this was necessary to prevent traders from stockpiling food and to keep inflation under control.
Sri Lanka is dealing with a weakening currency, rising inflation, and a crippling foreign debt burden.
The economic slowdown is especially concerning because Sri Lanka had one of the strongest economies in South Asia until recently.
In 2019, it was upgraded to an upper middle-income country by the World Bank.
But at the same time, the country’s debt burden has also been growing – from 39% of Gross National Income (GNI) in 2010 to 69% in 2019, according to the World Bank.
What’s happened to food prices and supplies?
As a result of the economic crisis, the prices of some essential food items have been rising.
Sugar, onions, and lentils have all risen in price in recent months.
Meanwhile, after rising in May, rice prices have been falling and have continued to fall since the implementation of a retail price cap at the beginning of September.
The emergency regulations allow the government to purchase stocks from traders in order to provide food and other necessities at controlled prices.
In terms of shortages, the country’s finance ministry told the BBC that they were “artificial.”
“The creation of an artificial scarcity by unscrupulous elements will inevitably lead to price increases for those items.”
The government has categorically denied that a shortage is imminent.
“We can give a categorical and firm assurance that all essential items would be readily available at all times,” the finance ministry responded to the BBC.
Ajith Nivard Cabraal, State Minister, has blamed the opposition for “false reports” about food shortages.
Long lines, on the other hand, have been observed for items such as sugar, rice, lentils, and milk powder.
“I waited in line for 45 minutes and only got one kilogramme of sugar,” said Kumaradasa, a senior citizen.
Another unidentified source told the BBC that government-owned supermarkets selling sugar at fixed prices had closed in the Gampaha town area, near the capital, Colombo.
Members of parliament who oppose the government’s policy have said that other laws to monitor hoarding and price increases are already in place, and that the decision to declare an emergency was made in “bad faith.”
“[The crisis] is merely a manifestation of a power struggle in which the president and government are callously endangering citizens’ lives in the hope of consolidating power,” Eran Wickramaratne of the opposition SJB party said in Sri Lanka’s parliament.
Could organic farming be to blame?
To encourage organic farming, the government banned the importation of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides in April.
However, both the decision and its implementation have been criticised.
“We are not opposed to organic farming, but we are opposed to substandard chemical fertilisers that were being imported,” said Namal Karunaratne, national organiser of the All Ceylon Farms Federation.
However, he added, “the answer is not to ban imports overnight.”
According to some farmers, the quick switch could significantly reduce output.
“Because organic fertiliser has a lower productivity than chemical fertiliser, it would reduce our production and make our survival more difficult,” said HC Hemakumara, President of the Ampara district joint farmers association.
About 90% of Sri Lanka’s farmers use chemicals, according to a survey in July.
Those growing rice, rubber, and tea had the highest reliance on chemical fertilisers.
Tea accounts for 10% of export revenue, and some producers have stated that they may lose up to 50% of their crop production.
Prof Sabine Zikeli of Germany’s University of Hohenheim’s Centre for Organic Farming believes that a rapid transition to organic could jeopardise a country’s food security.
“You can’t just change these conventional cropping systems; transition periods are required,” she says.
“The normal transition period to adapt in organic farming….about three years or even longer, depending on the country.”
Bhutan announced in 2008 that it would become 100 percent organic by 2020.
But it fell a long way short of achieving this target and a recent study shows yields from the organic farming it has introduced have been substantially lower, leading to a rise in dependence on imports.
Prof Zikeli, who co-authored this study, believes Sri Lanka may now face a similar situation.
And the country’s current economic crisis may exacerbate the threats to its food security.
Sri Lanka is running low on foreign exchange, and the money it does have is being used to pay off debts.
Its foreign reserves were $2.8 billion (£2 billion) at the end of July, down from $7.5 billion when the government took office in November 2019.
It also has approximately $4 billion in outstanding foreign debts on which it must pay interest.
This could have an impact on essential imported items such as sugar, wheat, dairy products, and medical supplies, which could all face increasing supply issues.