Opinion: For India, a lesson in food security from Sri Lanka

Context: India needs to have a strategy of self-reliance in producing basic foods, including edible oils.

Against this backdrop, the article suggests taking lessons from countries like Sri Lanka, and framing a suitable policy to boost its food security for the long term.

Examples of Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia

Sri Lanka (SL)- (Huge import dependence despite having the resources)

Its population (21.5 million) is less than Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Despite this fact, it imports a huge amount of dairy products. For instance: its imports of whole milk powder (WMP) were 89,000 tonnes in 2020. This amount of WMP can produce almost 2.1 million liters per day (MLPD) equivalent to milk. While SL produced 1.3 MLPD domestically.

It translates into an import dependence of over 60% — for a country having very little foreign exchange today to import anything, leave alone milk powder.

Saudi Arabia – (Aiming for food security despite having limited resources)

At the other end, we have Saudi Arabia, home to over 35 million inhabitants (including immigrants) and also the world’s largest vertically integrated dairy company.

Almarai Company has six dairy farms in the desert kingdom, producing more than 3.5 MLPD of milk. The animals are sourced from the US and Europe. The entire feed and also forage given to them are procured from abroad.

The company has even purchased thousands of acres of land in California, Argentina, and Romania to grow alfalfa hay, which is then shipped back for feeding the cattle.

India’s import dependence for edible oils

India is hugely import-dependent for edible oils, just as Sri Lanka has been in dairy.

– 60% of its total consumption is imported annually.

Why the import dependence for edible oils has assumed significance now?

Till recently, this dependence didn’t seem to matter. Low international prices meant that the import bill, though high, fell from $9.85 billion in 2012-13 to $9.67 billion in 2019-20.

Indian consumers paid more or less the same for imported palm, soyabean, and sunflower oil in 2019 as they did in 2012.

But in the last couple of years, retail prices of most oils have increased to almost double or even more.

The value of India’s vegetable oil imports surged to a record $19 billion in 2021-22.

This has brought to light the dangers of over-dependence on imports of essential food commodities.

Way forward

As a country with a population many times that of Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, India needs to have a strategy of self-reliance for basic foods.

Source: This post is based on the article “Opinion: For India, a lesson in food security from Sri Lanka” published in The Indian Express on 2nd June 22.

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