Based on an audit conducted by the National Audit Office in 2015, the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) has pointed out last week that about 270,000 metric tons of vegetables and fruits are being wasted annually, according to the news item published by the Parliament’s media division. The COPA also states that the Sri Lankan economy incurred a loss of around Rs.20 billion annually due to this wastage.
These details had been brought to light during a discussion on the said audit report titled “Minimization of Post-Harvest loss of Vegetables and Fruits in Sri Lanka and Production Assistance for an Enhanced Agricultural Economy” at a COPA meeting chaired by Prof. Tissa Vitharana on April 7 at the Parliament Complex. According to the audit report, the post-harvest damage to vegetables and fruits is estimated at 30-40%.
The COPA also attributed over-harvesting of certain crops and exploitation of farmers and consumers by middlemen to farmers cultivating crops of their choice, due to lack of a comprehensive cultivation plan covering the whole country and the whole scope of agricultural sector, based on the food requirement in the country.
Though the Department of Agriculture at present conducts fortnightly crop forecasts and makes announcement pertaining to the suitable vegetables to be cultivated during the next two weeks, it was noted that measures were inadequate towards this end, the COPA has observed.
The fact that the last domestic agricultural policy initiated in 2019 is still at the drafting stage and the need for such an agricultural policy targeting the local and foreign markets was also brought to the attention of the Committee at its last week’s meeting.
Another important area of focus of the Committee members was to establish an expeditious mechanism to prevent the undue profits earned by middlemen causing losses and difficulties for both the farmers and consumers.
Despite the fact that these points might seem to some of the committee members as new developments, the wastage of vegetables and fruits, lack of an agricultural policy and a comprehensive cultivation plan for farmers and the exploitation of farmers by the middlemen are not new issues. For decades, these issues are occasionally taken up at similar fora where officials concerned wax eloquent and sometimes make headlines as if new findings were made by them. Yet, soon they would be forgotten by them as well as the farmers themselves as no government seemed to have genuine concerns over the issue.
A farmer organisation in Nuwara Eliya had submitted a project proposals for the streamlining of vegetable and fruit distribution around the country with minimum wastage to the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She in turn had handed over the proposal to a minister and it was alleged that the unscrupulous officials and certain politicians had scuttled the plan with a view to import vegetable and vegetable seeds.
In 2011, on the eve of the Christmas, a crisis situation erupted when the then government attempted to implement a plan to transport vegetable in plastic crates. On a raid by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) 40 lorries transporting vegetables, in gunny bags and containers other than plastic crates were seized, and the drivers were fined after being produced in courts. Pandemonium reigned when angry traders, transporters and farmers protested by closing down roads and economic centres, which created a severe shortage and a consequent price hike in vegetables, during the festive (Christmas) season. The row cropped up due to lack of proper planning and consultation with stakeholders.
Then again in August, 2019 the then State Minister of Agriculture Wasantha Aluvihare had said that more than 550,000 metric tons of vegetables and fruits were being wasted annually due to the post-harvest damage and its loss to the nation amounted to over Rs.67 billion. More than 30% of crops were being wasted due to post harvest damage, he had said. He had also added that his ministry was planning to issue 500,000 plastic baskets free of charge to the farmers through farmer organizations with a view to reduce the damage from 30% to 10%.
A comparison between the audit report which was under discussion by the COPA last week and the statistics presented by former Minister Aluvihare clearly shows the situation deteriorating without the successive governments finding any viable solution, despite even a part of the huge amount lost by the economy sufficing to resolve the issue.