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Tobacco cultivation: A threat to Sri Lanka’s food security amidst COVID-19

23 June 2020 12:24 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The prolonged curfew and lockdown measures introduced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Sri Lanka’s food system. 

The country’s food distribution channels collapsed due to travel restrictions imposed by the governmentand the closure of major wholesale and retail markets, stifling consumers’ access to food. Meanwhile, digital market alternatives struggled to meet rising demand.

Further, increases in food prices, especially fruits and vegetables, reduced the affordability of nutritious food. The situation worsened due to high unemployment among daily wage earners. More worryingly, restricted access to agricultural inputs, such as fertiliser and seeds, signals shortages of food production in the future. 

The  government has taken many initiatives, such aspurchasing and distributing fruits and vegetables at the Divisional Secretariat level,introducing maximum prices for vegetables, and launching the ‘Saubhagya’ home gardening programme to help both food producers and consumersand to support various aspects of food security,including food availability, andaccess to and affordability of nutritious food. Among these measures, the Saubhagya programme is at the forefront. Tobacco, a nonfood crop in direct competition with food crops grown in home gardens, could pose a severe threat to the primary objective of thisinitiative.  

In 2017, the government made a commitment to ban tobacco cultivation by end 2020 and launcheda programme to discourage farmers from growing tobacco and instead switch to sustainable alternatives. While the transition period of the proposed cultivation ban is nearly over, the programme is currently at a deadlock.

This blog examines how tobacco cultivation could weaken the government’s effortsto promotehome gardening and why the transformation initiative should be speedup to improve food security during the COVID-19 outbreak.  


Tobacco vs. Home Gardening Boom
Home gardening started gaining worldwide attention during lockdowns resulting from the pandemic, as it isa promising approach to enhance households’ food security and wellbeing. Home gardens offer many perks, including improved food and nutrition security, enhanced incomes, part time employment opportunities, and environmental benefits. Sri Lanka’s government too launched its own home gardening initiative, the Saubhagya National Programme on Harvesting and Cultivation, aimedat developing one million home gardens. To kick off the programme, the government distributed packets of vegetable seeds (five varieties of seeds per packet) among interested households.Tobacco cultivation could directly challenge this initiative,as tobaccoisa nonfood crop grownin home gardensof smallscale farmers in Sri Lanka. 

At the household level, food security refers to the ability of the household to secure, either from its own production or through purchases, adequate food for meeting the dietary needs of all members of the household. Tobacco does not produce consumable food or nutritional sources and does not help improve food security. 

Some may argue that a higher income and improved purchasing power could indirectly contribute to tobacco food security. Nevertheless, the literature provides further evidence to prove that tobacco is not profitable for farmers, and farmers often miscalculate their 
investment returns.

The Sustainable Agriculture Development Programme (SADP), a corporate social investment project of the Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC), has given subsidies and technical support to selected farmers to cultivate tobacco in home gardens, together with other cash crops 
and animals.

There is no guarantee that the lands benefitting from the Saubhagya home garden programme will not be used to grow tobacco. Historically, market linkages between commercial tobacco companies and smallholder farmers have played a major role in farming decisions.

However, there are only a few public-private-producer partnerships (4P) for other food crops. As such, farmers are more likely to opt to grow tobacco as they are protected by the tobacco company and its guaranteed market.Therefore, developing marketing contracts for a food crop willgive the edge over a harmful crop, such as tobacco in terms of both the guaranteed income and food security.


Tobacco not sustainable as home garden crop
Tobacco’s impact on home gardens is moderate, but overall it imposes huge environmental costs. Growing tobacco in the mid and up-country areas of Sri Lankahas caused severe soil erosion, leading to the downstream sedimentation, depletion of water resources, and a decline in land productivity. 

The National Action Plan (NAP) for Combating Land Degradation in Sri Lanka 2015-2024 estimates that the soil erosion rate in sloping lands where tobacco is cultivated without any soil conservation measuresis 70 Mt/ha/year, the highestcompared to allother crops. 

It further highlights that heavy soil erosion caused by tobacco cultivation has severely degraded the soil in areas such as Hanguranketha, Walapane, and Teldeniya in the Kandy district. 

Soil and water pollution due to thesubstantial application of chemicals, including pesticides, fertilisers, and growth regulators, aggravates the existing problem of soil erosion.Also, tobacco crops deplete soil nutrients by taking up more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, compared to other home garden crops. 

Therefore, farming tobacco repeatedly reduces land fertility, resulting in low output and  narrow profit margins from tobacco, which could affect the profitability of other food crops grown in the same home garden as well. 

Moreover, handling tobacco leaves cancause a disease called Green Tobacco Sickness that adversely affects farmers’ health and labour productivity. As tobacco cultivation has many health, economic, and environmentalconsequences, it cannot be considered a sustainable home garden crop.


Way forward
Growing tobacco will hardly contribute to household food security, which is a growing concern during the pandemic. The COVID-19 lockdown and the speedy policy drive towards home gardening promotion have given a golden opportunity for policymakers to revamp the sluggish transformation programme to ban tobacco cultivation and promote household food security.

It is also important to discourage the cultivation of tobacco as part of a strategy to reduce tobacco use in Sri Lanka, which will ultimately benefit the health and economic sectors.

Further, agricultural extension services should raise awareness among farmers on the detrimental impacts of tobacco cultivationin terms of household food security, especially during pandemics and on the economic benefits that can be gained by cultivating different alternative crops in home gardens.

One of the crucial aspects to consider when introducing alternative crops to farmers is the establishment of local farm market relationships. Public-Private-Producer Partnerships (4P) would be a better option to absorb the marketing pressure of the semi-subsistence level farmers during transformation.

Strengthening local farm-market relationships for food crops will ultimately generate a higher income for the farmer and improve the food security of households. 

These will help to defeat the repeated attempts made to introduce tobacco cultivation for farmers in Sri Lanka by commercial tobacco companies and make farmers more resilient to food insecurity 
during pandemics. 

(Nimesha Dissanayaka is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). To talk to the author, email To view this article online and to share your comments, visit the IPS Blog ‘Talking Economics’ -

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