The news that reduced prices has resulted in thousands of vegetables being used to make fertiliser because traders did not purchase them at the Dambulla Economic Centre is shocking. The idea that such massive wastage can happen in a country with so many poor people unable to even have three square meals is disturbing, to say the least.
It is no secret that Sri Lanka has high post-harvest losses, which are estimated to be as much as 30%. Moreover, the expense of transporting goods and the delays involved has also meant that fresh produce is a rarity.
This has also prompted most traders to pump high amounts of pesticides and preservatives into the food, which causes long-term health hazards and damage to the environment. Reduced prices have only worsened this situation.
The excuse that was trotted out regarding this massive wastage was that traders from Colombo did not arrive to cart off the vegetables to the Colombo market since demand had dropped following the festive period. Without any storage facilities, there was no choice but to dump thousands of kilos of vegetables and wash their hands off the matter. This is just what happens in one day; if one were to tally the amount of vegetables destroyed in this manner every day, there would be millions of kilos of wastage recorded.
While it is impractical to consider that all these vegetables can be saved, there must also be ways to minimise it. It would also assist in reducing the cost of living significantly if there was a way to transport these vegetables to other parts of the country, thus bringing down artificially-buffered prices. In the current situation, since it is mostly the middle men who reap the cream off the prices, both the consumer and the farmer at the opposite end are being fleeced. Surely it is time to break this and provide an alternative where all parties get a fair deal.
Of course, many attempts have been made previously with raids at economic centres, but it is clear that this will take more than isolated actions that happen when vegetable prices reach their usual peak. A solution to prevent such massive wastage must be found to give people a better standard of life. For, what is development unless people can afford food and the price of staples such as vegetables remains low?
Usually stories of dumping reach us from developed nations where excess stocks are destroyed to prevent global prices from decreasing, but they have also been encouraged to donate these to organisations such as the World Food Programme, which donate the food in emergency situations worldwide. It cannot be too ambitious for the same sort of mechanism to be employed here where vegetables can be distributed via charity organisations to places that need cheap food – orphanages and elders’ homes spring to mind.
When vegetable prices were unbearably high, the Army was used to ferry vegetables to the capital. Even though this is not a sustainable measure, perhaps it can be used to prevent such massive losses by sending the excess food to other urbanised areas so that people can purchase them at reasonable rates.
Whatever the measure and no matter how outlandish it sounds, it is clear that Sri Lanka is not a country that can afford to let vegetables rot each day. The Government along with other stakeholders must take steps to reduce this wastage immediately, simply because it is a heinous crime against the thousands of poor people who can be given a better meal if prices were lower or accessibility easier.