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The country progressively dismantled its buffer stocks of rice and wheat flour - a then abiding feature of our food security - which cushioned the food supply from the shocks and uncertainties of crop failures on the one side and price fluctuations on the other. As the State for all practical purposes started reneging on its responsibility for providing food to the people at an affordable price, the supply and price of food became more or less a market responsibility.
I will not elaborate too much on the reasons for this crisis. We all know that global food stocks have reached an all time low and prices have escalated to unexpected levels. Sadly the world is conditioned by forces which are beyond the control of poor countries. From a situation of an excess of food supplies, only a few years ago, we have entered an era of shortages.
We needed a change in our policy on development. We have therefore launched an integrated national drive called 'Api Vavamu Rata Nagamu' meaning, ‘Grow more food towards prosperity’, through which all arable lands in the country are being brought under cultivation. At the same time, during the last two years, we have provided a substantial fertilizer subsidy to rice farmers, at a huge cost to the government, to increase farm productivity. This is continuing despite ever increasing global fertilizer prices and I must say that this bold initiative has paid significant dividends in terms of enhanced production.
We are giving land to farmers who do not have land for cultivation. We have already initiated a number of multi - purpose irrigation schemes to transform otherwise dry land into fertile agricultural settlements. Seed production programmes in the country have been strengthened to ensure that good quality seeds are available to farmers at cheaper prices, as well as to increase overall seed production in the country. We have also strengthened our market network for agricultural produce by re-establishing the Paddy Marketing Board to purchase paddy from farmers at a guaranteed price.
While focusing more specifically on agriculture and food production, we are also implementing a Village Upliftment Programme - 'Gama Neguma'. Through this programme we hope to see all villages of our country emerge as micro centres of growth on modern lines while retaining the impressive strengths and features of rural life. My government seeks to ensure that our country's villages which produce food for our people will have electricity, a common telecommunication system, drinking water, irrigation water for the rice fields, access roads, infrastructure, schools with adequate resources, electronic knowledge centres known as 'Nena Salas' or e-libraries, health centres, market centres, paddy stores, fertilizer stores, rice mills, pre-schools, play grounds, a village forest, and other amenities and factories to generate off farm and non farm employment.
We will continue to give the highest priority to increased agriculture, dairy farming and fisheries to face up to the challenge of ensuring adequate food for our people. Yet, being an island nation, we are faced with the threats to food security from high oil prices and the changing patterns of cultivation abroad – with bio-fuels made more attractive than food crops.
In the prevailing competition between food and fuel, Sri Lanka is firm in the decision that no land that can be used for food will be used for bio-fuel whatever the commercial attraction may be. It is our belief that food for the people should have the highest priority, and not the running of gas-guzzling vehicles.
At national level therefore, even before the issue of global food security had reached a crisis level, my government had already launched an integrated drive towards ensuring our country's food security. But while we act at national level, we need to recognize the fact that in the highly interconnected world of today the causes of the world's food crisis have to be confronted at regional and global levels as well.
While focusing on specific issues relating to the food crisis, we shall welcome the FAO to monitor - systematically and continuously - the production of food in the world. By doing so, FAO will be able to forecast shortfalls and price fluctuations well in advance so that countries and regions can act well in time to mitigate their adverse effects on the people, and a crisis is prevented from suddenly staring them in the face.