ECONOMYNEXT - Sri Lanka's top officials debated the validity of regulation to boost nutrition after President Maithripala Srisena had called for higher fruit prices to boost farmer profits with the help of import duties.
Officials said there were questions about the quality and nutrition value of the food supplied by food companies in Sri Lanka.
A top health official called for self-regulation in markets.
"For market credibility, we need a sound regulatory framework. Not necessarily regulation books and statutes," Health and Indigenous Medicine Secretary Janaka Sugathadasa said.
"What is necessary is to have a vibrant working mechanism. When it comes to implementation, I would like to suggest we have to regulate ourselves, without depending on the government to bring all the legislation and to enforce such legislation, which is extremely challenging.”
He was speaking at a seminar sponsored by the World Bank, which looks at finding solutions to chronic malnutrition in South Asia despite rising economic growth.
Secretary to President Austin Fernando however called for tough legislation saying private firms were big with financial clout.
"It is easy for the rich to get attention for research, political patronage and financial support either multilaterally or bilaterally, or from national budgets and media, and this can be countered by legal stipulations," he said.
"A compulsory qualitative improvement for nutrition is required. I know that law is not everything, but in our country, it can do a lot."
Sugathadasa however sounded a note of caution saying enforcement of regulations was not so easy.
"We have issues relating to enforcement of what is already in the legislation, especially in terms of regulation," he said.
"We have large amounts of regulations relating to certification, labelling and advertising. At times we have overlapping regulations and legislations but it is a serious issue when it comes to actual implementation."
Freedom activists also say there is a tendency of a few officials and politicians to use coercive powers of the state to influence food habits of the people; a type of social engineering that is troubling in a country which has a history of trying to influence language by law.
Fernando also said powerful private sector entities look at farmers through the lens of profit instead of holistic development and the sustainable supply of nutritional food to all segments of society.
The debate comes after troubling comments by President Maithripala Sirisena, who called for even higher taxes on imported fruits in a bid to put them out of reach of people and force them to buy domestic fruits at higher prices, giving bigger profits to farmers.
President Sirisena comes from a farming background.
Import duties will make fruits more expensive to children of Sri Lanka than in other countries.
World Bank South Asia Office of the Chief Economist Lead Economist Dhushyanth Raju said pushing up import duties may not be the best way forward.
"I think that may be the wrong route in terms of trying to enhance the production of fruit in the country," he said.
"If there’s a higher consumption of fruits in Sri Lanka, it will entice farmers to produce more fruit in Sri Lanka. In planting, import substitution may not be the right way to go."
Many Sri Lankan farmers cannot produce fruits at the quality and price required in international markets.
Raju said if fruits exports become a big business, and in case Sri Lanka's domestic prices rise due to exports, or domestic markets become short, the government may have to intervene to provide adequate nutrition to the under privileged.
Analysts says Sri Lanka's maize import taxes, which aim to give greater than market profits to farmers may also be contributing to protein malnutrition by making poultry meat and eggs more expensive.
Import duties protect consumers from low prices and is part of a strategy favored by US President Donald Trump. (Colombo/June26/2018)