Tuesday, 3 August, 2021

COVID-19: Impact On Agriculture And Way Forward


Ghanshyam Khanal

COVID-19 has left no sectors untouched and agriculture is not an exception to this. The coronavirus, being a new virus to the world, the countries around the globe struggled much to find the strategies to control it as it popped up for the first time in human history. Along with contract tracing, testing, and quarantining, the lockdown has been one of the promising ways to save the countries from its scourge. As lockdown is continuing and has brought myriad adverse effects in human lives, this essay focuses on lockdown's impacts on Nepalese agriculture and the way forward.
Although progressive people's movements, researchers, academicians and journalists have repeatedly raised and cautioned the public and policymakers about the consequences of the dreaded pandemic and lockdown from its inception, the pandemic has brought to forefront many long-standing systemic issues and challenges. As Nepal went into a sudden and unprepared lockdown last year and this year too, it is the workers involved in the informal and agricultural sectors who faced its brutality.
Another key issue that has been forefronted is the issue of hunger which has been created by the inability and or unwillingness of the governments to incentivize agriculture and use its food stocks to feed stranded workers and urban and rural poor. There are reports in the press, mainstream and alternative, of large stocks of food grain being wasted because the governments have not expanded the coverage of schemes such as the public distribution system in an appropriate way. So in an agricultural country having huge potentiality in food security like Nepal, people are going hungry.

Although agriculture contributes around 30% per cent of our GDP, there is around 65 per cent of Nepalese depend on agriculture in one or another way. So the adverse impact on agriculture is not only that sector of the GDP that is affected but hundreds of millions of livelihoods in rural Nepal. When we come to the impact of the lockdown and associated disruption in economic activity, it's useful to separate the effect on the crop sector from the other allied sectors. To begin with crop production, April-July is the time of corn plantation in Hill and rice in the Terai regions. Except for the first few days or weeks of disruption because of lockdown, the plantation activity did continue and was completed but the prices of produced items got a huge adverse impact.
The large cum small scale producing commercial and semi-commercial farms, mainly producing perishable cash crops like vegetables, fruits, poultry, eggs and milk, located in downstream Terai regions confronted greater obstacles during the lockdown period because of the inability to sell their farm products and purchase farm inputs such as seeds, fertiliser, instruments. It is reported that the severe situation in many farms in Terai, a well-known breadbasket and hub of commercial and modern farming of Nepal, demonstrates the difficulties of marketing practices when it lacks resiliency. Before lockdown, average milk production in Nepal was 550, 00 litres per day but due to transport restrictions and lack of imported feed mainly from India, the production sharply declined and even the minimal produced milk did not get market. Because of the abrupt breakdown in the market channel, farmers are/were compelled to throw their milk, vegetables and eggs on the roads. Infrastructural backwardness especially on-farm processing and storage facilities are the key reasons.
The large landowners, the capitalist farmers, the rich farmers were less affected as compared to the small landowners and the poor peasants. For example, a poor farmer who was a tenant household had sold potato/tomato crop in more than 35 per cent reduction in price because the small peasant does not have the resources to keep the harvest, to store it, to sell it at a later date. In the same scenario, a much larger capitalist farmer was able to store the products in cold storage and would sell it later in the year.
A survey conducted by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) found that access to maize seed was a major problem for farmers as most of the agro vets were not opened for businesses. And, those who were partially opened had around 23 per cent fewer customers flow. Because of mobility restrictions during the entire maize-planting season, the majority of farmers planted such a seed which was less than open-pollinated varieties in most domains.
The availability of fertilizers such as Urea, DAP and MOP was another major problem for farmers as more than half of the cooperatives and agro vets reported the absence of fertiliser stock in their area. Nepal has got around 0.7 million tones annual demand for chemical fertiliser and in most years the government imports only about half of this. But this year, supply was delayed due to trade restrictions and only about 20 per cent was imported because of the government's inability to manage things in time.
As a result, farmers were distributed with only 15 kg of Urea per household during the peak season of fertiliser use in rice, which will result in lower productivity. In the same line, productions of other crops, livestock and poultry are also expected to decline. The stock of recommended pesticides to control pests such as fall armyworm was reported to be limited or out of stock at the cooperatives and agro vets.
The Livelihoods, Food Security, and Vulnerability survey of 4416 households discovered an 8 per cent increase in food insecurity by the pandemic, pushing the proportion of food-insecure households to 23 per cent and worsening the dietary diversity by per cent affecting mainly children. The survey also exhibited that households lost livelihood source altogether by 10 per cent, and faced a reduction in income by 30 per cent.
The smallholders' farmers living in rural areas proved themselves resilient to some extent because they used local inputs such as indigenous seeds, compost fertiliser, and family and community labour exchanges and as the products were consumed at home or locally, they didn't have to depend on markets.
As reported by a UNDP, 2020 report, around half a million youths who came back to their villages from different cities of Nepal, India and other countries due to the pandemic were engaged in smallholder farms cultivating the abandoned fallow land. For instance, these returnee migrants employed themselves in tomato, ginger and turmeric farming using the seeds from community seed banks.

Way Forward
Wisdom lies in converting this crisis into an opportunity as Nepal will face the crucial question of reviving the economy in the days to come. Once things get normal, a robust agro-economy can act as a starting point. Some authorities are facilitating direct access between farmers and urban consumers during the lockdown compressing the layers of the middlemen. This needs to be built upon to unshackle the monopoly of the agricultural mafia which add layers of intermediaries between farmers and consumers.
All governments; local, provincial and federal have to take initiatives in formulating a policy of providing free seeds and fertiliser as the pandemic has forced people to remain at home and engage themselves in rooftop farming, balcony and backyards. As the people are restricted at home because of the lockdown, the home delivery of the seeds, fertiliser and inputs can be the best idea. The initiatives taken last year by Karnali Province; provided Rs. 0.5 billion for the agriculture sector and announced minimum support price for wheat and potato, and Gandaki Province; provided Rs 5000 per Ropani if the fallow land is brought into cultivation, were the praiseworthy acts and these should be continued this year too in the extended form.

Policy Intervention
Moreover, the policy intervention for the provision of insurance of selected crops and livestock should be taken which minimizes the risks to the farmers and inspires them too. If the government announces the minimum support price of major crops, it will help to attract many youths to agriculture. Other measures include providing extension and consultation facilities, managing the provision of easy and cheap loan, subsidizing hybrid seeds, fertiliser and inputs. The private sector should be encouraged to run the farms with modern infrastructure capping commissions existed in various layers.
Since there is a shortage of labour, labour-saving technologies should be introduced to minimise the work burden on women and elderly people as most of the male labourers are out-migration. Likewise, comprehensive and participatory research should be carried out to explore the existing specific problems, thus, helping to formulate robust policies.

(Khanal teaches Economics at a college)