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Bracing for COVID-19 impact on agriculture in short and longer-term

COVID-19 pandemic unlikely to hit the agriculture sector; Rabi harvesting, its market linkage as well as approaching Kharif sowing. Rajesh Aggarwal, Managing Director, Insecticides (India) writes on the way outs

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The coronavirus pandemic has shaken our lives to the core. The impact on life and livelihoods is expected to be immense. So far, majorly the urban and semi urban centers of the countries are hit, but the spread of the virus may not limit it to that. As the migrants also reach their native places, there are chances that some of them might act as the carrier of the virus. However, the fact is, life in villages may get a hit by the pandemic – as a collateral damage of the crumbling of urban economy, the struggle of its rural and agrarian counterpart has already begun.

Existing Rabi and upcoming Kharif crops likely to suffer
The pandemic struck us at a time when the winter crops have started to be harvested. With the fear of infection and the resultant lockdown, these crops may have delayed harvesting due to shortage of labourers. Even if the farmers manage to harvest them, there is a tough task ahead of them to take the produce to the marketplace. This will further reduce the farmers’ opportunity to earn a fair deal for the products. Those who were dealing in fish and poultry have been suffering too, given that poultry prices have fallen and fish prices are highly volatile – while in some places, fish prices have fallen. Though Government is taking some fast steps to overcome these issues, but we will have to wait to see the actual effect.

The government has more than sufficient food reserve – as of February 1, 2020, Food Corporation of India (FCI) had 30 million tonnes of wheat, against the required 3 million tonnes and about 27 million tonnes of rice, against 2 million tonnes – and hence, may have limited purchase to procure from the farmers. The Prime Minister’s announcement that appropriate measures will be taken to make sure farmers can harvest Rabi crops comes as the much-needed solace in these trying times.

For perishable Rabi crops such as onions, which are stored following traditional methods and hence, are more likely to be affected by fluctuation in moisture and temperature levels, the pandemic can potentially spell a disaster. Though much of it was caused by the requirement of onions for sowing the crop, lack of onion supply is almost an annual affair. Farmers in arid areas with less water, mainly in the western parts of the country, see the onion as a cash crop that grows well in the short term. But a spell on untimely rain or flooding can disrupt the supply at a time when it is needed the most – raw onion is said to have cooling properties that help people overcome the excruciatingly hot summer. A shortage of such a high-demand crop may lead to inflation and can strain the system leading to food inflation. With processing units just started to open, those growing crops for manufacturing Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) may hit a roadblock too, eventually making commodity prices volatile in the long run due to inconsistency in supply.

Now as the lockdown is already extended till May 3rd, Kharif crops are likely to bear a serious brunt, owing to disrupted supply of farm input materials – the concerns of industry bodies are anything but unfounded as cotton sowing nears in Punjab and Haryana and the government should seriously consider opening of ‘green lanes’, the special food lanes on highways where food and agricultural input delivery vehicles can pass without being stopped at toll booths and check-posts. Though the manufacturing plants, depots and shops of agrochemicals have been allowed to open with limited staff and under strict vigilance, a shortfall is likely as the manufacturing units are working with only 25 percent to 30 percent of their capacities due to manpower problems, availability of the raw materials and the transportation issues.   

Ensuring continued food security is key
In a pandemic situation, several scenarios can crop up that may alter one’s access to food items. While domestic produce may fall, there will be limited options to fill the gap by importing food items as other countries globally are no better – it is likely that challenges of logistics bottlenecks and less production of high-value commodities, i.e. fruits and vegetables are likely to be affected the most, with small-scale farmers at the receiving end of the economic loss that will also jeopardise their access to food and nutrition. Market closures, hoarding of food, fuel, and other basic necessities, merchant and trader speculation, food spoilage in fields due to disrupted transportation systems, economic impacts on households and businesses such as inflation, rising unemployment, loss of land and leases that may result in tenants’ distress are only a few.

Authorities should prepare for food shortages and identify households and regions most at risk of food insecurity, encourage households to increase food production, preservation, and stockpiling and distribute short-cycle seeds, provide agricultural extension for the same, and hold community meetings to plan food sharing. Behavioural alterations such as nudging households to save a portion of their wages, take an inventory of available food and crops in the municipality, and constructing community and household food storage facilities should also be encouraged. They should make sure foods acquired for emergency distribution meet nutritional needs, and educate households about proper water treatment and storage and the need for increased hygiene.

While the government's move to allocate funds has come as a solace to the poorer section of the society, it will be important to bring behavioural change in people so that they are considerate towards the need of others and avoid creating a situation that may lead to food insecurity.

(Views expressed in the article are author’s own.)

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