4 years ago

Mitigating Covid-19 impacts on food and agriculture

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The coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to wreak havoc on many countries. National lockdown strategy, as a panacea, has been adopted by all countries. This strategy imposed a plethora of Covid-19 protecting measures (such as border closures, restrictions of movement, closures of restaurants, community quarantines, and market, supply chain and trade disruptions) that have significantly affected agricultural production, food supply, and demand.

Globally, around 820 million people are experiencing chronic hunger - not eating enough caloric energy to live healthy lives. They are highly vulnerable to any disruptions to their livelihoods or access to food. Likewise, small-scale farmers are vulnerable as they are hindered from working on their land/accessing markets to sell their products or buy seeds and other essential inputs. Evidence indicates that quarantines and panic during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Sierra Leone (2014-2016), for example, led to a spike in hunger and malnutrition.

Protectionist measures across the globe could aggravate the Covid-19 impact. Vietnam, for example, the world's third-biggest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended rice export contracts. Kazakhstan, the biggest source of wheat, has banned exports of wheat flour. Advocates say "trade barriers will create extreme volatility." Panic-buying disrupts food distribution. As Covid-19 spreads, many are stockpiling staples temporarily, leaving markets empty.

Agricultural economists are concerned about the current and imminent implications of Covid-19. The food supply chain is a complex web that involves producers, agricultural inputs, transportation, processing plants, shipping etc. As of now, disruptions are minimal as food supply has been adequate, and markets have been stable. Experts opine that current blockages to transport routes, transport restrictions and quarantine measures, shortages of labour, and spikes in product's prices are obstructive for fresh food supply chains and might also result in increased levels of food loss and waste. These obstructions are likely to impede farmers' access to markets, curbing their productive capacities, and hindering them from selling their produce. Shortages of labour could disrupt the production and processing of food, notably for labour-intensive crops.

Covid-19 could affect food demand in various ways. Usually, when reduced income and uncertainty make people spend less and result in shrinking demand. In the period of lockdown, people are less visiting food markets that affect their food choice (buying more cereal crops) and consumption, i.e., a rise in eating at home. Food demand is linked to income. Hence, poor people's loss of income-earning opportunities could impact on consumption.

Agricultural production and trade are likely to be affected by the policy measures (e.g., implementing higher controls on cargo vessels) aimed at avoiding the further spread of Covid-19. Moreover, production could be hampered due to restrictions of free movement of people as well as a shortage of seasonal workers. These barriers ultimately affect market prices.

It is high time to determine the risks and impacts of Covid-19 on food security, nutrition, and agriculture and to take proactive measures. The social and economic costs of Covid-19 are huge (and still unfolding).

Meeting the immediate food needs of vulnerable people is a vital measure of addressing Covid-19 impacts. Emergency food needs can be ensured by distributing food to the most vulnerable families (beggars, day labourers, rickshaw pullers, van pullers, transport workers, restaurants workers, and small roadside tea stall owners) and improving communication on access points for food deliveries, distribution times, and measures to reduce the risks. The government must take steps for several sectors or groups. For instance, farmers who are involved with crab, shrimp, and fish production face several export bans that have substantial economic loss.

Boosting social protection programmes are crucial to protect incomes and  purchasing power, particularly for the most affected households. Government should provide conditional or unconditional cash transfers, public works programmes that help reduce unemployment; or policies/monitoring aimed at stabilising food prices, and protecting incomes from damaging out-of-pocket healthcare costs by ensuring coverage of essential health services. The central bank could inject funds in the agricultural sector through a grant facility, which might help agro-based micro, small & medium enterprises (SMEs), casual labourers, and low salaried people.

Avoiding trade restrictions (that restrict trade and mobility of commodities) would be beneficial to keep food, feed, and input supplies. The UN's food body has warned: "protectionist measures by governments during the coronavirus crisis could provoke food shortages around the world." Active measures are required for reducing food waste and losses, providing subsidies for food consumers, and reducing import tariffs. Moreover, the government could temporarily reduce VAT and other taxes, review taxation policy on imported goods to compensate for potential cost increases, and assess exchange devaluation's potential impacts.

Mitigating Covid-19 impact essentially needs assessment. This assessment could anticipate and mitigate the pandemic's impacts on people's food security and livelihoods. It also would contribute to discussions on reducing Covid-19's effects on food and agriculture as well as to determine what assistance the Bangladesh government requires from the development partners, e.g., FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), UNDP  (United Nations Development Programme), and the World Bank.

In the short term, the Bangladesh government needs to invest in protecting vulnerable peoples' incomes through targeted social protection programmes to counteract economic adversity. In the longer term, the country has to invest wisely that diversifies the economy away from commodity dependence, which reduces economic vulnerabilities and builds capacity to withstand and recover from economic downturn.

Ranjan Roy, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System a Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.

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