Ram Hari Timilsina
Agriculture and Forestry University, Nepal
Prof Surya Kant Ghimire, PhD
Agriculture and Forestry University
12 May 2020 I Agricultural activities in Nepal have been heavily affected by the fear of COVID-19 transmission, enforced lockdown and mandatory social distancing. Despite Nepalese government’s decision to ease the flow of agricultural inputs, the ground reality is quite different. Agricultural markets hardly open. Farmers feel devastated as they are unable to harvest their crops.
Impact on agriculture and food security
A serious effect of the ongoing lockdown is being felt by farmers growing perishable products. Nepalese vegetable and banana growers, for instance, are worried that if the condition persists, their crops would ripen and rot on the plant. While rainfall at this time raises hope for the new season, the complications arising out of the lockdown have put on stop to any preparatory agricultural work for the upcoming season.
In addition, the shortage of raw materials for the agro-based industries indicates that thousands of people could lose their jobs. Such an immense impact on the agricultural sector, on which more than 66 percent of people depend, and which contributes around 26 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), would aggravate poverty-related problems and affect Nepalese economy.
The prolonged effect of COVID-19 could force neighboring countries like China and India, to impose a ban on food exports. For instance, last year, the Indian government prohibited the export of onion to Nepal due to inadequate supply in their market. Even at present low supply is causing market prices are skyrocketing. Therefore, COVID-19 has taught that every nation should have its own food security strategy at the local level so as to be resilient to the catastrophe.
Recently, Government of Nepal has declared five notable policies to combat the adversities brought about by COVID-19. However, implementing this declaration demands pragmatic efforts from the Government. Since distribution of relief packages is not going as expected raising another critical issue for the needy, a database built on certain criteria that can distinguish the really needy farmers is the first thing to be done.
Need for COVID-19 impact assessment
Assessment of the impact on food security is the immediate need as it explains the potential food crisis and lays the groundwork for sustainable solutions. When the pandemic subsides, millions of Nepalese might return from abroad which would further escalate the food and job demand. It would aggravate the already critical unemployment and food security problem. Some of the potential impacts we are currently witnessing in the country are discussed below.
Cereal, fruits, and vegetable crops
COVID-19 is affecting the availability of inputs such as chemical fertilizers, irrigation, pesticides necessary for crops like maize and spring rice. Wheat harvesting faces complications, as most of the combined harvesters and their operators used in the past were from India. Significant amount of paddy produced in the country is exported across the southern border to India, which then is processed and re-imported in the form of refined rice packets. In this crisis, the government needs to cut off any paddy export.
Where the country’s domestic production is being left to rot on the farmers’ field, vegetable and fruit import hasn’t stopped. The recent initiative of the agriculture-ambulance brought in by Province-5 of Nepal for door to door marketing can prove to be a real lifesaver in this dire situation. Similarly, governments’ initiatives of digital marketing and provision of incentives for the abandoned land cultivation are praiseworthy and should persist.
Shortage of feed and treatment facilities during the lockdown has severely reduced milk production. There has been a sharp decline in milk purchase by the dairy industries. Furthermore, farmers are unable to market their dairy products which have led to a movement to dump the milk on the roads. The quick fix is to coordinate and facilitate the treatment, transportation and marketing of milk by the local government. Besides, to protect the dairy business, grants based on per unit production should be given to farmers. It is important to help set up micro-enterprises immediately, which would prioritize the production of dry meat, frozen meat, cheese, ghee, etc., from surplus.
The self-reliant poultry business has been hit hard, time and again due to calamities such as bird flu. Chickens and eggs are being disposed due to scarcity of feed and market. The collapse of this enterprise would brutally affect agricultural gross domestic production (AGDP) along with the employment of tens of thousands of labour. A reasonable grant program would help to contain this enterprise which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Furthermore, the interest and installment payment schedule of banks should be revised.
Currently, farmers are unable to move bees for grazing and the government seems to be clueless. Due to the high cost of production, domestic honey fails to compete with foreign ones. Therefore, the current 17 percent customs tariff should be increased to safeguard the local honey market. Arrangements can be made to provide wood for beehives to the farmers on subsidy.
Dealing with the impact
To address the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture and food security, we suggest some of the following measures – to be taken by a range of stakeholders.
Utilization of local seeds, bio-pesticides and fertilizers
Local governments should immediately bring incentive programmes that encourage farmers to use locally available improved seeds. If the State can ensure marketing even by investing in farmers’ seed production, the current seed dependency on multinational companies would be reduced. The use of local plants to produce botanical pesticides and fertilizer from municipal waste are ways to reduce import dependency.
E-Extension advisory services
In order to transfer the appropriate agricultural technology, farmers and agriculture experts should be brought together in a virtual platform to have discussions on recent agricultural innovations. In a shortage of agricultural experts, professors and students of agriculture universities can also be involved to transfer the technologies.
Use of abandoned lands and early maturing varieties
With the increase in out-migration, the abandonment of arable land in Nepal is increasing. The fertile lands of the Terai and hills are left uncultivated because of the nefarious scheming of real estate agents. With the looming food crisis, each local government should make arrangements to use the concept of land banks to provide land to the farmers. Currently, to overcome the food crisis, early maturing crop varieties should be identified and recommended by the agriculture offices.
Emphasis on consumption of local products and zero food waste
Loan packages at subsidized rates could spur youths to be agri-entrepreneurs. Local level agri-enterprises are the key for consistent food supply and local economy development. Both in villages and cities, campaigns like home gardening and roof farming should be expanded to ensure food self-sufficiency. The food scarcity can be minimized by consumption of indigenous and local underutilized native crops. These crops require less labour, inputs and are found resilient to cope up with disasters including COVID-19 at the time when there is halt on labour movement and exotic inputs transportation.
Nepal has already worked through various long-term and short-term strategies, but an immediate strategy is required to overcome this dire situation and its consequences. Various agricultural initiatives, such as the Agricultural Perspective Plan (APP) were interrupted due to corruption, political turmoil, and bureaucracy. The ongoing Prime Minister-Agriculture Modernization Project (PM-AMP) too isn’t untouched by controversy. However, the pandemic brings unique opportunities along with bitter challenges. Implementation of relief packages on such a great level will necessarily call for a strong will and high morale together with strict monitoring and discipline. If all three newly formed strata of federal government work in an integrated manner, the famine that the pandemic threatens to deliver can be avoided.
In this hour of great need there is no excuse for any negligence, excuse, or procrastination because earlier calamities like earthquake are nowhere like COVID-19. Thus, sustainable agricultural production is more important than ever. Regulations on imports and exports along with the food banking system are required to protect people in this crisis. If the natural agricultural process is interrupted there will be consequences more disastrous than the virus itself. We need to act and we need to act fast – because agriculture must never stop.