COVID-19 Pandemic: Its impact on agriculture and food supply

How damaging the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic turn out to be for food security, nutrition and the livelihood of farmers, fishers and others working along the food supply chain will depend in large part on policy response over the short, medium and the long terms.


The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that is already having a devastating impact on the World economy - both directly and through necessary measures to contain the spread of the disease. These impacts are also being felt by the food and agriculture sector, while the supply of food has held up well to contain the disease in many countries. The measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus are starting to disrupt the supply of agro-food products to markets and consumers both within and across borders. The sector is also experiencing a substantial shift in the composition and - for some commodities - the level of damage. How damaging these impacts turn out to be for food security, nutrition and the livelihood of farmers, fishers and others working along the food supply chain will depend in large part on policy response over the short, medium and the long terms.

India is home to about 120 million smallholder farmers who contribute over 40 per cent of the country’s grain production and over half of its fruits, vegetables, oilseeds and other crops. Much of the global share of food staples such as rice and wheat come from India and almost half of the population in India depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Every year, Indian farmers face risks such as low rainfall, price volatility and rising debts. But risks from Covid-19 pandemic are putting new challenges in front of a sector that is already under threat. The Manipur statewide lockdown come as an unfortunate time for farmers as it is the sowing season for the Kharif crop. The lockdown/curfew created both a shortage of labor and equipment - migrant laborers in India usually move to rural areas during sowing time and harvest and smallholder farmers often rent agricultural equipment as it is cheaper than purchasing it.

During the nationwide lockdown last year, farmers had not been able to harvest their buffer crops of cereal and oilseed. In some places the crops have been abandoned while in others the harvest is coming more than a month late, in hand with limited and more expensive labor. In addition, it was estimated that although India’s food bank had more than three times the minimum operational buffer in stock, supply and access is a critical issue. Long supply chains have been severely affected, especially at the beginning of the lockdown when transport was restricted. Drivers abandoned trucks full of produce in the middle of interstate highways. Markets eventually started running short of supplies; owing to food rolling in transit or never making it to point of sale. ITC’s Agribusiness team has been responding to the situation by using its digital advisory application ‘’e-Chau pal’’ to procure produce. E-Chau pal provides information to farmers about market prices etc., to allow them to make well-informed decisions and fetch completive prices in the markets.

In these challenging times, when the regular transport and markets have not been functioning, ITC utilised their already existing e-Chau pal infrastructure and networks to procure farm produce directly from farmer locations and introduced supply chain interventions like multi-point rake movement to ensure uninterrupted movement of produce. In the first few days of the lockdown, consumers resorted to panic buying and hoarding essentials such as flour, rice, sugar and oil. Price of sugar rose in cities when supplies were limited and fell in other places due to oversupply. Gradually, with logistical restrictions, markets fell short of supplies and the prices of these commodities increased. But the farmgate price of fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and poultry in India have crashed because of lower demand. Another issue that is cause for concern is the availability and access to seed, fertilizers and pesticides for the next crop season. Same thing is happening in Manipur too. The vegetables produced from certain areas of Manipur have been completely damaged due to lockdown which causes disappointment among the farmers in Manipur and the government has not taken up any remedial steps to address the grievances of the smallholder farmers so far. MOMA just taunted the farmers for sometime but now its activity is a stone in the water now. At the same time due to scarce rainfall, many parts of Manipur are still facing scarcity of water for agricultural practices.

Failure of Irrigation system and RLIs and also big issue of fertilizer distribution is talk of the day and frontline stories of many local dailies and electronic media. Post the Ravi harvest in April, farmers prepare for the next (Kharif) season in May. However, the Covid-19 induced disruptions have reduced production capacity for farm inputs and have led to an increase in price, making these resources inaccessible to small holders and marginal farmers in the state in particular and in the country in general. The non-stop increase in fuel price (Petroleum products) again put salt to the injury of the farmers as they are unable to bear the heavy cost for the mechanized agricultural equipment due to the hike in oil price. While large land holding farmers and businesses may be able to weather these shocks, they put enormous pressure on smallholders who work with limited resources and income. Resuming business operations will be key to ensuring harvest security in the coming season.

We have seen several businesses such as Yara International stepping up to support the sector. Yara International worked with the local government authorities in India, their vendors supplies and the transporters to resume operations albeit at low capacity. Their operations are critical for supplying seeds and inputs to farmers for the next cropping season and their liaison efforts with their key stakeholders helped instill confidence to resume operations along the input supply chain. But this activity is a big question for Manipur. Whether the state government is in touch or not with such agency?

The Covid -19 crisis is not permanent but it has magnified the vulnerabilities already present in the food system in India. Taking stock of the issues can help government and businesses create stronger, more resilient supply chains and measures to support smallholder farmers who are critical to the food supply chain. The pandemic has also highlighted the potential public health crisis awaiting rural India and farming communities. Basic preventive measures such as regular hand washing, social distancing and self-isolation pose a unique challenge for rural communities. In a country which is already water -scarce and where there is irregular water supply in many areas both rural and urban, repeated handwashing is a luxury that cannot be put into practice. In addition, social distancing and isolation are a huge challenge for farming communities who rely on daily labor and wages for their substance. As we adjust to a new normal and ‘’ business unusual’’ it is imperative for predominantly agrarian countries like India to leverage the lessons from the pandemic and severe impacts it has had on the farming community.

There are certain key lessons which need urgent attention since they have medium to long term implications on India’s food system. The effect of medium to long term implications also could add up to impact the global food system although it seems for now that the global food system is coping well with the crisis through swapping sources and rerouting supplies. The threat of the coronavirus for India is far over but the leader realizes the need for the economy to start functioning. Yet it is now understood that business -as- usual is a thing of the past.

As we build ‘’new normal’’ we will need to be innovative in our thinking and ensure that our efforts to rebuild our sensitivity to the needs and circumstances of smallholder farmers. In this way we can protect and support the resilience of the local food supply, while also taking steps to ensure future systematic shocks can be handled quickly and effectively. In the short term, the government must manage multiple demands- responding to the health crisis, managing the consequences of the shock to the economy and ensuring the smooth functioning of the food system. While the pandemic poses some serious challenges for the food system in the short term, it is also an opportunity to accelerate transformations in the food and agriculture sector to build its resilience in the face of a range of challenges, including climate change.  

(The views expressed are the writer's own)


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First Published:July 26, 2021, 1 p.m.

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