Food Security in the Post COVID World
In the initial times of Covid-19 pandemic that is causing tremendous economic and social pain all round, the old maxim “Jaan hai to Jahan hai” (if one is alive, there is a world) was prophesied as the motto of future by the people in the know.
As we experienced the virus over the last two months and have seen its ferocity, we have accepted that we cannot help but live with it for the time being. Time taught us that life with the virus is rather “Jaan bhi, Jahaan bhi” — life also, world also. The post-Covid-19 world is an unknown unknown. We now scramble to find answers to this unknown not sure about its nature and extent.
As a consequence of this pandemic, the International Monetary Fund projects the steepest decline of global gross domestic product since the Great Depression of 1930s which caused severe poverty, inflation and unemployment. The greatest challenge as we move to a new normal life after the lockdown is to provide food supplies to the teeming millions of people in our country. Recently we have seen only one facet of it in the population bereft of employment migrating from urban centers to their homes in rural areas. As their fate hangs by a thread caused by industrial and agricultural disruptions, more problems await them as well as us due to changing business models and disappearing jobs. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in its May 2020 update on the world scenario states that food availability as well as food access could emerge as a serious concern – in both rural and urban areas. As the situation evolves, there is a real concern about the growing risk of famine in some countries, potentially even several famines occurring simultaneously.
Due to this pandemic the Indian rural population faces a number of common risks. In view of reduced incomes and limited market access planting of crops is affected; lack of seasonal labour has caused harvesting disruption; movement restrictions cause reduction in transportation to markets; and constrained markets due to lockdowns, physical distancing and lower purchasing power. Responding to these challenges require urgent action. Critical agricultural seasons must be met, harvesting activities, livestock movements for pasture and water cannot be delayed.
We cannot wait until the health crisis is resolved to tackle the impending food crisis. FAO warns that anticipatory action to safeguard livelihoods and increase access to food is urgently needed to prevent a food crisis. It is not just more cost effective than waiting to rebuild livelihoods and communities later, it is more humane and respectful of the dignity of the millions of people. Meanwhile natural disasters caused by floods, cyclones and droughts will aggravate the problem.
Assam is currently experiencing the first wave of this year’s flood wreaking havoc. To add to it the recent phenomenon of crop attack by desert locusts considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world is a cause of great worry as it is making deep inroads into the country posing a threat to crops as well as vegetation used for animal fodder. According to FAO a one square kilometre swarm of desert locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people. It has warned that these desert locusts are slated to come into India during the monsoon, allowing them to lay eggs for a further generation of breeding. If they persist, they could plunder during the key Kharif cropping season. FAO estimates the number of locusts could increase another 20 times during the upcoming rainy season if anti-locust operations are not stepped up, prompting fears of damage far greater than that caused in the 2019-20 cycle. Thus we may be witnessing at least a triple whammy on food security during this year exacerbating the impact of ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on marginalized families in the country.
Food security is a complex, multifaceted issue influenced by culture, environment and geographical location of a country. Food security of a country can be assessed under the following categories - affordability, availability, quality and safety, and natural resources and resilience - with accompanying metrics. While the meaning of the first three is easily understood, the fourth parameter captures climate-related and natural resource risks to food security. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) through its Global Food Security Index (GFSI) has created a country-level food-security measurement tool which has become a policy benchmark for governments and a country diagnostic tool for investment.
In a key finding of this latest report covering 113 countries it observes that the percentage of cultivated land equipped for irrigation is inadequate to meet global needs with less than 10% of agricultural land equipped for irrigation in 70% countries. Another crucial finding is that public expenditure on agriculture is stagnant. UN data indicate that relative spending or government investment on agriculture compared with the sector’s contribution to GDP has declined globally since the early 2000s, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. On this parameter India too has a very weak score. It also observes that global food prices are rising worldwide. Through this report India’s very weak performance on protein quality and GDP per capita is noticeable while on agricultural infrastructure, import tariffs, corruption and dietary diversity it performs poorly. India ranks within bottom ten out of 23 countries in the Asia & Pacific region with an overall 72nd rank in this list of 113 countries of the world.
Challenges posed by Covid-19 pandemic have spurred some countries to take issues of food security to a new level through innovative policies. Singapore is consistently ranked on the top of the EIU GFSI list. In an immediate response to the Covid-19 crisis, its government has accelerated funding for local farms to grow more and grow faster over the next 6-24 months, according to the Singapore Food Agency.
As the country produces very little of its requirement, the agency in an April 20 statement said that it has tapped 170 countries for its food. It has adopted a three pronged strategy on food security - to diversify the nation’s food sources, support companies to grow overseas and lift domestic production. Similarly Kuwait has moved to strengthen its food security through increased international cooperation and investment in agriculture technology. It invested $100 million in a regional startup Pure Harvest for constructing high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses to produce fruits and vegetables. As the pandemic puts pressure on international trade and global supply chains, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recently adopted a proposal to create a joint food supply network across the bloc.
Every country has its own specific areas of strengths and weaknesses. Linking farmers to markets is very important for reducing wastage as well as guaranteeing fair price to the farmers. An Indian online platform Ninjacart, connects farmers, manufacturers and brands, and processes over 1400 tonnes of food a day. Digital platforms for Farm-to-Table solutions are required to increase supply chain efficiency.
Improving hunger data collection and analysis for effective response; maintaining food production, ramping up support to post-production activities, like harvesting, storage; small-scale food processing and conservation; and raising awareness on COVID-19 transmission risks for people keeping food supply chains alive are the need of the hour. We must ensure that no one should die out of hunger.
(The author is am an engineering professional working in an oil & gas major in Kuwait. The views expressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)