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Averting an agricultural crisis: Setting Food And Nutrition Systems right during Covid-19 times

by Nafees Meah, Prakashan Chellattan Veettil and  Basanta Kumar Kar (Recipient of Global Nutrition Leadership Award and a Transform Nutrition Champion)

The exponential spread of the COVID-19 virus has forced many countries in the developed and developing world to take unprecedented policy and regulatory measures, such as the temporary lockdown of the entire country in order to break the chain of transmission. These restrictions have imposed a complete or partial shutdown of their production, manufacturing, and service economies.

A 21-day lockdown in India was announced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 25th of March and is scheduled to last until the 15th of April. Although rice production and value chain associated activities were exempted as essential services, the lockdown is seriously impacting the entire agricultural sector, and the rice agri-food system in particular. For example, many rice mills across the country have stopped working due to disrupted supply chains and shortage of workers. Managing logistics, labour, machinery, and services, especially during the current Rabi crop harvesting, will be one of the biggest short-term challenges India is likely to face.

A number of measures have been introduced by the Union and State Governments to alleviate hunger and provide income for the poor, and in particular farmers, during the course of the lockdown. These include a slew of exemptions and relaxations for agriculture and allied sectors; the provision of mid-day meals, supplementary nutrition, or food security allowances; and increased monthly quotas of subsidized food grains. Many states are going the extra mile, providing financial support to the vulnerable through monthly allowances to daily wage laborers using Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT). Given that there are substantial stocks of cereals held by the Food Corporation of India (over 70 million tons), there ought to be no immediate threat to food and nutrition security in the short term for those who are entitled to receive food under various social safety net and entitlement programs.

However, an issue that was not foreseen by policy makers was the mass return of migrant daily wage labourers from major metropoles back to their villages in the poorer states of northern and eastern India. Images of these scenes were broadcast around the world, of whole families trudging on foot hundreds or even thousands of miles back to their villages in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh. Many of these individuals left the cities because their families and their entitlements were in their home villages, and with the 21-day lockdown they were left without food, money, or shelter.

The mass migration of daily wage labourers and the loss of several million jobs in the formal and informal sectors are likely to result in a significant reduction in demand for high-value agricultural products in the short term. As well as impacting on the income of farmers, this may also affect the Micro-Small-Medium Enterprise (MSME) sector, and lead to a short-term impact on the nutrition of pregnant and lactating mothers (70,000 babies are born every day in India) and children under II years of age. This will come about as a result of the loss of dietary diversity as incomes of the poor decrease and also because of disruptions to the supply chain as mandis take time to reopen. These short-term effects are likely to occur even if the spread of COVID-19 is contained as a result of the lockdown.

The first 1,000 days of life, the time spanning between conception to two years of age, is a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and cognitive development across the lifespan are established. Pregnant and lactating mothers and children under II years of age need safe and nutritious food and adequate care during pregnancy.  If not prioritised during this pandemic period, it will be an irreversible loss of human capital potential for the newborns and infants.

The social distancing and isolation of the lockdown might also seriously affect the mental health of women smallholder farmers and pregnant women. They need support through psycho-social counselling and inter-intra household violence containment measures. (The mental health issues of pregnant mothers have a bearing on stunted children and low birth weight babies).

Under the scenario where the 21-day lockdown is deemed to be insufficient to curb the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government may decide to extend the lockdown (completely or partially and/or certain geographies identified as hotspots). Whether due to the exponential spread of COVID-19 or an extension of the lockdown, there is little doubt that considerable economic disruption will follow. Food and nutrition value chain disruptions and the impact on food and nutrition security is likely to be substantial. In areas where labour is available (such as Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, UP etc. – partly as a result of return migration of daily wage labourers from the cities) the wage rate is likely to fall. In Punjab and Haryana, on the other hand, which depend on migrant workers to harvest crops, labour shortages may disrupt harvesting of wheat or other Rabi crops and the planting of Kharif crops. This may lead to a shortage of food crops later in the year that may adversely affect food and nutrition security.

Loss of production, breakdown of value chains, disruption of markets and mandis, and global trade may eventually lead to a food and nutrition crisis. Finally, India is the leading rice exporter in the world and it may be hit hard by any disruption of the global rice trade if the COVID-19 outbreak continues to the end of the year.

From the number of articles and analyses that have been published in the media, leading Indian policy makers, academics, and thought leaders are alert to the fast approaching challenges to ensure food and nutrition security in 2020. It is a welcome move that the Government of India and state governments have been working to address the pandemic, issuing advisories and policy measures so that no one goes hungry and the agriculture sector continues to work without much disruption. It will be imperative that appropriate policy actions are taken to avert major adverse impacts and set the food and nutrition system right, along with measures on a pandemic-infection free India.