In the wake of lockdowns and supply chain disruptions, a potential food crisis loomsSince Nepal relies almost entirely on imports of chemical fertilisers, any disruption to the supply chain could quickly escalate into a food crisis, say experts.
On March 31, the heads of three global agencies warned of a potential worldwide food shortage if countries failed to ensure food security while enacting measures to control the spread of Covid-19.
“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” said the joint text signed by the heads of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO).
For countries like Nepal, which rely almost entirely on imports for agricultural inputs, the restrictions that many countries, including India, have imposed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic could quickly trigger a food crisis, say experts.
"As around a third of the population around the world is on lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the global supply chain and production have all broken down," said Rameshore Khanal, a former secretary at the Finance Ministry. "Nepal may also feel the pain sooner or later. We need to be well prepared."
Global crises tend to have ripple effects on almost all sectors, but especially agriculture and food production. World food prices increased dramatically in 2007 and the first and second quarters of 2008, leading to political and economic instability and social unrest. The crisis was a result of severe droughts in major rice producing counties and an increase in fuel prices.
"In 2007 and 2008, the markets were dictated by powerful suppliers and the price reached alarmingly unprecedented levels," said Khanal. "A global food crisis is emerging again and this time, it's not due to inadequate production but a result of the breakdown in supply chains.”
There are total lockdowns in a number of countries, including Nepal and India, forcing farmers, field hands, transporters and produce sellers indoors during the peak springtime harvest season. Without workers, produce is rotting in the fields, increasing the threat of food insecurity, according to Khanal.
The agriculture sector, which contributes 27 percent to the country's GDP, has already been affected by a comparatively low summer output, of paddy in particular, caused by the delayed monsoon, floods and disease.
Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has further dampened the prospects of a good winter harvest and the beginning of spring cultivation.
Last week, Indian rice traders decided to stop signing new export contracts amid the nationwide lockdown instituted by the Narendra Modi government to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Their decision was triggered by labour shortages and logistical disruptions, as all workers have been forced indoors.
Subodh Kumar Gupta, president of the Association of Nepalese Rice, Oil and Pulse Industries, had told the Post that the supply of rice in the country will not be immediately affected as there are adequate rice stocks with Nepali mills and the market to last around three months, and farmers too have paddy stocks.
"But now, it seems all countries will extend the lockdown indefinitely and this means key producers like India will not immediately open up their food trade," said Ram Krishna Regmi, chief statistician at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development.
In Nepal's context, two factors will determine whether there is a food crisis.
"The monsoon is the obvious first factor. The course of the economy as well as food security depends entirely on the monsoon as we have a rain-fed agricultural system," said Regmi. “Second is the availability of chemical fertilisers as Nepal is a net importer of this vital farm input.”
But things are uncertain, said Regmi, as the pandemic has thrown the entire world into chaos, disrupting entire industries and supply chains.
"We don’t know if global fertiliser companies will manufacture and export at a time of crisis and a severe shortage of manpower," he said. "If the farm sector encounters even one of those problems, then a food crisis is imminent. We eat rice and without rain and fertiliser, it's impossible to grow rice."
The agriculture ministry said that the poultry and dairy sectors have already been hit hard by the lockdown.
“And fresh vegetables are not getting to the market,” said Regmi.
Due to adequate winter rain, the ministry had expected an increase of more than 10 percent in wheat production but losses are now likely, as tens of thousands of farmers are indoors as wheat ripens in thousands of hectares of land across the country.
The lockdown may also impact the ongoing plantation of spring paddy. And if the lockdown continues into the next few months, the main paddy plantation that normally begins from early May in the hills and early June in the Tarai will also be impacted.
But with many labour migrants returning to the country due to the downturn in the global economy, which is expected to linger even when the pandemic subsides, there is an opportunity for Nepal, said Khanal, the former finance secretary.
“Yes, a large proportion of labour migrants to India, the Gulf, Malaysia and elsewhere will be returning home and they will need jobs,” said Khanal. "The government should introduce targeted schemes for them to turn the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity to make the country self-sufficient in food production."
The government should develop three strategies: for production, processing and storage, said Khanal.
For example, there is currently no link between villages and the urban markets and vegetables may rot in the field. But these vegetables can be dried and stored so that they can be used in the upcoming months.
"This way, we can save farmers and ensure food security," said Khanal.
Nepal imported agricultural goods worth more than Rs220 billion last fiscal year. The country imports around 600,000 tonnes of rice, 400,000 tonnes of maize and 100,000 tonnes of wheat.
The ministry said that Nepal currently has a food deficit of around 600,000 tonnes, which is primarily met by imports from India.