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Agriculture and COVID-19: problems and opportunities

Agriculture is the backbone of the Nepals’ economy. 

About 60.4% of the total population of Nepal is dependent on agriculture contributing to 31.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the agricultural sector is affected by various factors of low productivity, climate change, and lack of inputs and mechanization. 

In the current situational crisis of worldwide lockdown due to COVID-19, Nepal government has announced an enforced lockdown since 24th March 2020. This has aroused a worse situation in Nepal decreasing the country's GDP. The COVID-19 has affected the food supply chains and markets of Nepal. This has led to a direct effect on peoples’ day to day activities with disruption of consumption of nutritious and sufficient food. 

People are compelled to buy vegetables in higher amounts. The income of the households who depend on daily wage has been decreased which tends to increase food insecurity of individuals. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant effects on both production of agricultural products and its consumption due to shortage of agri-inputs. In addition, the lack of labour in the lockdown has affected the harvest of standing crops, sowing and transplanting of paddy that can reduce the products. Commercial farmers are also facing challenges to sell their products in the market and agricultural products are being wasted/destroyed and rotten on the field. 

COVID-19 pandemic has caused an irreparable loss of mankind all over the world. In the meantime, the pandemic has affected different sectors from health, education, agriculture, tourism, infrastructure etc. The poor and daily waged people are mostly affected and vulnerable in Nepal. The agricultural product industries are also affected as they are badly hampered by the availability of the labour who works on a daily basis. In such a crisis, it is utmost that an individual develops a resilient power to adapt to the changing context and conserve the existing food system during prolonged lockdown and disruptions of the food system. 

Prospects in the agricultural sector 

Amidst of COVID-19, as a global pandemic, there have been few prospects that arise from the crisis in the field of agriculture. The concept and engagement of an individual in-home garden and rooftop farming have been emerging ever since the people are confined to stay at home and there’s lack of excess nutritious vegetables. The farming practices of gardening of flowers and vegetables gained much importance where all the family members are actively engaged. Similarly, the importance of subsistence farming has emerged.

The group approach of farming has been a key highlight during the lockdown as the farmers who are producing the vegetables on a small scale are not getting priority. Either an individual needs to produce a huge amount of vegetables or join other groups in order to get his/her to produce a good price in the market. Even if the transportation has been made flexible, the wholesaler will resist loading the smaller amount of produce. So, there is a good opportunity to form and join a group approach in farming.  Similarly, the dried vegetables could be one of the options during the crisis to avoid the loss of the vegetables in the field. There are high importance and prioritization of the dried products of mushrooms, and vegetables etc. In livestock, it has been seen that the milk can be converted into milk products such as butter, ghee, cheese, paneer etc.

Due to COVID-19, there’s lack of labour to perform agricultural work in the farm like there’s difficulty in availability of the labour during the harvest of the standing crops along with sowing and transplanting. However, this has opened the door for the mechanization approach in the agricultural sector with transformational change where pieces of machinery can be used in the feasible areas having larger hectares of land to conduct agricultural activities such as the sowing of seeds to the harvesting of the crops. 

Due to the lack of availability of the products, people have felt the importance of local foods available in the village or residential area. Instead of struggling to search for improvised products, individuals are more interested in consuming local foods as they are more nutritious. Even for the cultivation of crops, people have started giving priority to the local seeds available in their area. They have used the seeds which they have saved in their home to some extent. The consumption of the local and indigenous products has increased resulting in the self-sufficiency of an individual. 

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has been identified as a major way out to connect the produce of the farmers to the markets. Due to lockdown, the transportation of produce has been affected. However, few initiatives of processing for the produce of the farmers have been informed and sold through ICT tools. The ICT tools are getting popular in crisis. Various mediums have been used where the farmers post their produce on social media and interested individuals contact them and receive the products in their home. This has created an awareness that ICT can be a good alternative to sell and inform people about the products of the farmers. Similarly, the use of ICT services to connect with the agricultural experts and extension workers would be good to bring transformational change in agriculture.

Despite huge losses in mankind affecting various sectors worldwide, an individual can also see the silver lining that can come over with the upliftment of lockdown due to COVID-19. As Nepal’s’ economy is agriculture-driven, hence a strategic plan and programmes could play an indispensable role to maintain the status in the agricultural sector. Every tier of government should align more the activities in agriculture so that it will be able to sustain self-sufficiency. 

Similarly, it has been assumed that a large number of migrants will return and engage in agriculture. Hence, proper policies, budget allocation, subsidies on inputs, products, and assured markets are utmost to see a revolution in agriculture despite COVID-19 crisis in Nepal. It’s important that a resilient food system needs to be developed with importance on the value chain that ensures the market of farmers' produce. 

Photo credit: Aastha Bhusal