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Rome — Together with medical services and transportation, farming and food production have been correctly identified as ‘essential services’ by all countries under lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic has not yet made a dent in the food supply and so far, there are no reports of shortage of essential food and agricultural goods. All cities and towns are actively coordinating with government agencies, farms, businesses and transport companies to maintain the supply chain and ensure full availability of food for the population,
However, despite the efforts, farm gate prices have crashed, there is a drastic drop in demand and farmers recognize that they are facing a substantial economic loss as fruits, vegetables, fish or meat have to be discarded due to the lockdown. There are warnings about the shortage of labor to harvest seasonal fruits and crops due to the restrictions in movements, fear and uncertainty. Should the lockdown continue for long, one expects price fluctuation, food crisis and a further exacerbation of hunger around the world. A similar spike in food prices and food crisis was experienced in 2008, although that was for different reasons. This is the overall situation and the basic fact is that no country, rich or poor, has ready capacity to handle an emergency that requires a ‘whole-of-country approach’ all at once. It is becoming clear that the ground reality is very different for different metropolis, cities, towns and villages. Therefore, in a relatively short period since the onset of the pandemic, a range of innovative approaches and targeted, strategies have been developed and being employed to ensure food production and supply across the value chain.
For instance, in Wuhan an efficient, closely monitored and executed food procurement and e-distribution strategy was in play through its food outlets, supermarkets and home deliveries. It was supported by a robust digital architecture for operation at scale and there appears to be no major hiccups in food supply for its 11 million inhabitants. In Rome, there is a spike in the online ecosystem- something that was a modest initiative before the pandemic. Local agri-preneurs have increased and expanded their range of e-services and door-deliveries of farm products through innovative ways. In Delhi, swift policy measures have been deployed to avert food hoarding and cash support for farmers, incentives to ensure staggered transport of harvests among others.Similar innovative measures and new ways of working are being used and can be widely adopted for long-term recovery.
By all counts, three points seem to be of utmost priority. First, the role of government agencies must be reinforced decisively. The pandemic is bound to hit crop cycle, availability of inputs, storage and the entire farm value chain and the governments will need to coordinate and monitor an efficient, flexible strategy to handle the fall out. Public sector agencies have to be empowered to be able to provide the administrative network and infrastructural support needed for operating at scale. This would include for disbursal of resources, engaging the private sector, regulatory support, and managing externalities in line with the national priorities.
Secondly, food security should be the top concern. Having access to nutritious basic food for all the citizens can become a challenge especially for countries that rely on imports, when shipments are halted or borders are closed. Overall, lack of labor, lack of inputs or lack of finance and subsidies can all lead to major disruptions in the production cycle. More emphasis can be on developing and sustaining local food production that can be a lifeline during and after the pandemic. Such efforts must be sustainable, built on good practices and expanded to provide income, occupation at least at the local level. Natural resources, especially soil, water and agro-biodiversity should not be degraded any further.
Finally, agriculture has to embrace digital tools more quickly. Although online applications have been influencing many aspects of the society, it has not yet been given a priority in the agriculture sector. The pandemic has shown the immense value of digital tools and agriculture cannot be left behind. Especially for countries where food production and supply involves many smallholder farmers systematic application of digital tools can support sustainable production, quality control, price support and timely supply. Estonia operates fully online and an example on how to manage the transition. Better connectivity can unlock wider opportunities for the governments and the farmers and smallholder communities. This is the path to the future.
Sustainable Agriculture Management Team, FAO