COVID-19 and food insecurity

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, about 113 million people worldwide were suffering from severe acute food insecurity even before the COVID-19 crisis started.

The United Nations World Food Programme estimates about 265 million people worldwide could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020. These depressing figures are more likely to increase as disruptions in agricultural production, supply and labour market do not show any sign of returning to normalcy soon.

Nepal too is not spared from the current crisis, and currently in its 66 days of nationwide lockdown, about one sixth of the population (4.9 million) people are food insecure, and the corona crisis can significantly increase this proportion.

The lockdown has especially affected people reliant on daily wages without an income. The prices of majority of foodstuffs have sharply increased, reducing the people’s purchasing power, and many poor people have been forced out of their business and houses for being unable to pay their rent and loans.

Children in some vulnerable communities are already experiencing an acute form of malnutrition, while the outcomes of poor dietary habits are yet to be seen.

About one fourth of Nepal’s GDP is contributed by remittance, and many families depend on the money family members send home for a living. Remittance is expected to drop significantly, and the permanent return of millions of Nepalis working abroad will heighten families’ struggle to put food on the table. Also, it is unlikely that citizens will be able to travel abroad for work anytime soon as the labour destinations will be focussed on their own internal labour management.

The upcoming rice/wheat planting season is also expected to face disruption because of the obstruction in agricultural supplies. Seasonal workers are stranded at the southern border, but the government does not appear to have any plan to bring its nationals home safely.

The future looks bleak, and it should surprise none if we see riots and fights for food in the streets if the current situation lingers on for some months. Representative events are already being seen in some districts, where disgruntled people are demanding food from their local administrative offices, and the wave of protests will only spill over to other districts if things are not managed properly. Hence, devising short-term and long-term strategies to overcome food insecurity and prevent hunger and starvation should be the government’s priority.

Elected local government bodies should be mobilised to address the needs of the people at this time of crisis through coordination, cooperation and co-existence with the federal government. The local bodies claim that they are distributing food in sufficient quantities to the people to meet their immediate needs, but many reports state otherwise. There are reports of political favouritism during food distribution, which should not have happened.

The government would do well to start food banks so that sufficient food can be distributed as insufficient food supply is likely due to labour shortage and change in global food prices. Depending upon the necessity, food vouchers could also be distributed so that families can buy food as per their wish or need. Social protection and security of agricultural labourers through incentives, insurance and motivation, mobile technical services (agriculture ambulance) and urban and peri-urban kitchen gardening and rooftop kitchen gardening should be promoted.

Local land banks for utilising barren land and stopping land fragmentation, consolidated, cooperative-based agriculture and subsidy to the agriculture sector are of great importance when job opportunities are least and food insecurity is on the rise.

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture has emphasised on five points in the current budget for the fiscal year 2077/78. They are subsidy to agriculture input, cheap and reasonable loans, technical service to all farmers, livestock and crop insurance, guaranteeing minimum savings, and use of barren land for enhancing agricultural productivity. The programmes are promising, but implementation remains a challenge as they require coordination with the different government bodies.

Labour reform issues, especially concerning agricultural labourers and bonded labourers, have not been well addressed. There are no comprehensive elements technically to revitalise the rural agricultural system and economy. Provision of community food bank, seed bank and land bank could have been devised to overcome the current crisis in the agricultural sector. Moreover, politically, the programme lacks a political perspective for addressing redistributive reforms and historical injustices for the most marginalised groups. This is, therefore, the right time to correct the past mistakes. COVID-19 should awaken us to resolve the ignored and neglected chronic agrarian issues that have persisted for so long.

While considering the newly introduced federal governance and three tiers of government, the central government should support the provincial and local governments in line with the basic principle of the constitution. The local governments have already initiated some exemplary works on their own, but the provincial government is confused about devising innovative programmes. The local governments are competent enough to deal with the local situation and service delivery. The technical competency of the federal and provincial government will complement their effort.

The following areas should be critically analysed: The domestic food supply system to understand the food supply system, food deficit, food supply chain, agriculture labourers, social protection package and programme for poor and agricultural labourers. And, assessment of the COVID-19 impact on the food supply system is an immediate need as it can gauge the potential food crisis and lay the groundwork for sustainable solutions. The impact assessment report should become the base document for formulating post-COVID 19 agricultural programmes and policies.

Despite the challenges, the current context also offers an opportunity to improve subsistence farming, engage millions of returnee workers in the agricultural sector, re-shape the policy to make our food system resilient, and change the injustices in the land, labour and food policies. This will ultimately contribute to creating a food secure society.

Nepali is Associate Professor at Kathmandu University School of Management and Bishukhey is a PhD student in public health at University of Basel, Switzerland