Restraining COVID-19 impact on agriculture in Pakistan

739

Ghulam Abbas Shah

SPREAD of the novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) also known as COVID-19 within Pakistan cannot be separated from the rest of the world. Currently, numbers of infected people are growing exponentially and there is partial lockdown in the country. However, this should not be the case in future due to its mode of community spread. Hence, this outbreak will change the life style of millions of people in Pakistan, as 70% of the country population is directly or indirectly involved in agriculture. Therefore, overall performance of agriculture sector, as a whole, might be affected negatively. Although the current partial lockdown caused closure of educational institution and places of worship, unavailability of public transport facilities, partial restrictions on national and international flights and damaged daily wages labor financially but allowed people in the agriculture sector to go back to their jobs and for construction firms. Government of Pakistan announced 900 billion rupees relief package for low-income groups of people which includes 100 billion rupees for agriculture and SMEs. Whatever the scope and nature of the lockdown, the government has not been able to provide direct financial relief to poor small famers of Pakistan.
Rabi season crops like wheat, chickpea, lentil, brassica etc., in irrigated and rain-fed regions of Pakistan are at their harvesting stage and almost reached physiological maturity. This is the time when farmers’ commodities should reach the market for assured procurement operations by the government. However, there is a possibility of labor shortage during harvesting of crops due to restrictions in movement and transport within the cities and provinces. Repair and maintenance of the agro-based machinery and equipment at farms, institutions and various private and public organizations may be affected. Besides, the COVID-19 pandemic has created supply chain disruption and waste of perishable commodities, fruit, vegetable, milk, poultry and livestock products etc., both affecting fall of prices at production centers while increase of prices at market due to less supply as per law of demand and supply. Forage supply disruption at peri-urban areas to milking cattle may decrease milk production. On the other hand, there may be reduction in milk purchase while animal eating same amount of fodder. All this may cause financial losses to the already poor farmers. The upcoming sowing of Kharif crops like cotton, rice, groundnut, maize and mungbean might face irreparable damage due to shortage of labor, machinery, equipment, fertilizers and agro-chemicals during the period of pandemic. The crops will be severely damaged due to weeds, pests and disease attack hence more reduction in the crop yield. In addition, future supply of raw material for agro-based industry might be affected and create further unemployment and reduce supply of finished goods. Consequently, the economic conditions of people whose life depends on agriculture and allied activities including farmers, scientists, producers and retailers might be affected thus over all the performance of agriculture sector as a whole be reduced. Therefore, there is need to assess these immediate challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic and found mitigation measures that can ensure sustainability in the farming sector.
Labor shortage can be fulfilled by provision of smart small machinery to the farmers for sowing, weeding and harvesting of the crops. Further, Government should raise the wages of workers engaged in agricultural sector while ensuring the labor availability for critical farming operations, i.e. sowing, weeding, harvesting etc. However, farmers and workers safety should be ensured by the Government by providing masks and Coronavirus protection kits. Suitable incentives to farmers through waivers of farm loans and fast one-window lending of crop loans should be immediately facilitated for smooth farming operations during Kharif season. Additionally, Government should promote availability of farm machinery on easy installment/loans. Another option can be to provide advance money to farmers at the beginning of the season for the commodity procurement after crop harvest. Purchase/sale agents might collect and purchase agricultural produce from small farmers particularly minor crops like oilseed, chickpea, lentil etc., while moving in the villages. For repairing of farm machinery, on-call mechanics and their expertise can be availed by developing an online application. Government experts/employee in the agricultural machinery sector along with private mechanics can provide these services. Government should provide subsidy to those private experts.
Food wastage of perishable products can be minimized by establishment of small storage, protective supply at local level or in near town and cities through contractors who supply the products from owners to consumers. Dairy products such as milk can be collected and stored in locally built large cold facilities and transported to nearby market. Vegetables shortage can also be minimized by introducing kitchen gardening programs/schemes. Vegetables and fodder seeds and inputs to the citizens/farmers can be provided through online orders. Further, Government should ensure the effective role of media for creating awareness among all the agriculture stakeholders about SOP, procedures, programs, applications etc. Currently, the agricultural crisis management should take priority and government should invest as much resources as it can on this sector to mitigate future fear of hunger. But for post-crisis recovery, it would need to revisit agriculture package in the near future. Not only government should enhance this package substantially but need to focus on financial conditions of poor farmers and their families during and after the pandemic, besides working out mechanisms to provide critically needed resources for better crop and livestock productivity.
—The writer is PMAS-Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi, Pakistan.