Nepal government imposed a lockdown in March due to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic. This also resulted in Nepal closing its border with India for human movement but remained open for consignments and shipments transport. The pandemic has inevitably brought many difficulties in all spheres of life from macro-economic degradation to social problems. Similarly, one of the most affected areas is the food sector. The World Bank and World Food Programme had already warned about the possibility of disruptions in food supply chains which could eventually lead to food insecurity.
For an impoverished country like Nepal, problems related to meeting the dietary needs of its citizens persists — with or without the pandemic. Nonetheless, the lockdown and consequent pandemic have worsened the situation. According to a survey, food insecurity in the country has increased by 23%.
While the demand for consumer products has decreased, demand for food and other necessities seems to have increased. The savings of the people are depleting rapidly on food and rent since there has been no income for most of the population. Groceries are reportedly being sold at exorbitant prices, and people are compelled to buy at the seller rate. Nepal Rastra Bank noted that the consumer price inflation stood at 6.74% in mid-April, which is 2.3% point higher than last year’s figure. Food and beverage inflation was recorded at 9.68%, and non-food and serving inflation touched 4.48%.
On May 22, Ramesh Dangol of Sukedhara told the Post that the prices of lentils had increased by Rs 15-20 per kg. Residents complained of the limited accessibility and availability of food items. Kathmandu reported mutton prices at Rs 1,800 per kg. Similarly, the cost of egg crates, chickens and buffalo meat also inflated. However, wholesale prices have reduced drastically, but retail prices seem to have touched new heights. The probable reason for the hike in prices could be because of human resources shortage and hike in freight costs amidst the pandemic.
Furthermore, the Home Ministry’s directive to enter Kathmandu created confusion amongst the vegetable, dairy and poultry suppliers that whether they also need to produce a rapid diagnostic test certificate. The suppliers complained that they have frequently been facing problems due to lack of coordination between the police and Ministry.
In Sudurpaschim Province, early signs of food insecurity were already visible in the last week of May. 6,00,000 migrants travel to India annually for work due to the Provinces’ inability to produce sufficient food. As some of these migrants have returned because of the outbreak, a food crisis looms over their heads. Anil Kumar Shrestha, provincial director of Nepal Food Management and Trade Company, said the food wouldn’t even be sufficient for the nine districts in the Province.
Moreover, chemical fertilizers which are vital for paddy plantation were already in acute quantities before the plantation began, and farmers were worried that their stocks would run out. Since Nepal imports 100% of the chemical fertilizer, any shortage could invite food insecurity and shrink the economic growth prospects. The Agriculture Inputs Company and Salt Trading Corporation had issued tenders to import 25,000 tonnes of chemical fertilizers for this year’s paddy plantation. But due to the lockdown, the shipment has remained stuck in Kolkota for over three months. The Corporation said Nepal would have to manage with the available fertilizer which won’t last long.
Earlier, a mechanism between Nepal-India was in place that in situations like these, India would export 1,00,000 tonnes of chemical fertilizer annually at international parity prices. Unfortunately, the treaty expired in December 2019 and hasn’t been renewed since. Besides, many debate that Nepal could import grains and fertilizers from India, but at the time of a pandemic, India may impose restrictions to fulfil its food demand. Farmers would even travel to the southern border to buy fertilizers in case of shortage in their area, which is constrained due to border closure now. Furthermore, the annual demand for fertilizers stands at 7,00,000 tonnes. Still, only 3,00,000 tonnes are imported, which implies that the remaining need is bridged through informal imports or is smuggled across the border. Many farmers rely on these contraband products for their harvest.
Empirical evidence suggests that the shortage of fertilizers has time and again resulted in a decline of agricultural output. Additionally, shortage of other vital components such as credit, labour, and transportation will further hamper the overall production. Erratic rainfall and fault seeds also contribute to falling supply and stock.
Since the imposition of lockdown in Nepal, the supply of food and grocery items has reduced. The Bardiya District Administration Office had requested the federal Agriculture Ministry and the provincial Ministry of social development to provide fertilizers, but the government only agreed to offer less than 10% of the quantity demanded. This scarcity will likely decrease the paddy production by 50% and hurt the lives of the farmers in unexpected ways. The farmers are compelled to buy smuggled products at ridiculous prices during the pandemic.
Fortunately, Nepal farmers have managed to gather the second largest paddy harvest in the history despite a series of hurdles ranging from a shortage of fertilizers, delayed monsoons to supply of fake seeds and an armyworm invasion. The farmers began paddy plantation with the onset of monsoon. Nevertheless, shortage of fertilizers persists as most farmers don’t have adequate supplies which might shrink their harvest this year. Timely use of chemical fertilizer usually increases paddy productivity by 20%. If the fertilizer is not applied within two weeks of planting the seed, there is a possibility of a disease attack.
As if the problems mentioned above weren’t enough that a new threat lobbies around Nepal’s agricultural sector. A probable locust invasion could further drag Nepal’s food security in a new pool of complications. The farmers are worried as they don’t know how to get rid of the insect. The huge swarms are capable of “ravaging” crops and “jeopardizing” food security for over two decades. Although the paddy plantation is covered underwater, locusts can destroy the vegetable crops. According to Food and Agriculture Organization, “A one square-kilometre size swarm contains about 40 million locusts, which eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people, 20 camels or six elephants.” Leaving the locusts problem to poorly resourced agricultural centres will only “exacerbate” the situation and therefore requires interference from the government as the issue concerns the entire country. If the locusts begin damaging crops, Nepal will have to face massive food insecurity.
As thousands of migrant workers return after losing their jobs, the demand for food has drastically increased, and there is limited supply. The labour and transportation costs have also increased amidst the pandemic. Some farmers and observers are blaming the local government for not fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure food security in the country. Food rights activists have urged the provincial governments to introduce policies and strategies to tackle the impending crisis. The exorbitant prices of lentils, vegetables and other grocery items have already forced the marginalized and needy families to kneel who are barely feeding themselves. Additionally, most farmers criticize the India-Nepal border restrictions, which has aggravated their situation as they can no longer bring fertilizers from across the border. Furthermore, experts have also claimed that any shortage of fuel and irrigation could further contribute to 25% to 30% loss in the harvest. The inability of the government to track the movement of the locust invasion and prepare accordingly might also drastically affect the country’s food security.
Despite the government’s increased subsidy on chemical fertilizer from Rs 9 billion to Rs 11 billion, farmers’ primary difficulty remains to purchase fertilizers due to shortage. The Agricultural Ministry has called for a 50,000 tonnes of fertilizers consignment, but it will reach Nepal only by end-July which is late for paddy harvest. The Ministry also intends to disseminate 4,50,000 tonnes of chemical fertilizers this fiscal year ending mid-July, which is 1,00,000 tonnes more than last year’s supply.
Nepal’s reliance on food imports has increased by five folds in the last decade alone. Furthermore, the import of goods to meet agricultural demand will only deplete the country’s reserves. Therefore, Nepal must establish a way forward by inducing funds for Research and Development to ensure food security and reduce dependence on foreign markets. Agricultural is a vital industry in Nepal as it employs 60% of the workforce and contributes 27% to the total GDP. Krishna Joshi, the International Rice Research Institute country representative in Nepal, has requested the government to invest USD 20 million in R&D for the transformation of Nepal’s agricultural sector. International Rice Research Institute and the government have signed a five-year plan to transform the rice sector, but the former is yet to mobilize necessary resources. The government must take appropriate measures to tackle the food insecurity problem before it ruins the future prospects of socio-economic growth. It must also work towards making the country self-sufficient.
This article was first published in Setopati on July 4, 2020 https://en.setopati.com/blog/153307
Author: Shraddha More