Islamabad: With COVID-19 cases rising and lockdown extended in Pakistan, the impact on health and economy was felt rather much earlier on the food basket. It became visible when farmers destroyed excess produce.
“Ploughing [to grow] fresh vegetables is not only financially upsetting but [also] heartbreaking for those who laboured in the field,” says Aamer Hayat Bhandara, a young, middle-class farmer from Pakpattan district in southern Punjab. “The pandemic has devastated the small-scale farmers who were already struggling due to climate change. Now they can’t even afford to take their goods to the market in absence of labourers and vehicles with the lack of a clear government strategy to protect our key workforce,” Hayat told Gulf News.
The same applies to farmers associated with livestock, dairy and poultry.
“Small farmers need immediate financial aid from the government such as agriculture utility bill waiver, interest-free loans that can be repaid at the next harvest. This support should be sent via mobile payment systems to minimise human contact and ensure quick transfer,” he suggested. He also urged authorities to provide quality farm inputs such as seeds, fertiliser and pesticides on time for the next crop season.
Threat to farmers and food supply chain
For now, experts do not foresee food shortage in Pakistan and believe this year’s produce would meet local needs. Coronavirus, however, is a threat to those who put the food on our plates and has disrupted the whole food supply chain involving farmers, marketers, processors, transporters, sellers and customers.
Food security expert, Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri says the looming crisis is unequal distribution and not food scarcity. “We may witness food surplus in one place and demand somewhere else for which we should be prepared.”
Fruit and vegetable growers more vulnerable
Fruit and vegetable growers are especially vulnerable as these perishable items cannot be stored. The time is of the essence as the mango produce in Sindh will be ready by the first week of May and by early June in Punjab. “If we don’t get workers on time to pluck mangoes, we fear our hard-earned produce may be wasted,” Adeeb Ahmed Rao, chief of Multan-based Rajput Orchard, told Gulf News.
tonnes of mangoes produced by Pakistan annually
Every year, at least 20 tonnes of mangoes are exported weekly from his farm to the Gulf region. “The Gulf traders have asked us to wait until May 15,” he said, urging the governments to ensure food trade by air and sea during COVID. Rao is one of the thousands of farmers desperately looking for labour to harvest the mangoes.
Pakistan’s agriculture sector and its economic impact
Pakistan annually produces roughly 1.7 million tonnes of mangoes, exported to more than 50 countries, mainly to UAE and Saudi Arabia. Waheed Ahmed, patron-in-chief of the All-Pakistan Fruit and Vegetable Exporters, Importers and Merchants Association, has requested the officials to allow the labour from South Punjab to travel and work in mango farms to save billions of rupees worth of the yield.
Pakistan is among the world’s top producer of rice, wheat, cotton, sugar cane, mango and oranges. Agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, contributing 19 per cent to the country’s GDP and employing 39 per cent of the labour force. Major crops (cotton, wheat, rice, maize and sugar cane) contribute 4 per cent and minor crops add 2 per cent to GDP while livestock sector adds 11 per cent GDP.
What the government has done so far
* Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Rs1.13 trillion ($7 billion) stimulus package to offer relief to the economy and people during COVID-19.
* Rs280 billion ($1.7 billion) allocated for wheat procurement, around Rs100 billion ($627 million) for deferred payment of loans for small and medium enterprises and agriculture sector.
* One of the biggest relief was Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme offering a one-time cash assistance of Rs12,000 each to support 12 million families.
* The Punjab government offered Rs15 billion worth interest-free loans to farmers, crop insurance for 250,000 farmers and 1.2 million sacks of seeds for the next wheat crop.
* Rs75 billion allocated for labourers and daily wage earners who lost jobs due to the pandemic.
Pandemic reveals weak links in agriculture sector
The pandemic is exposing the loopholes and outdated practices in the agriculture sector that has led to underperformance. “The COVID-19 has unveiled Pakistan’s poorly managed food supply chain that led to food wastage and reduced prices, affecting the poor farmers,” said Syed Mahmood Nawaz, vice-president of the Sindh Abadgar Board. “The loss is evident due to the global pandemic but government can minimise losses with proper harvesting, storage and cross-border movement of goods to Iran and Afghanistan, and to the UAE by sea and beyond via cargo flights.”
1. Improve financial aid and social security to farmers via mobile payments. Waive bills, extend deadlines, and offer interest-free loans.
2. Connect farmers with retail chains and e-commerce channels closer to their location.
3. Training and awareness for workers to contain exposure and transmission of the virus.
4. Keep the food value chain running by ensuring labour, transport and delivery across the country.
5. Address global trade and tax issues to ensure food export.
COVID-19 — an opportunity to reform agriculture sector
Experts believe that COVID-19 is an opportunity for Pakistan to reform the agriculture sector and suggest these measures:
1. Sustainable agricultural mechanisation to improve production, create more jobs (by training and relocating workers) and encourage youth participation. Local production of tractors and other modern equipment should be encouraged while making it available at reasonable price.
2. Connecting Pakistan’s farming industry with technology, manufacturing, engineering, e-commerce, can offer multitude benefits such as boosting economy, creating jobs and improving lives.
3. Government should play a leading role to ensure food security and control price. Directly buying from the farmers and pushing the middleman out of the equation would remove barriers and deter hoarding and corruption.
4. Lack of cold storages, proper packaging and food processing capacity is one of the major reasons of food waste. Investment in refrigerated transport and cold storages for food items such as milk, fruits, spices, as well as silos for grains for preservation.
5. Introduce special industrial zones in every farm district, equipped with cold storages, food-processing units, connected with retail chains and export industries. Tax free zones, provision of basic utilities and facilitation from setting up food SMEs to exports can attract expat investors.
6. Most farmers feel secure growing traditional cash crops (wheat, sugar cane, rice). However, diversification of products such as canned mangoes, cherry jams, dried fruits juices, jellies, frozen yogurts and even pickles and chutneys can help reduce waste and earn foreign exchange.
7. Improving water management is key as the four major crops (rice, wheat, sugar cane and cotton) consume 80 per cent of water but contribute only 5 per cent to GDP.
8. Improving the nexus of agriculture, education, training and research and technology.