Painful COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lesson for Food Security

Photo: Nepal agriculture. Credit: Kam Raj Pant

As a matter of fact, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is highly stressful and painful. We are locked inside homes and earning much less for the past several months. It is an unforeseen confront to everyone worldwide.

However, as we know, the sun shines only after making sure there is a long spell of the night as well. As for the Nepalese agriculture sector, the less earning youths and local entrepreneurs have started to express their gut feeling vis-a-vis the impact of the pandemic, which today’s human society never saw before, at least for the past 100 years. The pandemic has emerged as a lesson-imparting tutor for them. It is a positive sign of structural change in the conventional agricultural sector of Nepal.

Nepal is largely an agricultural country, but huge portions of its land are barren. A huge number of youths are not involved in agricultural works, though they own land and have a history of parental involvement in agriculture. They are lured to urban areas and immigration abroad for employment and a better life. As per government data, 1,000 youths on average leave Nepal every day for foreign countries and jobs abroad.

Every year, 500,000 people turn into eligible youths and enter the labour market in Nepal. However, almost all of them intend to migrate out of the country for meagre salaries or for trade and business. The rate of migration from villages and suburban areas to local cities is always higher, but there is no official figure to show this trend. Thus, the majority of the farmlands are always isolated. The farmlands are increasing converting into real estate properties up for sale.

According to the World Bank, agricultural land in Nepal is reported at 28.75 percent of the total land areas in 2016. In the late 1980s, agriculture was the main source of livelihood for more than 90 percent of the population. Only around 20 percent of the total land areas was cultivable, but it accounted for around 60 percent of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and around 75 percent of the total exports. The Fifth Five-Year Plan (1975–80) categorized agriculture as the highest priority because economic growth was dependent on both increasing the productivity of existing crops and diversifying the agricultural base for use as industrial inputs.

Agriculture is still the main source of food, income, and employment for the majority of people in Nepal. It provides about 32 percent of the GDP and 65 percent people’s involvement in agriculture.

Reversal Result on Migration
Nepal is largely an agricultural country. But its major revenue source is based on remittance. Nepal is called an agricultural country because 65 percent of its population relies on agriculture and 80 percent of people still live in rural areas, where people depend on their own arable and non-arable lands. However, they are mostly involved in subsistence farming, as their production is limited for their own household consumption.

A very small number of farmers have access to their products in the market. This is the reason Nepal’s dependency on the imports of agricultural products is increasing day by day. Except for meat, dairy and fish, almost all other food items rely on imports. Animal farming is also not self-reliant due to the dependency on imported feed materials. Domestic grain produces cannot fulfill merely a month’s need for animal feeds.

And one interesting fact is that, even if people have no job, they literally say they are involved in the agriculture sector as a farmer. This is the reason Nepal is an agricultural country, but the national cash revenue is not based on it.

Nepal’s open border and subsequent less priced imports have been hampering its agricultural production. Seed, fertilizer, production and processing technologies all are based on imports. A high rate of loan interest and no loan without collateral are other factors for a descend in the agriculture sector of Nepal. A large area of land is still unused and hundreds of thousands of youths are unemployed. Out of potential arable land, 33 percent of the land is deprived of the agricultural activities. They are barren and vulnerable to housing and real state activities.

Migration to local cities for urban jobs and businesses is yet another challenge and reason for a decrease in agricultural activities. Youth workforce always targets to migrate to the gulf and other countries for employment.

Revenue-based on remittance is not a permanent solution for a country’s development. It’s a well-known fact, youth workforce is a backbone for the national economy. But, Nepalese people and the government are mostly looking for a short term solution and the youths are thereby pressed to migrate to urban areas and abroad even for manual jobs. Their real potentialities and capabilities are shadowed, while revenue generation for individuals and the government remains the sole target for everybody.

Due to the economy in doldrums, most of the foreign business corporations have been laying off their employees, of late. Domestic businesses, too, are being shut down and this trend is on a rise.
Due to the massive impact of COVID-19 over employments, Nepalese youth workforce’s mindset is driven towards comparatively sustainable options for livelihoods. They are now mindful of their ancestral villages, lands and the skills of generational farming. They are now reversing to their ancestral backgrounds and picking up the plough and getting ready to cultivate their lands. The rural farmlands are now getting greener and productivity is increasing gradually.

Status of Foreign Migration
Nepali workers seek employment opportunities among hundreds of countries across the world, except in those prohibited by the Government of Nepal. Currently, the government has approved 110 countries for labour migration through employment agencies. Since 2008/09, Department of Foreign Employment Nepal (DOFE) has issued over 4 million labour approvals as per the report published by the DOFE, 2020.

There was a steady increase in the annual issuance of labour approvals between 2008/09 and 2013/14 during which it peaked at over 500,000 but the volume has steadily declined since then. In the years 2017/18 and 2018/19, a total of 354,098 and 236,208 labour approvals were issued respectively. In 2017/18 and 2018/19 labour approvals were obtained for a total of 132 and 128 countries, respectively.

Following the growth in oil-driven revenues in the 1970s, the Gulf countries have been increasingly the main destinations for the Nepalese migrant workers.

Labour migration to the Gulf countries from Nepal intensified in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For example, records of DOFE show that in 1997/98, 7166 migrant workers left for foreign employment for the gulf countries. However, there has been a slowdown in the number of Nepali workers heading there since 2015/16 and reached 280,071 and 229,856 in 2017/18.

An Opportunity for Food Security
The COVID-19 pandemic may likely have an extensive and long-term influence on the agriculture industry in the years to come. If the situation persists and restrictions on movements continue, there is a risk that agricultural production would be impacted. Longer-lasting and deeper impacts on food availability, prices and ultimately overall food security would have to bear the consequences.

COVID-19 is creating a big challenge for global food security, availability and prices. But, if proper measures are taken in time, agricultural countries like Nepal would benefit and in the long run, emerge with financial strengths.

The common trend of developing countries is migration based economy. About 3.5 percent of the global population stays out of their born countries. Out of them, 63.5 percent of people migrate for employment as per the International Labour Organization (ILO) analysis in 2019.

This has always been a short-sighted policy for every nation. Now, the pandemic has imparted lesson to them, who were earlier based on remittance.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the villages of Nepal were almost youth-less. Agricultural lands were barren due to a labour shortage. But the scenario has now changed.

Young people are moving to rural areas from abroad jobs and urban cities. In this sense, we can say that the COVID-19 is in favour of agriculture by addressing the issue of labour shortage.

According to Nepal Labor Force Survey 2018-19, an estimated 900,000 people, out of a total labour force of 7 million, are without jobs.

Every year, about five hundred thousand individuals enter the labour market. The unemployment rate before the COVID-19 pandemic was 11.4 percent. A task force formed by the government to study the impact of COVID-19 on foreign employment sector has reported that around 200,000 migrant workers are likely to return. The task force also says that Nepal needs 1.5 million jobs to avoid the unemployment crisis.

Nepal is fortunate to have a huge portion of arable land and all favourable seasons and weathers suitable for agricultural activities. At least two-thirds of people have the know-how about agriculture, livestock, birds and fish farming. Hence, agro-based activities and enterprises focusing programs on employment and food security should be the key elements for post-COVID-19 agriculture.

In this backdrop, the federal, provincial, and local governments should work together to engage the unemployed people in the agriculture sector by creating an enabling environment. Pocket area agriculture policies, subsidy on loan, technical knowledge transfer, value chain linkage and stability for buy-back policy on agricultural products are the major reforms to be implemented. High yielding seeds, fertilizer and breeds of animal, birds and fish are other unforgettable measures.

In a developing country like Nepal, the delivery of fertilizer from the international markets has been a problem since there are rare numbers of fertilizer plants in the countries. Throughout the year, crops, vegetables, grains and short term fruits are always affected due to fertilizer shortage. Own seed production, grain processing and value additive technologies are also a big constraint. Still, finger countable farmers use modern tools for agricultural production in Nepal. Local hearsay practices are implemented for farming in Nepal, which should be replaced by empowering the farmers with modernization and subsidies.

Photo: Kam Raj Pant, Freelance Journalist from Nepal

Agriculture can play a vital role in job creation and economic development. Agricultural growth based on productivity-enhancing investments and the integration of farmers into markets improves food security. Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic would be a great turning point for a revolution against conventional agriculture in Nepal and other developing countries, where agricultural potentially is still alive.

Mr. Kam Raj Pant is an agricultural freelance journalist of Nepal. He is the secretary and head of international affairs of Nepal Agricultural Journalists Academy (JONAA). He is also the coordinator of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) from Nepal. He is a freelancer among a couple of international media i.e. publishing from Germany, Netherlands and UK.

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