The government imposed a lockdown in March due to the COVID-19 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. One of the most affected areas is the food sector. The World Bank and the World Food Program 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. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown 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's rate. The Nepal Rastra Bank noted that the consumer price inflation stood at 6.74% in mid-April, which is 2.3% points higher than the last year’s figure. Food and beverage inflation was recorded at 9.68%, and non-food and serving inflation touched 4.48%.
There are news reports that price of lentils increased by Rs 15-20 per kg. Residents complain of the limited accessibility and availability of food items. Kathmandu reported mutton prices at up to Rs 1,800 per kg at the start of lockdown. Similarly, the price of eggs, chicken and buffalo meat also rose. Though wholesale prices have fallen drastically, retail prices seem to have touched new heights. The probable reason for the price hike could be shortage of human resources and hike in freight costs amidst the pandemic.
Furthermore, the Home Ministry’s directive for entering Kathmandu created confusion amongst the vegetable, dairy and poultry suppliers about whether they also need to produce a rapid diagnostic test report. The suppliers complain that they have frequently been facing problems due to lack of coordination between the police and the ministry.
In the Far West province, early signs of food insecurity were already visible in the last week of May. Around 600,000 people travel to India annually for work from the province that doesn't produce sufficient food. As some of these migrants have returned because of the pandemic, a food crisis looms large. Anil Kumar Shrestha, provincial director of Nepal Food Management and Trade Company, has been reported saying the food wouldn't even be sufficient for the nine districts in the povince.
Moreover, chemical fertilizers which are vital for paddy plantation were already in short supply before the plantation began, and farmers were worried that their stocks would run out. Since Nepal imports all the chemical fertilizers, 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 tons of chemical fertilizers for paddy plantation this year. 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 fertilizers which won't last long.
Earlier, a mechanism between Nepal and India was in place wherein India would export 100,000 tons of chemical fertilizers annually at international price in situations like this. Unfortunately, the treaty expired in December 2019 and hasn’t been renewed since. Many debate that Nepal could import grains and fertilizers from India, but at the time of a pandemic, India may impose restrictions to meet its own food demand. Farmers could otherwise cross the southern borders to buy fertilizers in case of shortage but that is constrained due to border closure now. Furthermore, the annual demand for fertilizers stands at 700,000 tons. Still, only 300,000 tons 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, labor, and transportation will further hamper the overall production. Erratic rainfall and substandard seeds also contribute to falling supply and stock.
Since the imposition of lockdown in Nepal, the supply of food and grocery items has fallen. The Bardiya District Administration Office had requested the federal Agriculture Ministry and the provincial Ministry of Social Development to provide fertilizers, but the government agreed to offer less than 10% of the quantity demanded. This scarcity will likely decrease paddy production by 50% and hurt the lives of the farmers in unexpected ways. The farmers are compelled to buy smuggled products at ridiculously high prices during the pandemic.
Fortunately, Nepal farmers have managed to gather the second largest paddy harvest in the history last season despite a series of hurdles ranging from a shortage of fertilizers, delayed monsoon to supply of fake seeds and an armyworm invasion. The farmers have begun paddy plantation with the onset of monsoon this year. Nevertheless, shortage of fertilizers persists as most farmers don't have adequate supplies which might shrink their harvest this year. Timely use of chemical fertilizers usually increases paddy yield by 20%. There is also a possibility of disease attack if the fertilizers are not applied within two weeks of planting the seeds.
If the problems mentioned above weren't enough, a new threat looms over Nepal's agricultural sector. The recent 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 insects. The huge swarms are capable of "ravaging" crops and "jeopardizing" food security for over two decades. Though the recently planted paddy may be spared, locusts can destroy the vegetable crops. According to the 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 centers 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 home after losing their jobs, the demand for food has drastically increased, and there is limited supply.The labor and transportation costs have also increased amidst the pandemic. Some farmers and observers are blaming the local governments 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 hit the marginalized and needy families hard and they 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 swarms and prepare accordingly might also drastically affect the country’s food security.
Despite the government’s increased subsidy on chemical fertilizers from Rs 9 billion to Rs 11 billion, purchase of fertilizers remains the primary difficulty of farmers due to shortage. The Agriculture Ministry has called for a 50,000 tons of fertilizers consignment, but it will reach Nepal only by July-end which is late for paddy plantation. The ministry also intends to distribute 450,000 tons of chemical fertilizers this fiscal year ending mid-July, which is 100,000 tons 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 food will only deplete the country's foreign currency reserves. Therefore, Nepal must find a way forward by increasing funds for research and development to ensure food security and reduce dependence on foreign markets. Agriculture is a vital industry in Nepal as it employs 60% of the workforce and contributes 27% to the total GDP. Krishna Joshi, country representative of the International Rice Research Institute in Nepal, has requested the government to invest US$ 20 million in research and development for transformation of Nepal’s agricultural sector. The 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 security problems before it ruins the future prospects of socio-economic growth. It must also work toward making the country self-sufficient.