Impact of Covid-19 on horticulture, food security

Impact of Covid-19 on horticulture, food security
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Highlights

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana could be heading for a major crisis as the nationwide lockdown to restrain the spread of coronavirus has affected the harvest of Rabi crops.

The State governments failed in assisting farmers for the ongoing rabi season. Poor post-harvest storage and transportation facilities are going to cost farmers dearly. Indian farmers incur Rs 70,500 crore in Rabi Season in post-harvest losses, the primary causes of which are poor storage and transportation facilities. Since a market is the primary medium for farmers to exchange their produce for money, lack of logistics connectivity to ensure that their harvest reaches markets in time results in lowering of the farmer's ability to monetise their produce. This becomes even more critical in case of perishable fruits and vegetables. Although this seems to be a good show on the state of cold storage in the country, it should be underlined that the existing cold storage capacity is confined mostly to certain crop types and not integrated with other requirements. In fact, close to only 16 per cent of the target set for creating integrated pack-houses, reefer trucks, cold storage and ripening units has been met

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana could be heading for a major crisis as the nationwide lockdown to restrain the spread of coronavirus has affected the harvest of Rabi crops. Though agriculture is exempted from the lockdown in both the States, a majority of farmers are scared to come out of their homes. Shortage of agricultural labourers has added to their woes.

The lockdown, from March 24, 2020 midnight till at least May 17, has dealt a blow to the agricultural sector at a time when crops like paddy, maize, red jowar, chillies, tomato and horticulture products like banana, watermelon, musk melon, sweet lime, grapes, pomegranate and papaya are ready to be harvested. With the agricultural markets shut, the State governments have told farmers not to come to the towns with their produce but wait in their respective villages for procurement by authorities. With no hopes of an early return to normalcy, the farmers are keeping their fingers crossed despite assurance by the governments that all their produce would be procured. While exempting agricultural activities from the lockdown restrictions, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy said farmers would be allowed to complete the harvesting of the crops. However, non-availability of agriculture labourers has hit the farmers hard. Many labourers have gone back to their native States due to the lockdown and those available are demanding higher wages, complained many farmers.

There is a great demand for agriculture labor, but "no one is coming out due to lockdown." There is no transportation facility to lift labourers from nearby villages. Banana planted in 4,000 hectares and sweet lemon harvested in 600 hectares got damaged. The horticulture crops have also taken a huge hit by the lockdown. With transport coming to a complete halt, farmers are unable to take vegetables and fruits to the markets in town. Banana, sweet lemon, watermelon, tomato and chilli farmers in Andhra Pradesh too are badly affected by the situation. There are no cold storage units to store bananas. If there is a delay of one week, the entire crop goes waste. There are no buyers. We may a see a situation where farmers will dump bananas like what we have seen with onions and tomatoes on many occasions in the past. The minimum support price for banana is Rs 2,800 to Rs 3,000 per ton. Temporary mosambi, lemon and fruit markets were inaugurated in some districts, and the officials reminded that the growers of mosambi, lemon, banana, papaya, grapes and pomegranate were unable to transport their crop to other States to sell them there due to the corona-triggered lockdown.

Agriculture, horticulture and floriculture are the predominant economic activity. In fact, the farmers have identified an opportunity in adversity. Over the past decade, many farmers in both the States have changed their fortunes for the better by growing an assortment of horticulture crops. Sweet lime, banana, papaya, pomegranate, watermelon, muskmelon, dates, fig and grapes, and flowers such as marigold, lily and chrysanthemum are spread across farms, some as small as one or two acres. Horticulture has a number of advantages compared with agriculture crops and it is more remunerative. Water utilisation is lower and so is the consequent risk of crop failure.

Farmers in the both the States are in a grim situation with no money in hand and banks refusing to give fresh loans, and they may struggle to go for cultivation in the Kharif season, which begins in June. All the banks will refuse to give fresh loans because the government failed to release funds towards the waiver of farm loans. The farmers depend on private moneylenders for cultivation.

Earlier farmers used to get money from private moneylenders at higher rate of interest. According to a survey, farmers get Rs 2,500 crore from private moneylenders and unorganised chit fund/mutually cooperative societies etc. This year, even the private lenders may have no money as the flow of funds will be badly hit due to the impact of lockdown on the overall economy.

The State governments failed in assisting farmers for the ongoing rabi season. Poor post-harvest storage and transportation facilities are going to cost farmers dearly. Indian farmers incur Rs 70,500 crore in Rabi Season in post harvest losses, the primary causes of which are poor storage and transportation facilities. Since a market is the primary medium for farmers to exchange their produce for money, lack of logistics connectivity to ensure that their harvest reaches markets in time results in lowering of the farmer's ability to monetise their produce. This becomes even more critical in case of perishable fruits and vegetables. Although this seems to be a good show on the state of cold storage in the country, it should be underlined that the existing cold storage capacity is confined mostly to certain crop types and not integrated with other requirements. In fact, close to only 16 per cent of the target set for creating integrated pack-houses, reefer trucks, cold storage and ripening units has been met. This means, there is an overall gap of about 84-99 per cent in achieving the target on improving the state of storage and transportation of the farm produce. Out of these, the country is far behind in meeting the requirement of integrated pack-houses, reefer trucks and ripening units. This gap needs to be fixed on priority considering the perishable nature of horticulture produce and their potential in boosting the farmers' income. The recent government report too has encouraged farmers to take up horticulture to augment income and said that a farmer can earn an additional Rs 80,000 per hectare (ha) if they replace staple crops with horticulture. It has also projected an increase in demand for fruits and vegetables between now and 2050 by 228 per cent and 95 per cent.

(Dr M Suresh Babu is State president of Praja Science Vedika, Hyderabad, and Dr K Bhavana Raj is from the Institute of Public Enterprise, Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal)

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