COVID-19, locust swarms disrupt food supply chain in Sindh: ADB survey

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ISLAMABAD-The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its survey of farmers in Sindh has revealed that COVID-19 and locust swarms had a significant impact on the livelihoods they obtained through agricultural products, including wheat, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products.

In June 2020, a survey was conducted under ADB technical assistance, using computer-assisted telephone interviewing. The survey attempted to contact 721 farmers across eight districts of Sindh and successfully completed interviews with 410 farmers. The survey collected information on how COVID-19- related measures and disruptions affected the harvest and marketing of rabi (winter) season crops and dairy products, the availability and price of inputs, and the financial needs of farmers. The survey also sought to determine the impact of the locust invasion in the region.

Most respondents faced challenges related to farming activities. Respondents from Lower Sindh were more prone to disruptions in their procurement of fertilizer, pesticides, diesel, and machinery. The increased prices of farm inputs, especially seeds, were commonly cited. Three-quarters of respondents reported increased financial difficulties because of these challenges.

Almost all respondents from upper Sindh reported locust swarms, with over a third of lower Sindh respondents stating they had also been affected. Upper and Lower Sindh respondents reported an almost universal lack of government response as a source of information about the swarms or relief in the form of surveys and spraying. The market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 and its related policy measures are temporary. The government needs to monitor and ensure the functioning of market activities and the availability of agricultural inputs, as requested by farmers. The locust swarms may require action to both mitigate the damage already caused and to invest in long-term means to help farmers and communities prepare for future locust swarms.

Over half of survey respondents (58.3 per cent) reported lower food consumption in their households, over a third (37.3 per cent) indicated that their households experienced losses in wages and non-farm earnings because of COVID-19, and 39.5 per cent reported that at least one family member had returned home from urban and other areas. Farm households are burdened by an increase in the number of household members and reduced cash income, which result in reduced non-food expenditures, as reported by 45.4 per cent of respondents.

COVID-19-related problems have severely affected farmers of all crops (including wheat, tomato, fruits, and vegetables) and dairy. Over 65 per cent of wheat farmers and more than 67 per cent of fruit and vegetable farmers reported difficulties with selling their produce. Tomato farmers experienced an even more severe outcome—over 32 per cent were unable to market their produce at all and a further 61.2 per cent were able to do so, but with difficulty; in addition, 61 per cent of respondents were unable to complete their tomato harvest. Milk producers were also affected, as traders were unable or unwilling to buy milk from milk producers. Among the respondents, 81 per cent of milk producers reported that they were unable to market their produce daily in the past few months. Farmers cited market closures and the unavailability of traders due to movement restrictions among their main difficulties.

Furthermore, as many restaurants and markets had shut down, weddings and other festivals were cancelled or celebrated more simply and in smaller gatherings. As a consequence, the demand for milk and tomatoes collapsed, resulting in low market prices.

In addition, farmers faced acute problems during the kharif (summer) cultivation season because of the limited availability and increased prices of farm inputs, particularly seeds. Another major concern, especially for farmers in Upper Sindh, is the severe locust invasion. Measures to contain the invasion and prevent further crop losses are urgently required, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has noted that locusts are still present in Balochistan near border areas of Sindh and predicts that adult groups and small swarms along the India–Pakistan border will mature, lay eggs, and thus cause a smaller but second wave of locust swarms in October.

To mitigate the severe impacts of COVID-19 and the locust swarms, the survey respondents identified the following essential actions, in order of priority: (i) ensure timely supply of agricultural inputs, (ii) ensure price stability for agricultural produce, (iii) ease loan repayment conditions or provide waive loans, and (iv) remove restrictions on marketing agricultural produce in districts beyond where it was grown. 

The federal government declared a national locust emergency earlier in 2020, allowing multiple government agencies to collaborate in the effort. While the locust threat to agriculture is not larger than that posed by COVID-19, their simultaneous occurrence will have a compounding effect with grave results. Thus, the survey sought to determine the impact of the locust invasion, which has inevitably added to concerns about food security and whether the government had provided farmers with early warning about the swarms.

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