A battle plan for ensuring food supplies during the pandemic
As the worldwide pandemic, the Coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread across the 210 countries and territories, most of them have adopted the lockdown strategy, which seems to have slowed down the spread in many places. The lockdown is however, likely to continue unless the situation gets better. This uncertainty has raised questions among many -- whether there might be a food shortage in the near future due to the farmers not being able to work and transport their produce to the markets, largely due to the trade disruptions. Many have also been seen comparing the situation to that of the post-war 1974 famine. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina put emphasis on producing and preserving food as there might be a global food recession due to the Coronavirus, in the near future. “There shouldn’t be an inch of land left without farming,” she said while addressing the public representatives and officials of different districts over video conference.
There is sufficient production of cereal crops, but if the situation is prolonged, the country might face food shortages of other agricultural products like wheat, ginger and edible oil. Evidence shows, times of epidemics and quarantine lead to a spike in food shortages and malnutrition, for example, during the 2014-2016 Ebola disease outbreak in Sierra Leone.
Non-agricultural based economies are likely to be most severely affected, as many countries have temporarily suspended exports of staple foods. Fruits and vegetables might become scarce specially in urban areas and major cities where the citizens are dependent on a continuous supply of such necessities from the rural parts of the country.
How can we cope with such a setback?
Since such troubled times might lay ahead, it is wise to know how to tackle such complications with some help from history. Food crisis or even famine isn’t anything new, people across the world has experienced it. In the last two centuries, it was generally Southeast and South Asia as well as Eastern and Central Europe that suffered the most from famine. Experts suggest, the post-coronavirus effects would not be that extreme, as agricultural methods have become more efficient and are able to produce much quicker than ever before.
Rationing the food could be one way to avert this. This way, it will prevent people from buying more than they actually need, suggests Professor Erik Millstone, of the University of Sussex Business School. He also added saying rationing would also ensure equitable distribution and has urged the British government repeatedly to take measures accordingly. This has been a problem for Bangladesh as people have been seen not refraining themselves from ‘panic-buying’ and stockpiling, causing artificial shortages in the market. Many nutritionists suggest, in times like these, it is important to stick to ‘cheap and nutritious’ rather than going all-in for whatever you can lay your hands on. Sticking to foods such as potatoes and dairy products could be more sustainable.
Preservation of food also proved vital in times like these, knowing what to preserve and methods of doing so goes a long way, making sure no food is being wasted. Properly stored potatoes will last around two weeks in room temperature. But if kept in a cooler temperature (not in refrigerator), the shelf life can increase drastically, to even two months or more. Proper preservation of dairy commodities can also ensure a balanced diet over a period of time, suggests nutritionists all over the world. World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 300 ml of milk per day. Raw milk can easily be stored after it is boiled, cooled and then refrigerated.
Growing your own produce
Due to the lockdown strategies adopted by the government in order to limit the spread of the virus, it is inevitable that there will be some levels of trade disruption.For final consumers to go into the grocery stops to purchase them is another challenge. The kitchen markets in and around Dhaka are designed to accommodate a large number of people, and many are defying the lockdowns to gather in such places posing a huge threat of spreading the virus.
According to a Dhaka Tribune report last year, rooftops are the most unused spaces in the city. It has huge potential of food source if used properly and many environmentalists and agriculture development activists such as Shykh Seraj have encouraged people to create rooftop gardens and make the best use of the balconies and focus on urban plantation of vegetables and fruits.
In a study done by Dr Mohammed Jamal Uddin, National Consultant - Agricultural Economist and his team in 2016, suggests the great scope for enhancing urban horticulture production to improve food and nutrition security. The study showed, an average per household total rooftop space as 1916 square feet, where a potential space of 1593 square feet for gardening and 323 square feet as open space in Dhaka. The numbers are even higher in Chittagong, where the average per household total rooftop space is 2190 square feet, 1607 square feet and 583 square feet respectively. The experts have quoted saying these figures indicated huge potential for rooftop gardens in both cities. Some vegetables that can easily be produced are brinjal, tomato, chili, cauliflower, bottle gourd (lau), sweet gourd and many others. Some fruits include mango, guava, lemon, papaya and hog-plum to name a few. Growing vegetables and fruits in open spaces at home take little training and knowledge, easily attainable from various sources over the internet.
The government of Bangladesh has repeatedly mentioned, transport of agricultural goods would not be hindered. However, in reality, the situation is complicated -- while speaking to a manager of a small dairy farm in Dhaka, he mentioned many inconveniences he had to face to transport cattle feed to his farm. Starting from road blocks to getting checked by the police every ten minutes, he also mentioned a rise in cattle and poultry feed costs.The problems are not only limited to the purchase of feed, but other components needed to run businesses of this sort; which are also in short supply. The increase of raw material costs put small farmers at risk of huge losses to an extent many might not be able to withstand and would be forced to increase the price of their produce. This burden ultimately falls on the final consumer, who has no other option but to purchase these basic commodities.
In order to avoid a situation where there is an extreme food recession, more measures must be taken along with raising awareness among people. Delayed responses can be fatal and could help the situation spiral out of control. So, to limit the effects; an early warning system could be placed and prepare the general population accordingly. And also, it is vital to make sure both the backward and forward supply-chain of agricultural commodities are unhindered -- not only in theory but take strict measures to go along with it.