The recently concluded 35th Asia Pacific Regional Conference of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) hosted by Bhutan, the first being held in virtual form, expressed concern that the COVID-19 induced economic downturn and subsequent measures taken by countries combine to push hundreds of millions of people into hunger, poverty and acute food insecurity and malnutrition, reversing a decade or more of developmental progress.
According to a press release from the FAO Myanmar, the Director General of Planning Department of Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation of Government of Myanmar emphasized that “We are actively engaged with partners in Myanmar as well as with stakeholders to find solutions to mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID-19” and “the priorities of the Ministry reflect our commitment to support, stabilize and strengthen development to support a good quality of life for the people of Myanmar.”
The FAO Asia Pacific Regional Conference, held September 1-4 and attended by over 400 representatives from 46 member countries, acknowledged that most countries of the region acted promptly and responsibly to cushion the impact on vulnerable populations, by rolling out social protection measures and safety net schemes to shore up food security, counteract the impacts of joblessness, and provide financial support to small businesses. These have given immediate relief to some extent, however long term recovery needs systemic interventions in the agriculture and food sectors.
In Myanmar, the government has taken quick steps to assist the poor and the needy through cash transfers. Recognising the importance of agriculture, as part of economic recovery plan, CERP specifically identified strategies that ‘support farmers, small agri-processors, seed farmers and agri-businesses for planting and income retention’.
Activities identified included ‘loan support to farmers, market connectivity and improvements in productivity through extension services. All these are expected to build resilience in the agriculture sector and there by ensuring food security. While on the production front there was limited impact in the early months, agriculture trade and exports have been affected significantly due to the lockdown measures, closure of borders and movement of goods. Border trade in agriculture commodities appears to have been affected significantly over the past four months, although there is a turnaround in the most recent period.
Speaking at the conference, Myanmar’s representative pointed out that “We are cognizant of the challenges ahead of us. We will continue to pay close attention to food security and nutrition, sustainable agricultural and rural development, building resilience of food and agriculture systems in the face of crisis.” It is important to at this stage to identify trends at the micro level in order to assess how long term policies are to be designed and implemented.
There have been reports from various agencies including INGOs and technical agencies like IFPRI about the on the ground situation with respect to the impact of COVID-19 on the well-being of people living in rural areas. All of them point towards precarity and vulnerability of rural livelihoods. A rapid assessment on impact of COVID-19, conducted in the month of May 2020, in the townships of Mandalay, Chin and Ayerawaddy by the FAO partner project (SLM-GEF) identify that agricultural credit is critical for many farmers in order to resume their farming operations. Indebtedness is already high for the vast majority of farmers even before COVID-19, and the pandemic had exacerbated the need for additional cash for farming and household consumption as the repayment burden prevents them from accessing loans or increases the cost of borrowing. Uneven presence of micro finance institutions and banks also makes it difficult for farmers to take institutional credit and their reliance on informal finance means incurring high costs of borrowing with interest rates ranging from 28% to 120% per annum. All these reflect the vulnerability that farmers face in terms of agricultural operations in the aftermath of the pandemic.
A rapid assessment study showed that more than 80% of household in study villages subjectively anticipated that the community may need relief food, cash assistance, livestock, and emergency agriculture assistance in one to three month’s time if COVID-19 situation continues. Job losses due to restriction of movement, absence of markets are also found to be factors affecting the income sources for farmers and agriculture labour households.
About thirty per cent of households reported having food shortages. A safety net in terms of social protection, cash for work, and nutrition security for children through school meals programme are some of the interventions that can help small farmers and agriculture labour families.
Yet another assessment by FAO partner Fishadapt among fisher communities of Ayerawaddy, Rakhine and Yangon has identified that 23 per cent of households surveyed reported food shortages during the months of April-May 2020. About 64% reported a decline in the market prices of fish. Unemployment among fisher communities was reported to the extent of seventy per cent. In Ayeyarwaddy 50% of the communities reported difficulties with transporting fish catches (17%) and gaining access to markets (33%), in Yangon region 40% of communities reported difficulties with transportation and 10% with market access and a further 10% reported they were unable to fish regularly. However in this study government assistance appear to have reached to about 75 per cent of communities studied which reflects the unevenness of relief distribution. Both the studies point out that strengthening agriculture and fisheries investments in production and marketing supply chains is one of the surest ways to address food insecurity at the local level.
FAO’s Regional Assessment
Analyzing the situation across the Asia Pacific region, FAO points out “The pandemic may accelerate the trends towards more mechanization, which will increase labour productivity but will also require investments in improved social protection and safety net programmes. These programmes may need to cover more people and provide more generous benefits to ensure food access for all, while also reducing the administrative burden needed to access the funds. Rethinking agricultural policies in the COVID-19 context will require coherent strategies that integrate technology investments, digital literacy support and improved trade logistics to enable robust farmer-input market linkages and farmer-market connectivity and traceability down the supply chain.”
Further, increased trade in food over the years in the Asia pacific region demonstrates the future long term prospects in building resilient agriculture systems that accommodate food security concerns and external trade of the countries. There are several factors that can further contribute including free trade agreements, infrastructure in logistics sectors and efficient production. All these would help improving the food value chains and incomes for farmers.
Given the importance of nutrition security, a sustainable food systems approach is also advocated especially with a focus on climate resilient sustainable agriculture practices that ensure food security of the small farmers. Measures like crop diversification and efficient nutrition management are some of the interventions in this respect.
In line with such an analysis, the FAO Asia Pacific Regional Conference identifies the importance of export-import supply chains in agriculture commodities and the need for building resilience of supply chains by increasing food production capacity, strengthening food reserves at national and regional levels, as well as improving national food logistics systems. It emphasizes the imperative to build back better through sound policies and programmes that place greater focus on resilient food systems, nutrition-sensitive food diversification, improved fisheries’ sustainability given its important role in food security, particularly in the Pacific; improved storage and logistic infrastructure; leveraging of accessible digital innovations and green and climate-resilient technologies; reduced food loss and waste and improved food safety norms.
As a long term plan, the Government of Myanmar identifies COVID-19 recovery for agriculture and food security as an opportunity to rejuvenate the sector as a whole. FAO recommendations also identify the need for transformative solutions and long-term recovery and resilience through development of inclusive and participatory policies for sustainable agriculture, fisheries and food systems and natural resource management. The FAO intends to support member nations to improve mechanization, commercialization, diversification and climate-smart investments, reduce post-harvest losses and ease labour constraints which will be reinforced by innovations, digital technologies and transformation of food systems.
The FAO conference identified the importance of its COVID-19 Umbrella Programme to mobilize resources for building back better and support greener agriculture that safeguard the livelihoods of smallholders and family farmers and play a strong role in the United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund (UNMPTF). It would be an opportunity for Myanmar to seek support from such funding opportunities led by the UN system in order to develop sustainable agriculture and food security programmes that would benefit small farmers.