Prof. Dr. Md. Sekender Ali
The Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic is a crisis of a completely different magnitude and it requires a response of unprecedented scale. Public and private Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services (AEAS) of Bangladesh should come together to respond to the immediate threats of the agricultural system to overcome the effects of COVID-19. The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) detected first confirmed COVID-19 in Bangladesh on 8 March 2020. Day-by-day the confirmed cases is increasing. As of this writing on 17 April 2020, the number of confirmed cases is 1838 and the virus has claimed 75 lives. Out of 64 districts of Bangladesh, more than half (32) of its districts are suffering from COVID-19. After detecting a few confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Government of Bangladesh closed educational institutions and encouraged all non-essential business to move their activities online. It initially declared a nationwide public holiday until 04 April 2020, which has been subsequently extended to 25 April 2020. Due to this lockdown, like other sector agricultural sectors (crop, livestock and fisheries) of Bangladesh are facing serious problems. Small and marginal farmers are not able to work properly and they are not getting the inputs for their production and harvesting their crops. The agricultural traders of big cities are not going to the local markets to collect agricultural products like vegetables, grains, fruits, eggs, milk, etc. As a result, farmers are not getting legal price. On the other hand, big city dwellers are not getting fresh foods, vegetables, milk and eggs, etc. by legal price. From the next week (last week of April), harvesting will be started of the main grain crop of Bangladesh (Boro rice). At that time, there will be a shortage of labour in a large quantity for harvesting boro rice. To overcome the situation, public and private Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services (AEAS) of Bangladesh should come together to handle this pandemic.
Effects of COVID-19 on Bangladesh Agriculture
The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading rapidly in the world. Bangladesh is locked down due to COVID-19. Both lives and livelihood are at risk from this pandemic. Bangladesh government directed to the people to stay at home during this period. Most of the economic sector of the country is disturbed for this lockdown. Only the effects of COVID-19 on the agricultural sectors (crop, livestock and fisheries) of Bangladesh are:
• Inadequate supply of agricultural inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, poultry and fish feed, day-old check, medicine, vaccine, etc. due to restricted transport and quarantine measures
• Inadequate pest control measure of the crops due to lack of pesticides and shortage of labour for proper cultural operation and preventive measures
• Inadequate irrigation facilities due to lack of spare parts of irrigation equipment, Serious shortage of labour for crop harvesting, cooling, sorting, grading, packaging, handling, loading, transporting, unloading, storing and trading.
• Huge wastage and low price of vegetables and fruits due to lack of customers, traders (middlemen as collectors, transporters and wholesalers) and vehicles fishes at local market due to lack of customers, traders and vehicles
• Huge wastage of flowers at farmers field due to lack of customers, traders, collectors, transporters and vehicles • Huge losses of export quality vegetable producers, crab and shrimp cultivators due to closure of borders and airport
• Lowering the income of the farmers for non-selling of their products • Food shortage of the agricultural labours for the absence of income-generating activities and staying at home • Shortage of food grain, vegetables, fruits, fishes, etc. at big cities due to lack of proper supply of the agricultural products from the farmers’ field and local markets
• Disrupt food processing and distribution due to shortages of labour and inputs
The fourth week of April and full of May is the pick period of harvesting the main crop (Boro rice) of Bangladesh. At that time there will be a huge shortage of labour for paddy harvesting. For lockdown condition of the country, farmers are not able to sell their products with legal price which is resulting in a decrease of their income. Labours and low-income peoples are facing a serious food crisis due to lack of income. On the other hand, the city people are not getting fresh agricultural products at legal price for inadequate supply of agricultural products. Agricultural marketing and value chain has collapsed due to the effects of COVID-19 Pandemic.
Roy (2020) revealed in AESA blog 108 that COVID-19 could affect food demand in various ways. Usually, when reduced income and uncertainty make people spend less and result in shrinking demand the sales decline. In the period of lockdown, people visit food markets less often, affecting their food choices (buying more cereal crops) and consumption, i.e., a rise in eating at home. Food demand is linked to income. Hence, poor people’s loss of earnings could impact consumption.
Government initiatives to overcome the effects of COVID-19 on agriculture
The Bangladesh government has unveiled some initiatives to overcome the effects of COVID-19 on the agricultural sector. Prime Minister (PM) of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has announced a stimulus package of BDT. 5,000 crore for the farmers to boost agricultural production in the backdrop of the Covid-19 fallout. The money from the fund will be disbursed among the small and medium farmers of crop, livestock and fisheries sectors at five percent interest. Bangladesh Bank would formulate the refinancing scheme of the amount to be disbursed as working capital in the agriculture sector. Small and medium farmers in rural areas will get loans from the fund. The farmers can use the money to produce agricultural products of crop, livestock and fisheries sectors like vegetables, food grains, flowers, fruits, fishes, poultry and dairy.
The PM mentioned that she has taken special measures for agricultural sectors because Bangladesh is an agrarian country and the current situation has demanded enhanced volumes of agricultural produces. She said there will be an additional allocation of BDT. 9,000 crore for fertilizer subsidy in the next budget to minimize the impact of the deadly virus. She also mentioned that the existing disbursement of loans at four percent interest for producing spices like onions, garlic, ginger and chilli will be continued.
The government of Bangladesh has allocated another BDT.100 crore to the Ministry of Agriculture to mechanize the harvesting of crops. This money will be used as subsidy to purchase agricultural machinery (especially rice harvesters) by the farmers. The government also allocated an amount of BDT. 150 crore for distributing seeds among the affected farmers to continue their agricultural production.
The Prime Minister said that agricultural activities will have to be continued for ensuring food security. She directed to the administration and to the law enforcement agencies to allow the movement of people engaged in harvesting crops and facilitating the food and agricultural input supply chain. She has ordered the concerned authorities to arrange a weekly haat (makeshift market) in an open field in every area by maintaining social distancing so that farmers can sell their produces. During the upcoming Boro (rice) season, the government will procure an extra two lakh tons of paddy and rice compared to the last season to ensure a fair price for farmers.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been directing authorities to provide food aid to daily wage earners. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief reports that food support is being provided to farm labourers and other beneficiaries.
How to address the effects of COVID-19 on agriculture
As agricultural sectors are facing serious problems for COVID-19 pandemic, Public and Private Agricultural Extension and Advisory Service (AEAS) providers should come forward to overcome the situation with the government initiatives. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant economic slowdowns (when economic activity is growing at a slower pace) and downturns (when there is no growth, but only a period of decline in economic activity), which are associated with rising hunger levels as FAO reports. Bangladesh government should adopt the following useful measures to mitigate the food and agriculture crisis of Bangladesh with the help of AEAS providers:
• A digital survey may be conducted to determine the exact effect of COVID-19 on Bangladesh agriculture and to mitigate the problems as perceived by the people of the country. The Society for Bangladesh Agricultural Extension Network (BAEN) or other AEAS proving organization can take this responsibility.
• Conduction of participatory COVID-19 impact assessments is necessary to map the pandemic’s effects on people’s food security and livelihoods, derive proactive measures and to determine what assistance the Bangladesh government requires from development partners such as FAO, IFAD etc.
• Digital agricultural extension service may be provided to the farmers’ group organized by Public and private Advisory Service (AEAS) providers. Farmers’ group may be provided smart cellular phone (one for one group) and the techniques of its use, especially mobile agricultural apps.
• Food supply should be ensured to the Agricultural labourers and other low-income peoples during the lockdown period for COVID-19.
• Supply of agricultural input like fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, poultry and fish feed, day-old check, medicine and vaccine should remain out of the purview of the shutdown.
• Government is providing subsidy to purchase agricultural equipment like rice harvester. For example, the actual price of a rice harvester is BDT. 29 Lac. A farmer can purchase it by BDT. 14.5 Lac and the rest BDT. 14.5 Lac is provided by the government as subsidy through the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE). In this practical situation, small and medium farmers are not able to purchase this harvester by BDT.4.5 Lac. It is achievable only by rich farmers. In this case, government can match low-interest credit with the subsidy for creating buying ability of the small and marginal farmers’ group. DAE has different types of farmers’ groups, National Agricultural Technology Program (NATP) has Common Interest Group (CIG) and NGOs have farmers’ groups. Therefore, DAE, NATP or NGOs can provide low-interest credit to the farmers’ group so that they can buy the rice harvesters with matching government subsidy. If it is so, the small and marginal farmers’ group will be able to harvest their boro rice properly. They can also earn money by cutting other farmers’ boro rice as there is a scarcity of labour for boro rice harvesting.
• Agricultural labours may be migrated from a part of North Bengal (where there is surplus labour) to Sylhet region during Boro rice harvesting through government initiatives.
• Government may arrange a proper transporting system to transport agricultural input from input manufacturing and distribution centres to the farmers’ accessing unit through private companies and public and private AEAS providers.
• Government may arrange a proper transporting system to transport farmers’ products like food grain, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat, eggs from the farm gate or local market to big cities through public and private AEAS providers and designated middlemen. If it is done the farmers will be benefitted by getting proper price of their product and big city people will get agricultural products at legal price.
• Public and private AEAS providers and allied organizations must take initiatives like observation and monitoring for smooth agricultural production by providing market information, inputs and other services.
• Lessons have to be taught to the farmers about biosecurity measures such as hand-washing, wearing masks, staying home if sick and maintaining social distancing.
The government has taken several initiatives to overcome COVID-19 pandemic. To overcome the pandemic of COVID on Bangladesh agriculture, we are to determine the exact effect of COVID-19 on Bangladesh agriculture and accordingly we are to take necessary action for mitigating the problems through public and private AEAS providers or the Bangladesh Agricultural Extension Network (BAEN).
(The author is a Professor, Department of Agricultural Extension and Information System and current Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka and Secretary-General, Society for Bangladesh Agricultural Extension Network (BAEN) email: email@example.com)