“To eat or not to eat bread is neither a matter of taste or greed nor a luxury; but it has been a necessity for centuries” (Abdelhedi & Zouari, 2020; Galiani 1770). Since agriculturally produced food has consistently held a position as one of the most basic needs for human survival, the dilemma of nutrition has comprised an integral role in the COVID-19 outbreak. According to (Siche, 2020), there is a rise in starvation and hunger when there is an epidemic of infectious disease. As the epidemic spreads, the situation worsens, restricting movement, creating labor shortages for harvesting, or making it impossible for farmers to directly sell their goods at markets. Agriculture is the most important sector in that it plays a vital role in human development and is critically tied to food security (Abdelhedi & Zouari, 2020). While the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will become more apparent in the coming months, this brief outlines the initial impact of the pandemic on agriculture and food security in Pakistan. Pakistan is the sixth most populous nations in the world, with a population of 208 million. The Government of Pakistan has set a future goal of achieving sustainable food security in all forms by 2025 (Farrukh et al., 2020). However, the COVID-19 outbreak has heavily crippled economic activities, postponing production plans and creating a public health crisis that has catastrophic consequences on the economy of not only Pakistan, but also the world as a whole. The food and agriculture sector also experiences these effects. In Pakistan, several initiatives have been enacted to control the spread of the virus; nonetheless, it has disrupted the supply of agri-foods products to markets and consumers. Since agricultural production is directly linked to poverty alleviation and food security (UNICEF, 2020), it is imperative to examine the effect of outbreak on agriculture; to evaluate the relationship between agricultural food supply, demand, and food insecurity; and determine how this relationship is related to the COVID-19 pandemic (Siche, 2020; Swinnen & McDermott, 2020).
2 IMPACT OF COVID 19 ON AGRICULTURAL FOOD
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the outbreak of COVID-19 is harmful in two prominent ways: food supply and demand are directly related to food insecurity (FAO, 2020a). This concept is graphically represented in (Figure 1a and b) to better elucidate the relationship and impact of COVID-19 on agricultural production and consumption.
2.1 Food supply
Pakistan’s nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 has largely disrupted many nonagricultural economic activities with a potentially detrimental effect on food supply chains. Pakistan relies mainly on the interprovincial movement of food to regulate supply and demand across the seasons and to take advantage of the different agroecological zones of the country (Zhou et al., 2019). Fruits and vegetables are major commodities related to food security through this interprovincial trade. In April 2020, the International Rescue Committee conducted a study and stated that officials of the district government were concerned about food supply. Additionally, a large proportion of households at the local level have reported food shortages at home and unavailability of foodstuffs at markets (Yamano et al., 2020). Restrictions related to COVID-19, disruptions such as higher rental charges, labor shortages, and farmers’ limited access to markets have also been reported (FAO, 2020a). Pakistani farmers mainly sell their products to supermarkets (Siddiq & Basher, 2019); however, reports provided anecdotal evidence of farmers facing severe difficulties during April and May in transporting their produce to these markets. COVID-19 is, therefore, a threat to those who put the food on citizens’ plates and has disturbed the entire food supply chain (Jamal, 2020).
In many countries, temporary or seasonal employment is common for planting, sorting, harvesting, processing, and transporting crops to markets. As a result of travel restrictions, imposed on local or migrant workers, had significantly affected the supply chain. It also undermines not only production capacity, but also threaten farmer’s own food safety, in situations where the virus drastically impacts on their health or movement (Aday & Aday, 2020). The labor-intensive sectors, such as harvesting and processing have caused serious upheaval in the food supply chain due to shortages of workforce and border controls (Richards & Rickard, 2020). The “Pick for Britain” project in the United Kingdom sought to find 70,000 unemployed people to work on farms during the harvest season. However, due to dearth of manpower, the crisis threatens the ability of farms and agribusinesses to operate (Nature Plants, 2020). These conditions hindered food and farm supplies, posing difficulties in supplying sustainable food to markets. Besides this, there are several cases have been reported that farmers destroy their yields because of restrictions. Dairy farmers dumped 14 million liters of milk every day due to a disrupted supply chain in the United States. In England, 5 million liters of milk have been discarded by the dairy farmers in 1 week. The Indian farmers have lost tea plants due to logistical challenges in supply chain (BBC NEWS, 2020).
The supply chain affects not only farmers, retailers, and buyers, but also labor-intensive food-processing industries. The production process in many plants was decreased, halted, or partially suspended due to workers who tested positive for COVID-19. At least 54,036 employees in the United States have been reported as COVID-19 positive, and among these 232 workers have died (Aday & Aday, 2020). In Brazil, 2400 meat plant employees from 24 slaughterhouses in 18 municipalities were found to be COVID-19 positive. In England and Wales, many meat plants discontinued operations after identifying 246 positive cases. In Germany, 1553 cases of COVID-19 were reported at meat-processing factories, and more than 100 coronavirus infections were discovered at abattoirs in France (Gulland, 2020; Gurneel, 2020; Hanna et al., 2020). As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic has largely affected the transactions in the food supply chains all over the world and at the same time, it disrupted the supply–demand balance, placing small farmers and traders in a vulnerable position.
2.2 Food demands
COVID-19 has also adversely affected demand for food by increasing unemployment rates and reducing the purchasing power of average consumers. Daily wage workers are especially at risk of losing their jobs because of government restrictions, whilst farmers risk losing their primary sources of income due to decline in demand (Workie et al., 2020). As a consequence of supply chain disturbance and declining market demand, farmers have been burying perishable produce and dumping milk. This is due to restrictions on the transportation of products that obstruct the sale of highly perishable produce, such as fruits, vegetables, and milk, as these are hard to store in comparison to grains. Therefore, disruption in the food chain directly relates to the loss of producers’ profits; additionally, prices of food rise to the point where consumers cannot afford basic nutrition (Yamano et al., 2020). The restrictions on food supply during the pandemic create far-reaching food shortages, increasing instability in food markets and food prices such that the circumstances eventually magnify into a food crisis. Another factor affecting food demand is decreased consumer traffic at marketplaces due to fears of catching the virus; this phenomenon has especially impacted the demand for perishable food products, such as agricultural produce (Dowlatchahi et al., 2020; Ud-Din, 2020).
Globally, the COVID-19 has led to a massive change in market demand and introduced unexpected stresses on food systems. Even, farmers in the developed countries such as United States of America and Canada, have dumped the vegetables, livestock, and poultry due to labor shortages and lack of drivers to move the products from one place to other (Deaton & Deaton, 2020; Gray, 2020). In the European Union, shortages of machinery, pesticides, and packaging stall a variety of critical agricultural activities including planting and harvesting, resulting in lower production (Garnett et al., 2020). In China, compared to other agricultural sectors (e.g., vegetables, fruits, and crop production), livestock farmers faced the challenges of feed materials needed for pig farming. In addition, livestock movement was tightly regulated during the pandemic, prohibiting the livestock farmers from selling pigs on the market (Ni et al., 2020). In South Asian and African countries, harvesting of wheat and pulses were hampered due to a lack of labor and shortage of plantation seed (Moseley & Battersby, 2020; Rasul, 2021). The seed sector is highly globalized, and often transported by air, a mode of transport, which has been severely disrupted as China is a major supplier (Deconinck et al., 2020). However, China emerged from lockdown, and this concern appear to have waned.
Furthermore, the bullwhip effect in food supply has resulted in significant miscommunication between producers and consumers as product demand increases and decreases dramatically in a short period of time (Perdana et al., 2020). The bullwhip effect occurs when changes in consumer demand causes the retailers in a supply chain to order more goods to meet the new demand. It transpires because the order for goods is based on demand forecasts from superstores, rather than actual consumer demand. In this pandemic, the bullwhip effect occurs due to the lack of transparency in the supply chain. As an example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic in the countries, there was much hoarding of grain products. The shelves were emptied, because consumers have reacted to the virus by stocking up products, leading to the shortages of foods. In the meanwhile, the supply chains have had to ramp up production to cope with the unprecedented increase in demand. The storekeepers are seeing a rise in demand, but overall consumption has remained constant. Even if store is currently faced with inventory shortages, there will come a point where consumer demand falls again. As a result, the food distribution systems have caused considerable problems in sales of products, although demand is not met in many countries. To mitigate the adverse effects in the food supply chain, measures must be taken to balance production and sales, in order to support both producers and customers (Barman et al., 2021; Maria et al., 2020). Yet what is remarkable is the digitization of the supply chain to reduce the asymmetric information between the actors.
2.3 Food insecurity
COVID-19 is expected to have significant effects on supply and household access to food, thus lowering food consumption and leading to nutritional compromises. If the pandemic continues to spread, it will have a catastrophic impact on everybody in the region, with especially extreme impacts on those below the poverty line. According to the World Food Program (WFP), about one-quarter of households (49 million people) in Pakistan are reported to be moderately food insecure (Figure 2). In comparison, 10.1% of households (21 million people) are seriously food insecure (WFP, 2020). The data presented in Table 1 depict the food insecurity in rural and urban areas of Pakistan.
- Source: (WFP 2020); World Food Programme.
- * Province; M – Moderate Insecurity; S – Severe Insecurity.
- Abbreviations: AJK: Azad Jammu & Kashmir; GB: Gilgit Baltistan; ICT: Islamabad Capital Territory; KPK: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; KP-NMD: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-Newly Merged Districts.
According to the Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES), the proportion of households experiencing severe food insecurity in Pakistan has increased to 10%, and the proportion of households experiencing moderate food insecurity has been increased to 30% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2020). According to the survey, severe food insecurity was higher in urban areas (13%) compared to rural areas (8%), while moderate food insecurity was reported 33% in urban areas and 30% in rural areas. Moreover, with regards to Pakistan’s provinces, the highest percentages were reported in Sindh, with 52% of households experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity, followed by Baluchistan and Punjab with 39%, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 33% (Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2020). Most of the immediate effects of food insecurity have arisen from the disruptions of the food supply chain that triggered a sharp decline in overall economic activity (FAO, 2020a). Figure 3 describes the household’s food insecurity experience (for COVID period April–July 2020).
In Pakistan, 18% of children under 5 years of age faced acute malnutrition during 2019, which was above the emergency threshold of 15% (UNICEF Pakistan, n.d.). The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased levels of malnutrition in children and women as partial lockdowns have led to the disruption of nutrition services. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore has expressed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down, and malnutrition rates will go up” (UNICEF Pakistan, n.d.)
The pandemic is affecting all four pillars of food security (1): availability, “is the supply of food adequate?,” access, “can people obtain the food they need?,” utilization, “do people have enough intake of nutrients?,” and stability, “can people access food at all times?” COVID-19 has the most direct and serious effect on food availability, even though impacts are also felt through disruptions to availability; shifts in consumer preference toward less healthy foods, and food price volatility (Laborde et al., 2020). Across the globe, agri-food supply chains badly disrupted due to governments strategies to contain the virus that leads to depleting food production. The lockdown disrupts the production process in many developing countries, which affects the continuous supply to the developed countries, Europe, and Central Asia (Workie et al., 2020). In India and several African countries, the price of key staples has reportedly increased by more than 15% from pre-COVID-19 levels due to shortage in production (Elleby et al., 2020). The study of Egger et al. (2021) has demonstrated that in African and South Asian countries, income drop ranges from 8% to 87%, while assistance from the government were reported insufficient to sustain precrisis living standards, resulting in widespread food insecurity. For example, 48% of households in Kenya, 69% of agricultural households in Bangladesh, and 87% of rural households in Sierra Leone were forced to miss meals. Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh high degree of subsistence on farming would also lead precarious lives to hunger and malnutrition (Amjath-Babu et al., 2020; Workie et al., 2020). Therefore, lawmakers should consider preventing this global health crisis from turning into global food crisis.
In this fragile situation, if proper attention is not dedicated to ameliorating these issues, collapse of the agricultural and food distribution systems may be anticipated, and food insecurity crises will continue to worsen (Udmale et al., 2020; FAO, 2020a). Therefore, this study offers recommendations to improve strategies for epidemic prevention and empirical decision making.
3 SWOT ANALYSIS OF COVID-19 PREVENTION AND STRATEGIES
SWOT analysis refers to the assessment of innumerable strengths (S), weaknesses (W), opportunities (O), threats (T), and other factors concerning the topic of interest—in this case, the impact of COVID-19 (Wang & Wang, 2020) on agricultural food supply, demand, and insecurity. The findings of a SWOT analysis provide a framework for the development of management tactics. This approach can be used to identify desirable and undesirable factors, formulate strategies, and direct scientific decision-making. In the SWOT analysis, there are two types of forces: the first is internal forces that can be controlled, such as strengths and weaknesses; the second, external forces that cannot be controlled, such as opportunities and threats. To better understand and identify these forces, a SWOT analysis has been realized to highlight the opportunities and constraints (Figure 4).
As argued in Section 3, SWOT analysis is a valuable method for developing detailed strategies based on possible combinations of internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats. Figure 4 depicts a summary of the SWOT strategies, listed from most to least relevant. In the following, we discuss the strategies for transforming weaknesses into strengths, and threats into opportunities.
3.1 S–O strategies
Strengths are tasks or actions that can be immediately and effectively implemented with the help of preexisting skills, resources, and knowledge. The lockdowns across countries have entailed a rise in the usage of information systems from 40% to 100% (Pandey & Pal, 2020). In many countries smartphone apps are already available and can be strengthened to connect producers and buyers (Amjath-Babu et al., 2020). Several apps allow farmers to sell their products with one click. For example, by using apps (e.g., Snapdeal in India, Daraz.pk in Pakistan, and Ajkerdeal in Bangladesh), farmers can sell their products across the country. Apps can be downloaded easily for free, making them accessible to anyone who wishes to utilize them and preventing potential additional cost barriers. By using mobile apps, customers can order farm fresh food from home with a single tap, which also limits contact with delivery partners (see Figure 5). The use of mobile wallet also saw an increase during the pandemic in many developing countries (FAO, 2021; Mehrolia et al., 2020). A mobile payment, also known as a mobile wallet, is linked with the individual’s bank account to make payments in return for goods and services (IGI Global, 2021). The farmers can use mobile wallet such as, JazzCash and Easypaisa in Pakistan (Ali et al., 2021), Mobikwik in India (Undale et al., 2020), and bKash in Bangladesh (Lalon, 2020) to receive payments and purchase inputs, which not only reduce the time spent in traveling but also better control financial transactions. However, along with the surge in the use of mobile payments, scams and frauds are expected to become more common after the pandemic. Therefore, mobile payment services providers should implement security arrangements, along with awareness campaigns by government departments.
One of the most important aspects a mobile app offers is the creation of target market and the potential for fostering trust between producers and consumers, as a digital interface provides an extra layer of security and authorization for transactions. This trust, in turn, may continue to be strengthened via the network building that results from online sales. The COVID-19 response has emphasized the importance of learning communication skills and harnessing collaborative power through effective teamwork. It encourages the use of existing technological tools and infrastructure to deliver food products. For example, online shops were not widely recognized before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have taken on a more prominent role in recent months, in Europe and United States of America (Hobbs, 2020). The virtual interface has also promoted diverse and vibrant farmers and consumers. For example, fresh fruits and vegetables can be sold from the farm and directly shipped to end customers. Farmers can utilize social media accounts to post videos of fresh produce and advertise their products to groups of potential customers. Thus, through social media platforms, farmers connect with consumers individually and build trust by switching from traditional shops to online buying.
3.2 W–O strategies
Weakness are components that can be removed or improved upon with dedicated energy and effort. During the pandemic, there was a lack of transport for the mobility of products between provinces. In this regard, e-commerce platforms could facilitate cooperation between farmers and local consumers to boost online sales. A potential model for this exists in the example of the Chinese e-commerce corporation Alibaba, which set up a “green channel” in February, 2020, to help farmers find markets for unsold agricultural produce (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020). Alibaba Group is a Chinese e-commerce corporation with the largest online shopping platform and the initiators of such a new business model. In this business model consumers buy goods on Taobao (a C2C and B2C e-commerce platform) and transfer their money through Alipay which is similar to PayPal in the United States and European eCommerce (Falcone et al., 2019). Alipay is a virtual payment platform launched in 2004 by the Alibaba Group that serves as a payment middleman between e-sellers and the customers, solving the long-term trust issue (Lu, 2018). By holding payments in escrow, Alipay assures the consumers that they would not lose money if traders turned out to be scammers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, using this platform, consumers placed an order via Taobao live streams, selecting noncontact delivery options, in order to reduce the risks of spreading the virus. About 15 million kg of farm-fresh produce were sold during the first three days of live streaming (Cecilia, 2020). This empowered farmers to act within their own agency and exert control over their sales and distribution initiatives. The Alibaba Group also operates in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Nepal, as the leading e-commerce retailor (Sumaira, 2018). It is evident that, the establishment of similar e-commerce systems in the developing countries could form an end-to-end network between rural supply and urban demand. This would solve the current issue of agribusiness stakeholders being excluded from decision-making or having no authority to influence decisions being made by their respective governments. This challenge may be partially attributed to the steep learning curve required to learn and use technologies such as video and audio-conferencing platforms (e.g., Tencent or Zoom Meet) to arrange remote meeting between policymakers and agribusiness stakeholders. Therefore, it would be beneficial to invest time in providing tutorials and technological assistance for farmers such that they can utilize e-commerce platforms to their full potential. Furthermore, lack of a marketing, communication strategy, and funding for farmers to grow crops are major reasons for the disruption of food supply around the globe. Targeted subsidies or interest-free loans should be provided to farmers for sustainable production. The G20, IMF, and World Bank should consider suspending debt payments, consistent with the national laws of the creditor countries. This would provide “a global sense of relief for developing countries.” The World Bank previously dispersed funds of up to $160 billion between April and June 2020 to the lower-income and middle-income countries (Kentikelenis et al., 2020; The World Bank, 2021). The Chinese government has also suspended debt repayment for 77 countries to provide $2 billion over the next 2 years to aid developing countries (CBN Editor, 2020). This could help the developing nations to spend aid by giving agricultural subsidy and interest-free loans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The governments’ financial support provides agribusinesses resources, to continue their operations and carry out short-to medium-term investments. In this regard, the expansion of digital financial services in countries could help the continuity of production and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 emergency by reducing the dependency on cash transactions.
3.3 S–T strategies
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the emergence of new regulations increased trade barriers and disrupted the agricultural food supply chain. Some agribusinesses are shutting down due to bankruptcy and loss of perishable food products. Many farmers also spoil the milk they produce or sell it at a lower price to factories due to mobility restrictions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most farmers were able to sell their entire production of goods to dairy manufacturers or markets in metropolitan areas . However, due to unprecedented disruptions in the supply chain, farmers are instead dumping milk and burying vegetables, even as grocery stores report shortages of food. The sudden lockdown caused mammoth disruptions in the food supply chains due to a plummet in demand. This drop-in demand resulted in substantial quantities of food waste as the pandemic took hold, and growers of perishable products dumped crops into the ground due to labor shortages. To adjust the economic structure promptly, perishable products, such as milk, vegetables, and fruits, may be shipped to the suburban areas to ensure the availability of food and to lessen sales pressure. In addition, e-commerce and delivery companies in heavily agriculturally reliant countries should help in promoting the connection between production and distribution. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government successfully managed food supply along with an unprecedented level of protection and control mechanisms throughout the country. According to Pu and Zhong (2020), in China, e-commerce enterprises sold 88.2 thousand tons of foods to online customers across 19.8 million online purchases. To revive agribusinesses, countries should establish e-commerce platforms to safely manage food supply. In the agricultural domain, a capital injection could help farmers continue operations. Further, to ensure stability in production, commercial banks can also lessen the interest rates on farm credit to manage loans and financial burdens of farmers. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, economic activity has contracted around the globe; a sharp decrease in buying power and a high rate of unmet financial need have resulted in suspension of food delivery. In these times of crises, food banks, supported by private charitable organizations, should be mobilized to distribute food, to families in need. As these are already institutionally well-established, they are more likely to have organized delivery routes and networks with farmers’ associations, retailers, and supermarkets (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2020). For example, food banks (e.g., Hamsaya in Pakistan, India FoodBanking Network in India, Midwest Food Bank in East Africa) could play a significant role by bringing collection centers closer to smallholder farmers in order to reduce the need for mobility. Food banks are the bridge between the donors and the beneficiaries which voluntarily given away food to those who need it. The farmers with surplus food might not be physically close enough to food banks to make the transportation, therefore, potential food donors can buy directly from the farm and deliver it to nearby food collection centers. It will primarily serve as a means of assisting farmers in developing new markets by selling unsold produce to food banks and establishing links between farmers and vulnerable households during the COVID-19 outbreak. The food banks can make arrangements with the help of the respective governments at schools to temporarily storing the food as most of the institutes have holidays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the food is collected, sorted, and reviewed for quality then food bank distributes it to the people in need, with the help of partner agencies. In addition, the countries might also implement warehouse receipt systems (WRS), which will enable food producers to get the best price for their goods. Under a WRS, a warehouse receipt (WR) is issued to a farmer or farmer group, as proof that he has deposited a specified commodity of stated quantity at a specified location (Miranda et al., 2019). This receipt helps small farmers securely store their crops in warehouses and enable them to sell their goods at a better price later.
3.4 W–T strategies
With the implementation of control measures across countries, problems in mobility of products have become apparent. The government could soften the COVID-19 restrictions to open small markets and allied industries across the country with precautionary measures and incorporate digital technologies to maintain daily life and economic activities. Using digital platforms, countries can provide counseling and agricultural extension services to farmers. Thereby, the COVID-19 can become a tipping point for digitization—the dawn of a new era—by accelerating the maturity of digital technology. By doing so, digital transformation can reduce transaction costs, facilitate coordination among supply chain members, and help a greater number of farmers and consumers (Abid et al., 2020). The transformation of the traditional supply chain into digital supply networks would help to deal with market uncertainty and supply chain problems in future (Zhu et al., 2020). Digitizing the relationship between the buyer and the producer is also a core aspect for developing robust supply chains. By managing all aspects of the supply chain digitally with transparency of information sharing can effectively allow agribusinesses to handle bullwhip effect in future. Digital platforms can also ensure growing public interest in transparent pricing and encourage virtual trade instead of currency usage. E-commerce and food delivery firms could help to encourage the linkage between production and sales. In many countries, smartphone apps are already available and can be strengthened to connect producer and buyer. For example, in China, popular e-commerce shopping applications (e.g., Pinduoduo, JD.com, and Alibaba, which assist farmers in finding alternative buyers in small city centers) were also used for supplying fresh produce (Galanakis, 2020). Rural households under the poverty threshold should be given subsidies to guarantee their livelihoods. When feasible, countries should introduce fin-tech for farmers to easily access credit; in addition, interest on loans should be waived and payment deadlines extended.
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