Coronavirus Outbreak: With a stressed Rabi season, it's imperative to ensure speedy delivery of Zaid, Kharif seeds to farmers

Agriculture is the backbone of our survival and most of our agriculture today depends on quality seeds and the organised seed sector.

Indra Shekhar Singh March 24, 2020 15:13:47 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: With a stressed Rabi season, it's imperative to ensure speedy delivery of Zaid, Kharif seeds to farmers

A pandemic is upon us — COVID-19 — and India, more than the world, needs to tread very cautiously if we want to save 1.3 billion Indians from this threat. In the shadows of the coronavirus lies also another threat to India’s food security. Deviating from public consensus, some renowned medical experts confirm that India is “100 percent in the third stage”(community transmission phase) and it is only a matter of days before we get confirmed reports of COVID-19 cases from India’s food zones -- villages.

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(File) Workers remove dust from wheat at a wholesale grain market in Chandigarh. Reuters

Despite the commendable efforts by the Central and state governments to stop this contagion, the media has already reported a mass exodus from affected cities back to hinterland villages, now who can ascertain, how many of them are carrying the virus? How will this disease affect our food supply and seeds?

Agriculture is the backbone of our survival and most of our agriculture today depends on quality seeds and the organised seed sector. Our food production is also dependent on the availability of human resources or farm labour, farm inputs and free movement of agricultural produce – including seeds. All are restricted at this time.

These limitations bring a new dilemma, who will harvest, process, store and transport Rabi wheat and other crops throughout the nation? If we look at China reports indicate weakened food production and high food price inflation due to COVID-19 . Plus there is also a shortage of farm inputs -- fertilisers, seeds, etc. which will decrease the food production later this year in China too.

Globally, the US and the European Union have shut their borders. Even within the countries, people are scared to venture out and are especially avoiding crowded places. From Vietnam to the US, schools are closed and the streets are deserted. In Italy, friends have to wait in queues extending up to 2 kilometres to get food. World over the agrarian productivity may take spiral downward. How long before India experiences the same?

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Farmers in the northern parts of the country were already reeling by untimely rain, and now they are hit by the coronavirus crisis. Many are fearing that this may break their resilience altogether and affect the Rabi crop, as harvest and post-harvest losses may increase.

Overall, if due to the shutdown farm inputs including seed processing are curtailed, we will go China way too. The current environment already heralds decreased availability of farmhands, rising farm wages and increased cost of foods.

For the seed sector, minimum support price and seed pricing calculations may greatly deviate for this season and small and medium seeds companies along with seed retailers will face the brunt in the Zaid and Kharif season.

This is not all, a larger logistical nightmare still remains, how will India be ready to supply 250 lakh quintals of quality seed for the Kharif season to the farmers? ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) laboratories are shut, and private seed sector restricted, although seeds are included in the list of essential commodities, The Seed Control (Order), 1983 also clarify the same.

Who will produce and distribute quantity seeds for the farmers and how can India meet her Rabi and Kharif targets without good seeds?

Around 60 percent of India’s food supply and farmers incomes are dependent on the Kharif season and March to May is a critical time for preparing Kharif seeds. Seed production is a complex process which needs to be completed before the seed is ready to be sent to the farmers' fields.

Apart from seed production on the farmers' fields, the quality control and production supervisory teams are required to monitor the pollination, pre-harvest and harvest operations. Similarly, the quality assurance teams need to conduct inspections, carry grow out test operations as well as laboratory testing.

Finally, all the seeds need to be processed, packed and distributed across the country so that they reach through millions of retailors to the needy farmers who can take up timely sowing of their crop for ensuring continuity of food supplies to the Nation. This is a process that needs adequate time and can in no way be done away with.

Is seed a gateway?

As per the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR), saying that “there is currently no evidence that food including seed is a likely source or route of transmission of the virus. Transmission via surfaces which have recently been contaminated with the virus is, nonetheless, possible through smear infections. However, this is only likely to occur during a short period after contamination, due to the relatively low stability of coronavirus es in the environment.”

What this means is that there is no evidence yet and seeds may not be a gateway after all. But fear grows faster than corona.

These are frightful times, where we need courage and truth as our lodestar. We need to make informed decisions, so COVID-19 doesn’t evolve to threaten our agriculture and food supply. No governments should impose any restrictions on agrarian products, including seeds. Seeds companies and exporters should take responsibility for the health and safety of workers involved in the shipments.

The staff and workers working in the seed companies may be permitted to move to the extent required for carrying out their job responsibilities. The identity cards issued by the company employing them can be used for ascertaining their identity.

Next measure can be to allow vehicles carrying seeds from farmers’ fields to processing plants, from one processing plant to other processing plant or from a processing plant to the distribution points (C&F agencies) or from distribution points to the retailers may be permitted after due inspection based on the accompanying documents which clarify that they are nothing but seeds or the packing materials, leaflets, treating materials etc., required for packing seeds.

Since the seeds move across states, the intimation will have to be sent to all the states so that the movement of seeds is allowed from state to state without any hindrance. Agro-input retailers may be permitted to sell seeds depending on the sowing season in respective regions/states. For example, the jute sowing has already started in West Bengal.  The cotton sowing may start very soon in Punjab, Haryana etc.

In the end, we all have to come together as one nation to fight this virus. Medical workers, government and essential workers including farmers and seed breeders have a critical role to play in virus proofing India. We have to ensure that our food supplies don't plummet and India doesn't descend into a panic like the rest of the world.

Farmers have a very important role, which they cannot enact if good quality seed along with other farm inputs is not made available to them in time. The scarcity of any of these inputs, may lead to declining food production and eventually food inflation and if mismanaged even a famine later this year.

The author tracks the agricultural economy. Views expressed here are his own. 

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