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Virus-hit Asian countries focus on food innovation

Food distribution that reduces physical contact and enhances hygiene is necessary because of Covid-19

Joseph Benny

Joseph Benny

Published: June 19, 2020 09:26 AM GMT

Updated: June 19, 2020 09:41 AM GMT

Virus-hit Asian countries focus on food innovation

Farm workers plant seedlings at a paddy field near the India-Pakistan border at Wagah on June 16. (Photo: AFP)

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Asian nations to take up new ways of producing, processing and marketing food.

Innovative ways of food and nutrition distribution, which reduce physical contact and enhance hygiene, are necessary because of the nature of the novel coronavirus.

Asian governments have unveiled agricultural plans that are “more durable and resilient” while taking into consideration natural disasters, high population densities and recurrent waves of new pandemics.

The coronavirus outbreak has taught poor Asian countries a lesson in the importance of maintaining sovereign food production and food reserves to maintain food sources in times of emergency.

In India, which ranked 102nd out of 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index, the federal government has roped in the World Bank Group to aid women's self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission to provide food and support to vulnerable high-risk families.

Following the federal government’s recommendations, many provincial governments in India have suspended the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act to let farmers sell farm produce anywhere. India’s 145 million farmers now have the legal backing to sell their products beyond the state-owned wholesale markets while keeping middlemen at bay.

On June 5, the federal government issued three related ordinances, which amended the Essential Commodities Act, to allow barrier-free trade and movement of farm produce across state lines. This will result in assured prices of farm produce based on an agreed contract.

The northern state of Haryana has joined hands with nearly 81 farmer producer companies to supply vegetables and fruits to end-consumers. Such farm-to-market links can attract agritech companies during the Covid-19 crisis.

Another initiative planned is the mobile procurement of crops through the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India.

In neighboring Pakistan, more than 18,000 mainly female-headed households will get livelihood support to develop kitchen gardens, small-scale livestock and agricultural activities.

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The Pakistan government has earmarked a plan in association with the Food and Agriculture Organization to keep the food supply chain running.

Under this program, policy and technical support are extended to provincial governments to help improve resilience through awareness campaigns and farmer field schools for rural communities.

Essential seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural machinery and repair services will be available under this joint action plan.

The Sri Lankan government has already given directives to strengthen national food production and a productivity enhancement campaign, started before the crisis, to achieve food security for the 21.44 million inhabitants of the island nation.

Regional superpower China will implement its 2020 response plan for ensuring food security amid the global pandemic, Reuters reported, quoting the country’s state planner.

Authorities have also urged state and private companies to boost inventories of products like soybeans and corn to meet any further disruptions from the outbreak.

“It is imperative, and it is well within our ability, to ensure the food supply for 1.4 billion Chinese people through our own efforts,” Premier Li Keqiang told the Chinese parliament.

Malaysia, which is reported to be food secure on a national level, is food insecure on a household level.

According to Agriculture Minister Ronald Kiandee, a high-level cabinet committee will meet next month to discuss food supply affordability and accessibility as part of national food security policy.

The Malaysian government is planning to make the agro-food sector a priority to improve food security. More emphasis will be put on strengthening the food supply chain; improving support and delivery services, technological knowledge and skills; as well as implementing good agricultural practices during and post-Covid-19 period, media reports said.

Kiandee said the government will foster modernization in the agro-food sector by leveraging the “Industrial Revolution 4.0.”

Singapore is facing a daunting task of feeding 5.7 million people in the city state, which is smaller than New York City and produces less than a 10th of the food it consumes.

The rich Asian nation imports oranges from Egypt, milk powder from Uruguay, eggs from Poland and shrimps from Saudi Arabia.

“We are seeking new source countries and deepening engagement with existing suppliers,” said a government statement.

In May, the state-owned Singapore Food Agency started rooftop farming in nine places as land is scare in the country of 5.7 million.

The government of Indonesia has beefed up efforts to develop several strategic commodities to achieve its food security agenda. An overdependence on rice is still a challenge which has impacted food diversity in the country.

The agrarian and maritime Asian country is planning to experiment with many local nutritious cereal options like sorghum, corn, tubers and root vegetables in place of rice, which contains less fiber and nutrients. To accelerate food diversification, the government has issued a presidential regulation on the policy for the acceleration of diversity in food-based consumption.

The Cambodian government has inked a pact with the International Rice Research Institute to modernize and enhance the rice sector.

With the signing of the Collaborative Work Plan, more focus will be put on “value chain assessment and strengthening and enhance productivity and resiliency through and utilization, crop improvement, and seed system development,” the Cambodian government said.

The innovative steps by the Asian governments come in the midst of a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization which stated that 35 million Asians are facing acute food insecurity due to the pandemic.

Deteriorating employment conditions have primarily resulted in this situation, according to the June report by the UN body.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said prices of food items have increased in many Asian countries after the contagion spread.

Even before the pandemic, food prices in Asia surged due to extreme weather conditions, African swine fever which wiped out over onequarter of the world’s pig population, and, more recently, the worst locust blight in 70 years which destroyed crops on the subcontinent.

Now with the pandemic, the poorer nations in Asia, where more than half the world’s people live, are not ready to rest on their laurels as food shocks have resulted in political strife in the past and could do so again if not addressed on a priority basis.

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