COVID-19 has brought major socioeconomic disruptions globally. In North and Central Asia countries, the effects of measures taken to contain the pandemic along with fall in resource prices are impacting economic development and social life in the region. Prompt responses are required to minimize deterioration and to support recovery efforts.
Agricultural value chains in North and Central Asia disrupted by the pandemic
The effects of COVID-19 on the agriculture industry span across the value chain, from smallholder farmers to the agriculture processing industry and trade of agriculture and food products. In North and Central Asia, there are concerns that COVID-19 related measures might affect the 2020 harvest with seasonal workers being unable to travel for the spring sowing and harvest seasons. Despite optimistic forecasted harvest levels due to increase in crops area planted in 2019, these might not be realized should movement restrictions remain in place. Farmers in the region are already experiencing difficulties with getting mineral fertilizers, veterinary supplies, and machinery spare parts due to logistical bottlenecks. It is important to avoid any distortions in the supply chain during harvest and while planting spring crops in May and June, to ensure food security in the second half of the year.
Moving down the value chain, agriculture processing and trading is experiencing challenges in dealing with both supply and demand shocks, where production activities are affected due to quarantine measures and where consumer demand is low, especially due to limited operations of the hotel, restaurant and café (HoReCa) sector. Trade restrictions on socially important agriculture and food products have started to come into effect in North and Central Asia countries since the spread of COVID-19 to mitigate shortages at the national level, but also creating a beggar-thy-neighbor scenario.
Measures and responses to support the agriculture industry
Current measures taken by North and Central Asia governments to support the agriculture industry are mainly related to fiscal and monetary assistance such as tax reductions, prolonging debt payment and providing concessional lending to farmers. Local government authorities are also facilitating movement of agricultural raw materials and machinery parts by creating green lanes at block posts and ensuring sufficient water supply during sowing periods. These measures along with below compilation of recommendations could be replicated across North and Central Asia countries to support agricultural activities as part of their COVID-19 socioeconomic recovery efforts and to facilitate sustainable agriculture transformation in the long-run.
One of the basic measures to be taken immediately, since many agriculture-related businesses are allowed to remain open, is to ensure employee safety, abiding by the sanitary requirements and recommendations of local authorities and the World Health Organization. Support also needs to be extended to the availability of labor, especially as the spring sowing and harvest season kicks off. This could be enabled through extension of residency permits of existing migrant labors and through on-the-job training for labors seeking employment. These measures could minimize disruption in the production and supply chains, support remittance flow in the region, and create alternative employment opportunities.
Assistance could be provided for small and medium agriculture holders by centralizing functions such as storage and procurement and further cooperatives development, with the possibility of utilizing e-commerce to facilitate trading and demand for the accumulated produce. Bazaars being an integral part of the agriculture supply chain in North and Central Asia requires careful thought to facilitate flow of goods while avoiding new clusters of COVID-19 cases. Plans to open or keep the bazaars open could consider a phased approach where particular open days are set for each sector in the bazaar.
Medium term responses that can be considered by governments in North and Central Asia include the organization of knowledge sharing platforms among key stakeholders in the agriculture industry to better communicate agricultural objectives and anticipate possible responses required to better support the sector’s recovery efforts. Introduction of just-in-time statistics collection on agriculture data will also complement these efforts and facilitate evidence-based decision making by providing an informed picture of the impacts of COVID-19.
To facilitate long term sustainability in the agriculture industry, governments could consider developing agricultural value chain financing tools to facilitate a value chain model that provides access to finance for smallholders and better integrate them into larger regional networks. Agriculture activities in the region could also be further facilitated through paperless and digital trade, which minimizes physical contact and compiles with border crossing sanitary measures, promote cost efficiency, and facilitate digital transformation in the region.
Disaster risk in agriculture production needs to be managed and planned effectively considering the importance of agriculture in the region and its susceptibility to negative impacts of unpredictable crises. The triple whammy of the COVID-19 health crisis, economic repercussions from resource price instability and the risk of floods and natural disasters could delay socioeconomic recovery efforts for North and Central Asia and emphasizes the importance of mitigating disaster risk early on.
These recommended measures are specific to North and Central Asia countries and are also in line with ESCAP’s call for sustainable agriculture transformation to support rural modernization and ensure poverty-reducing structural transformation, keeping in mind the long-term objective to achieve the 2030 Agenda.