India’s Covid-19 lockdown has affected the supply chains, forcing farmers to let food rot in the fields. But initiatives have helped farmers connect directly to consumers, boosting their income, and swerving food waste while on shutdown.
Effects of Covid-19 on agricultural production in India
Indian farmer Kannaiyan Subramaniam, whose field is in the border between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states in southern India, was preparing to harvest his 3.5 acres or 1.5 hectares of cabbages when the country implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In just a few hours, roadblocks went up, shops closed, and people were ordered to stay at home. Field workers trained to pick cabbages were prohibited from traveling to Subramaniam’s farm until the three-week lockdown was lifted. This delayed Subramaniam’s harvest as well as the sale of the cabbages, reports media company Deutsche Welle.
Subramaniam told the daily that their government did not extend a helping hand to farmers like him and it affected other marginal and small farmers. While it was supposed to be a “beautiful harvest,” Subramaniam said that he ran out a heavy loss and was thinking of his debts. Nevertheless, he believes that his harvest has to go to people who need the vegetable.
Before the lockdown, traders would come to Subramaniam’s farm to pack, buy, and transport the cabbages and sell it to wholesale markets or retailers. However, since shops, hotels, restaurants, and markets are closed in India, demand for Subramaniam’s crops has plummeted. His usual trader purchased only half of the usual 100-ton cabbage. The farmer received payment of the crop but only half the usual price by weight. A quarter of his crop was left to rot, unpicked on the farm.
Based on the estimate of the Vegetables Growers Association of India, about 30% of ready-to-harvest crops were left to drop during the shutdown compared to the typical 5 to 10% waste. The circumstance forced farmers to be creative, removing the supply chain in the equation.
The rise of the social media marketplace
Now, they found a way to save their crop by selling directly to consumers. Chandra Gowda, who grows grapes in Bengaluru, for instance, posted on social media. He created a page called Farm to Fork Bangalore and just a week later, he already managed to sell 400 kilograms or 880 pounds of grapes by renting a van and driving it to the city, delivering the fruits directly to his consumers. He shared that he got a good harvest this year but when the lockdown was implemented, he could not negotiate because he needed the fruits out of the way to plant for the next season's crop. At the start, there were no takers for 10 tons of grapes so he was forced to compost it.
By using the social media marketplace, he was encouraged to continue the same transaction and he even negotiated a good price for his crop. “I can get the benefits immediately by selling to the customers,” he told DW. He said that before, he would be stuck with the price that the middleman offered him and they also wouldn't give the payment right away. Sometimes, it would take two months for him to get the money. But this is not the same with direct selling, where he can take up cash as consumers pay.
There are other nonprofits aside from Farm to Fork Bangalore. These nonprofits have also responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by connecting consumers and farmers through social media. Ruchit Garg, head of an agricultural finance company, even launched the Harvesting Farmer Network Twitter on April 12 after knowing farmers dumped fresh vegetables and fruits on the roadside. Today, the platform has been used to list over 1,6000 tons of fresh produce from thousands of farmers in India. Every tweet on the said page contains the farmer’s name, his or her contact number, location, the quantity of crop, and the crop itself.
Consumers are also getting involved. When the local farmers contacted the Residents Welfare Association of Sarjapur in Bengaluru less than a week after the government implemented a lockdown, members of the said association helped the farmers obtain police permission so that farmers could transport and deliver potatoes, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, and eggplants to Sarjapur apartment buildings. Residents wore their facemasks and stood in socially-distanced queues to purchase fresh farm produce while many local retailers are still shut down or low on stock.
Resident Shilpa Polavarapu purchased five kilos of mangoes for 85 rupees from the same scheme while she would normally purchase a kilo of mangoes for 99 rupees, She said that the farmers’ mangoes were a quality product and they only paid at a cheaper price. The positive experiences for both farmers and consumers suggest that farm-to-doorstep selling may be beneficial and have a longer-term impact on food waste as well.
Garg explained that the lockdown allowed consumers to behave differently. It made them aware of the issues that farmers face and the effort required to grow food.
India’s agriculture at a glance
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN states that agriculture is the largest source of livelihood in India. About 70% of rural households in India depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood and 82% of farmers in the country are marginal or small.
Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, further reported that the share of the labor force employed in agriculture in India in 2000 was 59.65% and was down to 42.74% in 2017. The percentage counts the share of persons of working age who were engaged in any activity to produce goods or provide services for pay or profit in the agriculture sector, including hunting, forestry, and fishing.
The recent data from the FAO Gender and Land Rights Database likewise shows that the share of female agricultural landowners is 11.7%.
Shoppers who were once used to supermarkets stocking their seasonal food have experienced empty shelves under the lockdown rules. It makes sense that many farms, not just in India, have responded to the crisis by selling directly to consumers, but there is no guarantee that the practice will outlast the pandemic.