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Combating food insecurity amid COVID-19

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people globally to date. While we are dealing with this unprecedented pandemic, it is alarming that a higher number of people are and will be affected by a lack of food availability. Besides, political instability, natural disasters, unemployment and migration for ages have challenged Nepal to be sustainable and self- sufficient more than ever.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, the Government of Nepal regulated nationwide lockdown starting from 24 March to 21 July 2020. While this step could control the virus transmission, the restricted measures hurdled markets, industries, schools, businesses, offices and transportations. Among all, this containment hits the food-supply chain the hardest. The lockdown measures severely impacted smallholder Nepali farmers as they could not sell their productions to the consumers.

Moreover, it was distressing to see the deliberate dumping of tons of foods like fresh seasonal foods, eggs and gallons of milk due to misleading or lack of information on food safety during COVID-19. The COVID-19 also generated a loss of jobs and lesser income affecting about 30% of households in Nepal. According to the World Food Program Report 2020, 23% of households had inadequate food consumption and 7% of which had poor dietary diversity. 

Here, I summarize my view on some initiatives taken by the Government of Nepal and allied agencies or groups to combat COVID-19 in Nepal. The present situation is very unpredictable; however, we can make the situation better for vulnerable communities if we work together.

Government’s pandemic emergency response

The Government of Nepal could play a maximum role in ensuring safe and sufficient food for everybody in the country. The government should prioritize in making the food system as an “essential service” so that the starvation would not prevail over COVID-19. The current food relief package by Nepal Government is a very good initiative to address the low income and daily waged families. Besides, for the “sustainable food system,” the smart food trade agreements, food system management, proper financial chop offs, emergency funds and relief packages for smallholder farmers and agri/food –businesses industries some major concern. It is also crucial to spread awareness of food safety and nutrition during the pandemic. 

Alternative agricultural practices 

The agriculture practices like family farming, rooftop farming, permaculture, utilization of local/indigenous and cover crops plantation can be some of the best alternative agricultural practices. In most of the urban household, rooftop farming and family farming is now a growing trend. This is one of the most convenient and cost-effective ways of agriculture. In the larger scale, the farming practice with the genetically modified varieties of crops like the golden rice of Bangladesh and heat-tolerant maize of Nepal varieties should be encouraged. These types of hybrid and nutritionally enriched crops are key to sustainable and modern agriculture practices.

Food storage and preservation

Food preservation and storage techniques could be vital for not letting starvation more damaging than the pandemic. The local foods like, radish, mango, lemon, leafy vegetables, taro leaves, lentils, soybeans, milk (into the food chain of cheese, ghee, butter, curd), smoked and dehydrated fish are some of the commonly preserved food in Nepal. The method like fermentation not only preserve the food but also enhances the nutrient value. On top of it, preservation techniques highly contribute to taste enhancing. 

The newer methods for food preservation and storage like vacuum packaging, refrigeration, freezing, freeze-drying, canning, brining and pasteurization helps elongate the shelf life of the food. Moreover, safe food handling is also the major concern to increase the longevity of the perishable foods as well as to reduce the spread of viruses and other foodborne diseases. Proper hand hygiene of food handlers, sanitation of kitchen or area where the foods are stored and processed, thoroughly cooking meats are some vital steps to reduce the food safety risk. 

“The Millennials”

Nepal is a country of young where about 40% of the total population is aged between 16 to 40 years. This new generation of the population is the main workforce and has immense potential to contribute to the food system. Currently, many Nepali are returning from foreign countries who are filled with talent, experience and knowledge. They are huge assets to the country and possess the ability to thrive in the fading economy of Nepal

The Social Changemakers and Innovators (SOCHAI), a youth-led organization that is raising awareness in nutrition and hygiene to the local and rural women during COVID-19 is exemplary work. The team is further planning to reach out to more communities by collaborating with the local bodies, for implementing long-term socio-economic rehabilitation program in two more districts of Nepal. 

Digital and mobile-van marketing

In Nepal, some youth-led initiatives are providing excellent services among customers through their digital marketing strategies. A report states that smartphone users are more than 60% in Nepal and are at an increasing rate. With this data, it is safe to say that there can be a great scope of agri-business and to contribute in the agri-food system. Even in the lockdown restrictions, people can buy and sell seeds, fertilizers, pest control and trade foods. Many digital apps like Smart Krishi, Hamro Krishi and Krishi Guru are already providing online technical services for farmers. Some of the outstanding examples of innovation and collaboration during COVID-19 lockdown includes agri-ambulance initiated by HEIFER International Nepal and the USAID and Government of Nepal’s Digital Seed Information system.

Although the countrywide lockdown has now ended, the food value chain by no means should be taken lightly. The Government of Nepal and the responsible allied sectors must monitor the situation of agriculture and take all the required steps to ensure food security in Nepal. Moreover, the safety and preservation methods must be taken seriously by all the individuals.

Photo credit: Nikita Bhusal