Diets and horticultural livelihoods in India
India is the second-largest producer of one of the most nutritious foods in the world: vegetables. And vegetables provide a key livelihood for many farmers on the sub-continent. Yet vegetable intake is only around half of recommended levels across the Indian population, and fewer than 20% of children in India receive a sufficiently diverse diet. Partly as a result of poor diets, nearly 40% of children under age 5 are stunted, and overweight and obesity among adults is rising fast.
That was before COVID-19. India reported its first case on January 30th 2020 and by late March the whole country was in lockdown, coinciding with peak harvest (Rabi) season for certain fruits and vegetables in many places. Agricultural work was largely allowed to continue, except in active containment zones, but transport restrictions constrained the domestic movement of seasonal workers and agricultural inputs, and access to markets was sharply curtailed. The lockdown mandated closure of street food vendors, restaurants and supermarkets (though small food shops and open-air markets were allowed to open with time restrictions), leaving producers with a reduced customer base.
Against this backdrop, our concern was that production and trade of highly perishable vegetables would be disrupted, affecting livelihoods of farmers and impacting their diets. Healthy diets based on diverse plant foods were already too expensive for over 1.5 billion people in the world before COVID-19, and previous large shocks have been detrimental to diet quality, suggesting we might see the same impacts in the current pandemic. So to understand how vegetable farmers in India experienced the shock of COVID-19 both as producers and consumers of nutritious food, we conducted a telephone survey with farmers in 4 states (Figure 1) asking them about its impacts. You can read more on the methods here, in one of the first empirical studies to document the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and related policy responses on food systems.
COVID-19 impacts on livelihoods and diets
We found that a majority of farms experienced negative impacts on production, sales, and prices of their vegetables, and therefore reductions in income. Over 80% of farms saw some decline in sales, and over 20% of farms saw devastating declines (sold almost nothing) (Figure 2). Prices reduced for over 80% of farmers, and by more than half for 50% of farmers. Similarly, farm income dropped for 90% of farms, and by more than half for 60%. Common coping strategies were to find new markets (52%, including selling door-to-door), reduce prices (25%), and eat the farm’s own production (18%), all practiced more by female than male farmers.
Of all farms with interruptions to their production, most reported that prices were too low to continue with production (69%) or that they could not find buyers (65%). Of problems associated with production, most cited lack of transport (61%), many cited lack of inputs (39%) and lack of harvest labour (32%), and some cited lack of storage (12%). Smaller farms were generally less likely to reduce their production or destroy the harvest (leave vegetables in the field, compost vegetables, or feed to livestock) as coping strategies. In total, 16% of farmers planned to produce less next season as a result of COVID-19.
A majority of farming households in our study saw impacts on diets in terms of reduced ability to access the most nutrient-dense foods. A majority of households were able to protect their staple food consumption, meaning their food security in terms of calories (Figure 3), though 17% of households did report a fall in ability to procure staple foods. The largest falls in consumption were in fruit and animal source foods other than dairy, in around half of households. Pulse, dairy and vegetable consumption fell in 20-30% of households.
Vegetables were the only food group where consumption reportedly increased in a significant proportion of households, with around 12% reporting an increase, mostly from eating the farm’s own production. Reasons reported for reductions in vegetable consumption were mostly due to reduced physical availability and affordability, with women farmers significantly more likely than men to report a larger reduction in affording and consuming vegetables. The most common dietary coping strategies were reducing household expenses (51%) and eating more own-produced food (49%), with 40% of households using food aid, again reported more in households where the farmer was female.
Food system resilience
COVID-related lockdown policy in India has affected livelihoods of vegetable farmers through production (though lack of labour, storage and inputs); sales (through drops in demand and lack of transport); and prices and income (with reductions due to lack of demand). Our findings suggest that many vegetable farming households find it hard to mitigate the worst of these shocks in the short term, accepting lower prices to maintain sales.
This has also affected the diets of farming households, with reduced consumption of the most nutrient-dense foods. A route to dietary resilience that is particular to our vegetable-farming sample was the household consumption of their own production, which in many cases increased vegetable consumption above pre-COVID levels – so there is more work to do in understanding why this doesn’t happen in normal times. Nonetheless, interruptions to the flow of vegetables to consumers is likely to have affected diets more broadly in the country, beyond our sample.
Smaller and larger farms, and those headed by men and women, experience differences in the impacts of COVID-19, implement different coping strategies, and require different types of support from the government to continue to function. So far, the major responses of the Indian government to ensure livelihoods of farmers have been making loans more available and providing tax relief and direct farmer payments. None of our farmers reported accessing these, so there is a need for these to be better promoted and tailored to the short production cycles of vegetables and the needs of women farmers.
Government response to ensure food security has been to double allocations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and provide cash payments to out-of-work labourers (but not self-employed farmers). Female farmers in particular are accessing food aid, but it should be noted that the PDS system provides grain and pulses but not vegetables or other nutrient-dense foods. Emerging evidence on COVID-19 impacts on diets lend weight to existing calls for more diverse foods to be available under this system. Cash payments could be extended to struggling farmers as well as labourers.
Understanding farmers’ real-time coping strategies and limitations through studies such as this might help policymakers prepare strategies that take into account the lived experiences of farming households – both in the unprecedented situation of COVID-19, and for longer-term food system resilience. In the medium term, the impacts of COVID-19 and subsequent policy responses on both livelihoods and diets risk rolling back the impressive economic and nutrition gains India has seen over the past decade. Food systems, and particularly those making available the most nutrient-dense foods, must be considered in ongoing and future government responses.
Jody Harris is Lead Specialist – Food Systems, East and Southeast Asia at World Vegetable Center. She is a senior scientist with a research interest in policy and social interventions for healthy diets and nutrition. She conducts research into power in societies, including work on equity and marginalisation; power in politics, including political science work on policy processes; and power in food systems, including the roles of public and private sector actors. She has previously worked for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) as well as several universities and international NGOs, conducting research and designing programmes in various contexts in Asia and Africa, particularly Vietnam and Zambia. Read more.
Srinivasan Ramasamy is Flagship Program Leader - Safe and Sustainable Value Chains; Lead Entomologist at World Vegetable Center. Since 2005 he has led the Entomology Group at the World Vegetable Center. His professional interests include host-plant resistance, chemical ecology of insect pests, biological control, and molecular entomology. As a member of the WorldVeg Plant Protection and Breeding Team, he received the International Plant Protection Award of Distinction from the International Association for the Plant Protection Sciences. Read more.