Covid-19: what has been the impact of the pandemic on agriculture in the Asia-Pacific region?

28 February 2021 Peak Recruitment

Covid Farm

​Although the world is holding its breath and hoping that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is over, it’s clear that that the impact upon many millions of people is huge and ongoing, with no end-date in sight. As is so often the case, those who are suffering the worst are people in poverty, with people engaged in agriculture and living in rural areas amongst the most badly affected.

The impact upon the Asia-Pacific region’s agricultural sector has resulted in unprecedented challenges as the pandemic not only threatens to stall progress towards Goals 1 and 2 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development aims, but also potentially reverse any gains made over recent years.

In June 2020 the Centre for Sustainable Agricultural Mechanisation of the United National Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP-CSAM) held a webinar on the Impact of Covid-19 on Agriculture in the Asia-Pacific Region and the Rise of Mechanisation. During the webinar, discussions were held on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had upon the agricultural sector in the Asia-Pacific region and how the region could utilise sustainable mechanisation to support recovery and build resilience.

Experts from Thailand and Sri Lanka spoke during the seminar; presenting their perspectives of how the pandemic has impacted on agriculture in the region. A number of issues were mentioned including sale of agricultural produce and marketing in a timely manner, along with restrictions on trade and transportation. In addition, panelists from China and the Republic of Korea focused upon the potential of innovation for the region, especially in areas of technology-enabled mechanization and mechanisation used post-harvest to facilitate recovery from the crisis, whilst building long-term resilience for farmers across the Asia-Pacific region. The webinar concluded by underlining the importance of an inclusive, measured response to the pandemic, whilst addressing the requirements of smallholder farmers, elderly workers, young people and women in rural communities.

Smallholder farmers face the biggest challenges

The vast majority of Asia’s food supplies are supported by more than 450 million smallholder farmers. Although such farms are small in scale, they are responsible for producing up to 80% of food consumed in the region. However, small holder farmers in the region are currently facing a double-edged crises: the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

According to Chris Argent, head of business sustainability, Asia-Pacific, at international agribusiness Syngenta: “One of the impacts of the pandemic is that has sharpened our focus on the priority areas that have long been of importance to agriculture in Asia. The key to protecting our food supplies lies in protecting our farmers.”

Chris Argent was speaking at the webinar Agriculture’s Brave New World: Empowering Asia’s farmers in an era of Climate Change. During the webinar, Mr Argent highlighted that the pandemic has come on top of unpredictable rainfall patterns and rising temperatures. Not only do these problems present an immediate issue, they have also exacerbated the existing challenges faced by smallholder farmers when it comes to accessing finance, as banks take a more cautious approach to lending during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges raised by the pandemic it has also highlighed the importance of food security. This has had a positive effect on farmers in the Philippines, for example. According to Cherrie Atilano, the founding farmer and president of Agrea, an agriculture company which also supports Filipino farmers: “The pandemic has changed how the government responds to farmers. Despite all the challenges that the agriculture sector faced, it contributed positively to our GDP, from negative 0.5 per cent to a positive 1.6 per cent.” The result of this change in government response is that the agricultural sector is now being recognised as a priority which would benefit from being allocated a larger fiscal budget.

Technology holds the key

Although technological innovation is widely seen has holding the key when it comes to supporting farmers against the threat of climate change, such advances mustn’t be seen as the only solution. Whilst there’s no ‘silver bullet’, a steady increase in the use of a range of different technologies will be required to build momentum and improve the outlook.

A wide range of technologies have been developed and are already in use on larger farms, but they can also offer benefits to smaller farmers too. For example, biofortification is being used to develop nutrient-rich cultivars through selective cross-breeding of varieties with high yields and high nutritional value.

As food production is the main driver of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it’s vital that change doesn’t end with the introduction of new technologies. Huge amounts of fresh water, for example, are used in agriculture, accounting for 30 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, whilst destroying natural habitats in order to create space for crops and livestock. However, agricultural research has, for some time, been focused upon increasing productivity over sustainability, with financial support from governments encouraging trends in the development of better seeds, disease-resistant animal breeds and improving production techniques for a small number of animal and plant species.

The race to deliver low cost calories has resulted in collateral damage in terms of local development and nutrition. Increasing the calorific value of food relies upon value chains which are focused upon just a few basic products produced by a limited number of countries, resulting in many other countries becoming net food importers. Not only has the pandemic highlighted a dependence on a handful of producers based thousands of miles away; it has also shone a spotlight upon the need for shorter, varied supply chains and the need for specialist recruitment in the Animal Agriculture and Crop Agribusiness sectors.

Recruiting to face the challenges of the Asia Pacific Region

It’s clear that when it comes to facing the challenges which have arisen from the pandemic and climate change, environmental damage and a rising population; agriculture has to find a smarter way to do more. As Peak are recruitment specialists in the food and agriculture industries, we’re ideally placed to bring forth the strongest candidates to aspirational clients, many of whom will be facing the challenges of growth in a post-covid world.

Peak Recruitment is a team of industry recruitment specialists to the Animal Agriculture, Food & Beverage and Crop Agribusiness markets. We are based in Bangkok, Thailand and operate mainly within South East Asia and the Asia Pacific region. If you would like to find out more about how we can help you find your dream role, get in touch with our team of recruitment specialists in Thailand.