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Mitigating the impact of covid-19 in the agriculture sector in China

By Vincent Martin (People's Daily Online)    11:22, March 11, 2020

In late December 2019, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause of a significant number of human cases of a respiratory disease in China. The outbreak of COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan City in Hubei province, which is a major domestic and international economic and transport hub in China. From the epicentre, the virus rapidly spread throughout the province which accounts for 83.5 percent of the cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 96.1 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 in China as of 1 March 2020. Massive quarantine and other preventive measures mounted by the authorities in the wake of the outbreak have led to containing the virus within Hubei province mostly sparing other provinces of the worst of the epidemic. As the situation continues to improve and the number of new confirmed cases keep falling, 98.5 percent of 579 new cases were located in Hubei, and 29 out of China’s 34 provinces, regions and cities recorded zero new cases as on 1 March 2020.

Data: WHO (COVID-19) Situation Reports

In two month’s time, the epidemic has not only caused sufferings to the people of China, but also resulted in isolation and a drastic reduction of trade. It also caused disruptions to local economy and people’s livelihoods. The deadly virus is also impacting on financial market places and generated fear that has spread faster than the virus, which appears to be highly contagious but less lethal than its now well-known predecessors of the same Coronavirus family, SARS and MERS-cov.

Although the COVID-19 epidemic is primarily a Public Health crisis, experts have voiced their concerns that the virus could have a much broader impact on the Chinese and global economy, leading to worldwide socio- economic disruptions. China has now become central to the global economy during the last decades, contributing 18.67 percent to the world GDP in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund. China is also the world’s biggest trading nation deeply entrenched in global trade through a multitude of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Although the share of agriculture, including forestry and fisheries in the country’s GDP is declining, its contribution to national GDP was 7.19 percent in 2018. The country’s exports and imports cover destinations and sources spanning all regions of the world and agriculture and food constitutes a significant share of China’s trade portfolio. This has subsequently raised questions of the impact of the new coronavirus epidemic on the agriculture supply and demand side, in China and abroad, with possible ripple effects on food prices and markets. The impact is mainly due to massive containment efforts – lockdown of cities and population centres, mandatory quarantine, disruption of transportation links, checkpoints and roadblocks. It is agreed that the impact of COVID-19 on the economy or the agriculture sector will very much depend on the time needed to stop the spread of the deadly virus and that a full picture will only emerge in a few months.

Now as the epidemic is winding down in China, the situation is becoming clearer as the government is rolling out mitigation measures as well as supportive policy measures to support the farming sector.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and National Health Commission issued on 27 January 2020 a joint information note to farmers for prevention and control of the virus in rural areas. Recognizing the importance of ensuring the supply of food in good quantity and quality during the emergency period, MARA also issued on 30 January 2020 a notice to support and guarantee winter and spring food production during the epidemic period and beyond.

Following up on this decision, MARA published a notice on 10 February 2020 to support spring planting on time specifying incentives for farmers to initiate their farming activities using necessary disease prevention measures; recommendations for field management of crops (winter wheat, rapeseed, vegetables, fruits, tea), farm mechanization support for areas hit hard by the epidemic, and measures to eliminate labour shortages.

MARA and two other central ministries jointly published “Urgent notice on addressing practical difficulties for resuming production in livestock and poultry sectors”, targeting shortages in labour, feed and product sales on 15 February. The notice called for measures to support resumption of operation of feed, slaughtering and meat processing enterprises as soon as possible; ensuring smooth delivery of raw materials and products including a “green channel” policy for feed, breeding animals, meat, dairy products, seafood; and incentive measures to support livestock farming.

To encourage food imports to ease pressure on food production and supply during the outbreak, the General Administration of Customs (GAC) announced on 16 February 2020 that it would grant market access to more countries and companies; speed up customs clearance; shorten quarantine and review times; and open green channel for agricultural products and food imports in key ports. On 27 February 2020, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration gave notice of a ban on the illegal trade of wild animals and food consumption of terrestrial wildlife: implementing decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC).

On 15 February 2020, the Ministry of Science and Technology announced that negative results tested from more than 4 800 animal samples collected from pigs, poultry, dogs, and cats by China Animal Health and Epidemiology Centre, in their view allowing a preliminary rule-out of involvement of poultry and livestock in the current outbreak.

Apart from mitigation measures to provide immediate support aimed at undoing the damage caused by disruptive preventive measures, the Government of China has also announced a series of measures to provide policy support to stimulate and sustain agricultural growth and productivity.

The Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) has announced its first agricultural water quota for wheat irrigation aimed at curbing water wastage, which will be officially implemented on 1 March 2020. MARA has also published ‘’2020 planting work plan”, outlining key tasks (minimum targets for crop planting areas; ensuring grain production and supply; improving planting structure; promoting green production) and regulatory measures controlling pesticide and fertilizer use in crop production. The State Council released on 11 February 2020 a special policy document for efficient utilization and enhancement of agricultural germplasm. Following the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) decision on the abolishment of illegal wildlife trade and its food consumption, MARA announced that wildlife protection will be strictly implemented by laws and regulations.

Under the One Health approach, FAO is working closely with national partners, MARA and the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences (CAAS), the China Agriculture University (CAU) among others as well as international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to assist in identifying the potential animal hosts of this virus.

FAO is also planning a study on the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on market chains and rural livelihoods in China with CAAS. This study will feed into a broader assessment conducted by the UN in China to assess the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in the country.

Although a difficult period looms as the country is slowly emerging from a very challenging crises, there is cautious optimism that the setbacks suffered during January-February 2020 won’t leave lasting impact on China’s agriculture and food security. As the measures announced by the Government along with other post-emergency measures go into implementation, it might not take much time for growth to come back and propel the economy much in the same way it did in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic in 2003. It might not be that much spectacular this time given the structural transformation the Chinese economy underwent during this period, but sufficient enough to leave behind the worst concerns and prepare ground for new beginnings. 

Author: Vincent Martin, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Representative in China and DPRK

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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