While the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted crop plantings and raised the spectre of hunger in poorer nations including parts of India, the year ahead is looking brighter because of a stronger global outlook for cereals.
The most important food staple, their consumption in 2020/21 is expected to rise by 2% above the level of 2019-20 to 514 million tons, according to a report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The rise is driven mainly by food use, but also partly supported by other uses including animal feed. India is expected to contribute significantly to the better outlook for cereals — both for rice and wheat.
Fortunately, South Asia’s largest nation did not suffer any food shortages, despite introducing the world’s strictest lockdown early last year.
Though India experienced one of the worst-ever economic contractions that resulted in massive unemployment, a government program that offered five kilograms of grains and one kilogram of pulses free to the poor largely addressed any food shortages.
However, the program ended last November, even as movement restrictions were eased. From this year, it has started rolling out a covid vaccination program, which is expected to gradually lead to a full-fledged economic recovery.
But the income levels for the poor are still far below that prior to the covid outbreak. It will come as a relief that favourable weather means that India will have enough cereals to not only feed its population, but will be able to help other nations as well.
After harvesting a record rice output, FAO forecast that India’s winter-sown wheat production could possibly surpass last year’s record output. It will provide comfort to neighbours like Afghanistan, where a rainfall deficit has curbed the wheat output.
On an average, cereal imports by low income countries that are deficit in food is expected to rise by 4.4 million tons above an average of 74.1 million tons. The increase reflects mainly strong import demand in West Africa and Southern Africa.
Over the past few months through the pandemic, India has emerged as the biggest exporter of common varieties of rice to Africa. Early indications that it may continue to provide invaluable help even this year to the poorest regions, where a vaccine rollout is expected to lag most of the developed nations.