COVID-19 Crisis in India: How Extension and Advisory Services Can Help
This post is written by Mahesh Chander, Principal Scientist, Agricultural Extension & Joint Director (Extension Education), ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute.
Declared a pandemic by WHO, the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 is a global threat that has caused unprecedented actions by governments. There is fear, uncertainty, large-scale disruption, a sense of urgency, and emergency everywhere. Beyond the human health impacts, the knock-on economic, food security, and other effects are yet to be seen. Suddenly, agriculture is front and center of the news!
India is under lockdown, as are many other countries. Nearly one half of the world’s population is restricted, confined at home, under quarantine, or isolated to prevent the virus’ spread. However, essential workers are on the job, including those producing and distributing our food. Farmers and agri-value chain actors face numerous challenges: keeping the supply chain working from farm to fork for agri-outputs (farmers, markets, procurement, warehouses, logistics, distribution, retailers, consumers) as well as factory to farm for agri-inputs (vendors, warehouses, logistics, input retailers, farmers). The continued lockdown is likely to further adversely impact food availability unless we develop implementable coping strategies.
Not only is the economy struggling, the Indian agriculture sector––which suffered recently due to an uneven monsoon season––is experiencing another hit due to disruptions from COVID-19. Farmers may not be infected, but they certainly are affected very badly. To ensure that farmers do not face problems in harvesting crops, the Indian government exempted wholesale markets, procurement agencies, farm operations, agri-machinery hiring centers, and farm implements from the lockdown rules. Despite numerous steps and assurances from the government, farmers feel insecure and stressed.
Also, due to rumors spreading via social media that animal products like chicken and eggs are responsible for COVID-19, people are buying these products in decreasing quantities, causing huge losses to poultry farmers in India. Information broadcasted in the news that incorrectly link the spread of COVID-19 to chickens have cost the Indian poultry market over ₹1.6 billion a day. The world’s fourth-largest chicken producer now faces its worst crisis in a decade. With temples closed, weddings postponed, and other ceremonies and celebrations stopped, the Indian fresh flower industry is also in crisis––who will buy flowers and why? The flower farmers are devastated watching flowers rotting on the farms and causing huge losses for their businesses.
Demand for fresh produce and fisheries products has diminished due to closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping trips. This is affecting producers and suppliers, especially smallholder farmers, with long-term consequences for the world’s increasingly urbanized population. Dairy farmers supplying milk to shops in cities face problems since many sweet shops, hotels, restaurants, tea stalls and cafes across the country have shut down and interstate movement of dairy products has diminished. The lockdown has drastically reduced milk sales. Also, people are hesitant to buy food items from shops due to COVID-19. Farmers are apprehensive of sowing summer-season crops as most of the shops selling seeds, fertilizers, and other vital inputs are closed even though restrictions on these have been lifted. And in some places, fisher folk are being forced to dump their catch back into the sea due to the closure of ice factories, fishing harbors, and transportation facilities to move their cargo.
The scenario appears bleak with COVID -19 spreading around the globe. There are fears of a deep global recession; fears of food supplies beginnint to run short––especially if supply chains are disrupted further––and fears of agricultural production being disrupted by containment measures that restrict workers from harvesting and handling crops. As a consequence of lost income from lockdowns and other restrictions, there will be serious threats to poorer communities' access to food.
The world needs solutions. That's why the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has urged G20 leaders to take measures to ensure that global and national markets continue to be a transparent, stable, and reliable source of food supply. It is essential that we keep global food chains alive amid COVID-19.
Many agencies globally are trying to find solutions to many of these problems which are unprecedented. Extension and advisory services (such as the following) may be able to offer some solutions too:
Providing timely information: Farmers need credible information, tips, and advisories to continue their practice. The ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute has developed comprehensive advisories on various facets of safe and hygienic milk, meat, and egg production as well as handling and marketing to deal with lockdown situations. ICAR has accommodated to the current lockdown situation by sharing these advisories via various online channels, including social media, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube. The pandemic has compelled us to explore these channels even more to remain connected with the farmers and other stakeholders. EAS is increasingly depending on these online resources.
Partnering with community radio: Community radio could be of great help for its potential to connect with local people in their own dialects and with their participation. The community radio run by various universities and NGOs have been reportedly doing tremendous service during the lockdown by organizing pertinent programmes in local dialects, which makes them effective in conveying the desired information. Partnering with community radio stations to broadcast information to farmers would be beneficial to their production.
Using social media: Extension functionaries should have the knowledge and skills in social media and its uses––including the current tools, methods, and models for crisis communication. Extensionists need to be equipped to use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube, and other similar digital media tools. They need to learn and master skills to disseminate information and monitor, track, measure, and analyse social media traffic.
Thinking about coordination and facilitation: Many of us quite often talk of coordination, collaboration, and convergence. But in reality, most of the time we work in isolation and in a compartmentalized way without much coordinating in action. Currently, the developmental departments/administration/public health organizations, including disaster management agencies, are trying to collaborate and coordinate to explain farmers’ problems and what can be done, such as brokering for farmers. The EAS providers need skills in mobilizing farmers and facilitating interaction to secure coordination of different agencies to broker gains for farmers.
Developing packages of practices: Under extraordinary situations like COVID-19, we need to have a package of practices including "Do’s & Dont's" which farmers can follow to confront the crisis. For Instance, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in India has reformulated ingredients for lockdown-hit cattle feed plants. This is likely to help in achieving the milk production targets of dairies that were struggling for cattle feed during the nationwide lockdown.
Linking farmers to markets: This is not something very new, since it has been emphasized long before, but linking producers and small farm businesses to market and input agencies was never previously realized as much as what we are now feeling important and trying to act upon under the lockdown situations. This has potential to minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions.
Promoting farmer producer organizations (FPOs): The FPOs, if empowered, can address market disruptions in the wake of pandemics like COVID-19. Some FPOs in India have shown their potential in handling the current crisis. The EAS providers in India, like Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVKs) have been mandated to form FPOs. They are likely to intensify their efforts after Covid-19 lockdown experiences.
Connecting to psychological/ behavioral counseling: The farmers and also the other actors in the agricultural value chains are under tremendous stress. The EAS should utilize resources and counseling to provide advice on how to to reduce stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given an opportunity to the EAS to be trained on next generation extension tools, especially for providing EAS during crisis. The New Extensionist Learning Kit (NELK), particularly The Module 13 on Risk Mitigation and Adaptation in Extension could be particularly useful, which can be adapted in different crisis situations.
I hope normalcy returns soon, with lessons for the future!
*Principal Scientist & Head, Division of Extension Education, ICAR- Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar-243122 (UP) India, Email <email@example.com>