COVID-19: Agriculture innovation to achieve food security & tackle malnutrition in India

One challenge will be to restore economic activities


The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a public health emergency with grave implications for the population of the world. India, as part of the global community, has been adversely impacted by ongoing health crisis-- especially the poor and marginalized. However, there is a relatively low understanding of socio-economic science. This pandemic is a global health crisis and can also lead to the food security crisis in India if correct measures are not taken. In India, it is imperative to minimize the adverse effect and disruption of livelihood of the poor and marginalized. Although supplies of staples, fruits, vegetables, and meats have been adequate during the COVID-19 outbreak so far, still there are threats to food security, in the long term. Restrictions on transportation and movement of people have already led to some food logistic challenges. Yet the impact of the outbreak will spill over to food processing industries, which have suspended production. Supply of processed food remains relatively abundant for the time being, but production may be affected by a manpower crunch and falling demand for agricultural products. As farmers are already struggling to harvest and trade perishables due to shortage of workforce, transportation, limited market operations.

The coronavirus pandemic may likely have an extensive and long-term influence on the agriculture industry. It may be hard for the central as well as state administrations to deliver any further backing due to limited fiscal leeway, which might further lessen due to other socio-economic factors. Thus, India needs to be constructive and productive embracing quick, smart and innovative approach is significant to improve productivity, bridging between health shock and economic shock. Time is needed to put in extra efforts for covering every next mile.

Although no substantial data is available on the extent of the impact of the current pandemic on the agricultural sector, yet there is no denying to the fact that the existing catastrophe will not spare the Indian Agricultural. Broadly speaking the long-term impact would mainly be due to a reduction in demand because of economic dip. It may be hard for the central as well as state administrations to deliver any further backing due to limited fiscal space, which might further lessen due to various socio-economic factors. Reverse migration is another important factor in the recent situation. So this shockwave shall further push the government’s target of doubling farmers’ income in two years or so. Moreover, loss of earning prospects for various populations will likely be a reason for the drop in the demand for food products which may further aggravate the business settings of farmers. As a result, the food supply chain will be disrupted.

India needs to create more synergies in food technology, agriculture, biotechnology. Prioritizing and adaption of innovation should act as main drivers of productivity growth and improved sustainability. We should not forget to leverage available resources in the right manner. The adequate, appropriate and available resources should flow in the right direction. The ongoing nationwide lockdown needs to be reviewed and replaced with cluster specified restrictions (as required) based on epidemiological assessment, as there is no conceivable scenario of control or elimination in a short period. An interdisciplinary team of public health specialists and social scientists, along with grassroots political and social leaderships and volunteers, should continue raising awareness about the COVID-19 modes of transmission and methods of prevention in the community. Facilitation of migrant workers to return to jobs after the lockdown otherwise staple food production can be affected leading to a grave impact on food security. There should be a provision of quality seeds to farmers by the seed sector-- both public and private.

Amidst the current tensions, good seeds and other farm inputs must reach farmers in time for kharif season. Automated machines should be introduced for the planting of seeds which need only a machine driver for sowing and harvesting. Indigenous manufacturing of automated machines should be promoted by the government to cut down the overall cost. Subsidies should be provided to the manufacturers of such machines so that farmers can buy them at economical prices. Fostering Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), using genetic engineering is another way of contributing to food and nutrition benefits while boosting agricultural production besides reducing a post-harvest loss. Synchronized efforts should be made for conservation practices such as crop diversification, zero soil tillage. An increase in the availability of nano nutrients to boost crop production will be an added advantage. There should be a proper implication of digital technologies to directly sell the produce (E-Commerce) so that farmers can sell their product directly to the consumer. The time demands to actively activate social safety nets (in form of cash or in-kind transfers) to protect the worst affected and most vulnerable ones to keep up their production.

Public-Private Partnership for Integrated Agriculture Development (PPP-IAD) under RKVY should benefit more farmers as it enhances productivity, earn benefits and sustain economically and socially. Efforts should be made to grow more crops that rely less on nitrogen as it proves to be good for acclimating with climate and resolving malnutrition at the same time. Even livestock farming is capable of advancing nutrition both by raising producer and consuming high protein animal sources of food. Aquaculture farming is another accessible, affordable option in some regions of the nation. The unification is required to improve the status of food security and nutrition in the nation.

At the same time, it would be important to prepare trainers at government institutions like ICAR to train farmers about the changing farming methods and aware them about the precautions they need to take even after COVID-19 like social distancing, use of masks, regular washing of hands through behaviour change communication. Spreading the right awareness through the right channels is key now. Since the prevention is always better than cure, we also need to bring out changes in lifestyle, dietary and behavioural modifications.

Upgrading agricultural operations regularly is essential. All along the supply chain, marketing and organizational innovations are increasingly important. Thus, there is a need to understand the respective role of government and private sector in strengthening agriculture and facilitating the adoption of more percipient practices at the farm and agro-food firm level. One post-COVID-19 challenge will be to restore economic activities including those in food and agriculture. The government should address these concerns with a more coherent policy environment to meet food demand sustainability. Recommended policies can include-- encouraging collaboration of knowledge generation and transfer between public and private actors, transparent dissemination of information to strengthen government management over food market, guide framers to make rational production decision, streamline risk management policies. It is also crucial to improve understanding of overall financial and well-being situation of farm household to design farm-income support measures targeting those in need.

However, there is still a huge lack of Research & Development (R&D) in connecting dots to find out the strong link between agriculture and nutrition. Time demands us to invest in extensive R&D for beating stunting, wasting and various other forms of malnutrition. A high level of awareness is essential at all levels. Urgent research incorporating Indian data and scenarios need to construct models for India and design effective social protection schemes will be helpful. The government must create enabling and facilitating environment to eliminate the further delay. Time is of the essence, especially given the circumstance.

By Dr. Chandrakant S. Pandav is member National Council for India Nutritional Challenges, POSHAN ABHIYAN; Dr Sujeet Ranjan is executive director, The Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security and Sahil Sharma is a researcher in food technology at LPU)