To protect already fragile livelihoods amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a Virginia Tech team is swapping in-person meetings with radio and virtual communications to help farmers in the developing world address crop problems.  

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management operates nine projects in Africa and Asia, aiming to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by implementing sustainable farming methods. Many farmers in developing countries already face constraints, such as limited access to information and productive technologies. Quarantine measures have further limited productivity, leaving developing nations at even greater risk of food insecurity and motivating the IPM Innovation Lab to ensure farmers have continued access to the resources they rely on.

“The farmer trainings, field work activities, and laboratory experiments we had planned have been delayed due to the virus,” said Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab, “but farmers working on less than one acre of land cannot afford to stop working completely. This moment of restriction opens up an opportunity for us to find new ways to reach these rural farmers, which is always a priority.” 

In Nepal, one of the team’s projects is locally represented by the global organization iDE, which coordinates a multisector task force to manage the destructive fall armyworm. Amid the stay-at-home orders, the teams are sending targeted radio messages out to rural communities to help farmers address the pest. The messages include such information as how to identify the fall armyworm in the field, as well as instructions for its sustainable management.

For many people in developing communities, the high costs of digital technology and low levels of e-literacy are barriers to accessing agricultural services. Radio, however, reaches 70 percent of the world’s population and remains a critical outlet for providing information.

“Sending out messages related to managing fall armyworm can help farmers know what to look for at this crucial time when they are planting maize, the pest’s preferred crop,” Muniappan said. “Millions of people depend on this crop for their own consumption as well as livestock feed. These industries will see a big hit during and after this pandemic if management of the pest is not addressed.”

While continuing to work remotely, the teams are also increasing virtual communication efforts for farmers who do have Internet access. Through a Facebook group dedicated to fall armyworm resilience, farmers can now post photographs or videos of plant damage for crop experts to identify and diagnose. Through virtual meetings with a wide range of government stakeholders, including national and provincial technical experts who convene regularly to discuss fall armyworm updates, action plans for crop resilience are also regularly being developed.

In Vietnam, the IPM Innovation Lab collaborates with the Southern Horticultural Research Institute to support the sustainable production of fruit crops. At the moment, farmers cannot attend in-person trainings on practices such as fruit bagging, which helps to reduce pesticide residues on crops. To close this gap, the teams are administering video trainings that farmers can access through Zoom, which is proving to demonstrate unexpected benefits.

It is customary in Vietnam for men and women to attend separate farmer trainings; however, as husbands and wives quarantine together, they also attend trainings together. The movement toward joint training has important implications for knowledge-sharing and equitable access to services.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, women farmers already faced challenges accessing agricultural extension, rural advisory services, and obtaining information about improved agricultural technologies and practices,” said Daniel Sumner, assistant director of the Women and Gender in International Development team at Virginia Tech. “Efforts by the IPM Innovation Lab in Vietnam and elsewhere highlight that there are opportunities to shift prevailing norms that restrict women’s access to information and information-sharing among household members.”

Small-scale farmers produce nearly 80 percent of the world’s total food. It is estimated that with the world’s population rapidly increasing, global food production must grow by 60 percent. As the impacts of COVID-19 persist — threatening labor productivity of critical food systems — protecting and supporting the world’s farmers remains a priority.

The IPM Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Along with Women and Gender in International Development, it is housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Sara Hendery

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