Looking Back After One Year: SEARCA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

  • By Leah Lyn D. Domingo
  • 16 March 2021, Tuesday

On this day, 16 March, one year ago the Philippine government declared a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. That lockdown along with countless other lockdowns worldwide was the beginning of sweeping changes of life as we know it that came with such unprecedented restriction of movement.

To the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the lockdown started a shift to work-from-home arrangements, cancelled field visits and other official travels, and a collective effort to find new ways to continue delivering on our mandate and stay connected with our stakeholders.

“Agriculture is very critical in this time of pandemic and we at SEARCA took the challenge to elevate agriculture to be the frontliner and enable the farmers and farming families to be motivated to be productive to supply food to society,” stressed Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, SEARCA Director.

Breaking physical and conceptual boundaries

The restricted movement and associated quarantine protocols necessitated by the pandemic, both at the local and global levels, resulted in a lack of access to food. This put a spotlight on food security and the critical role of agriculture in increasing the quantity and diversity of food, in driving economic transformation, and in providing the primary source of income for rural populations.

To lead and engage a wide audience in the discourse on pressing food security concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, the SEARCA Online Learning and Virtual Engagement (SOLVE) platform devoted its first five webinars to the topic, with no less than Philippine Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar as one of the speakers in its maiden broadcast via Zoom and Facebook Live. 

Conscious in its efforts to break boundaries, both in physical and conceptual terms, to strategically disseminate just-in-time solutions, SEARCA launched SOLVE as a platform for highlighting concrete actions that realize SEARCA’s vision of agricultural and rural development (ARD) in Southeast Asia.

According to Dr. Gregorio, “the implementation of SOLVE is SEARCA’s own way of channeling proven and tested solutions to a number of issues and problems in the agriculture sector in general and farm operations in particular. Solutions to these problems actually abound so we are offering SEARCA as a gateway to make these information more accessible to farmers and their families, farmer organizations, and the general public."

Advocating strategic actions

Another effort to extend its reach in advocating for measures to address issues heightened or brought about by the pandemic is SEARCA’s publication of a policy brief, policy papers, and a journal article co-authored by its top official and program lead for Emerging Innovation for Growth (EIG).

As COVID-19 has become a universal problem in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that requires a region-wide approach,, Dr. Gregorio and Dr. Rico C. Ancog who heads SEARCA’s EIG Department and is Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños-School of Environmental Science and Management (UPLB-SESAM), emphasized in their policy paper the need for a collective enhancement of capacities leading to higher agricultural productivity that will benefit all countries in the region. These include support for well-planned local food production systems; policy and research support for the development of crop and animal breeds, agricultural systems technologies, and postharvest management; support for improving the design of financial technologies for farmers; and targeted capacity building activities of relevant government agencies and groups to encourage more agripreneurs, to name a few.

In another policy paper, SEARCA asserted that local government units (LGUs) are in a strategic position to perform the role of catalyst in promoting urban agriculture. SEARCA published the policy paper just days after the approval of House Bill 3412 by the House Committee on Agriculture of the Philippine Congress in June 2020. The proposed legislation aims to promote integrated urban agriculture to address food security problems affecting the country, which was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noting the connections between food supply chains and consumption patterns, Dr. Gregorio and Dr. Ancog drew attention in a policy brief to the need for higher education institutions (HEIs) to reorient their research and development to a systemic view of agricultural food systems, including contextualizing research projects within large value chains. They also urged government to tap the intellectual capital of HEIs to boost food security and economic recovery by fostering a “knowledge economy (KE)” amid the pandemic. They also pushed HEIs to partner with the private sector that has the know-how in sustaining economic activities through business and commercial tools.

Engaging youth in agriculture

The Youth COVIDeo Contest was launched in August 2020 to mark the International Youth Day which coincided with the launch of SEARCA’s youth program called Young Forces for Agricultural Innovation (#Y4AGRI). Themed “Youth and Locally Grown Food,” the contest showcased how the youth played a part in local food production during the COVID-19 pandemic through video stories from Southeast Asian youth on how and why young people grow their food at home, in school or in the community during the pandemic. The contest received more than 80 entries of successful stories told in three-minute videos.

Offering support to communities

Just 12 days after the lockdown in the Philippines was declared, SEARCA joined the Coalition for Agricultural Modernization of the Philippines (CAMP), Inc. and the National Academy for Science and Technology (NAST), Philippines in signing a position paper to set up a local food system that is quarantine-compliant and waste-reducing submitted to the Philippine Agriculture Secretary.

SEARCA also joined NAST, UPLB-Institute of Plant Breeding, and the Department of Science and Technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI) in producing an advisory on healthy diet and lifestyle as a defense against COVID-19.

To help prevent the spread of the virus in its locality, SEARCA fabricated customized pedal-operated faucet and sink sets and started distributing these to the Los Baños community in August 2020. The Center also donated nutrition and hygiene kits to indigent elderly residents of Los Baños in February 2021.

SEARCA also distributed assorted vegetable seeds to Laguna communities even beyond Los Baños as far as Cavinti, Lusiana, Sta. Cruz, and Pila to encourage home gardening and provide a source of healthy food during the pandemic.

Keeping SEARCA staff safe and well

As its people are its greatest resource, SEARCA provided a productive and safe working environment for the staff be it in a work-from-home or flexi-time arrangement of a skeleton force. A Crisis Management Team was immediately formed to recommend and monitor compliance with COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory body temperature check and wearing of masks, social distancing, regular disinfection of work areas, compliance with local ordinance on QR scanning as part of contact tracing, and transport service for skeleton workforce to and from the workplace. All staff were also regularly provided with care packages that included vitamins, face masks and shields, antibacterial wipes, and alcohol.