Dr. Sayed Aman - Life, loss and silver linings amid the world's biggest lockdown
On March 24, India’s 1.3 billion people went into lockdown in the most extensive COVID-19 containment effort in the world. The impact of the pandemic extends to livestock producers, crop farmers and the food supply chain in unprecedented ways. Dr. Sayed Aman, managing director of business at Alltech India, shares how life and agriculture look from inside the nationwide lockdown, and how heroes are emerging to help others amid the crisis.
This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.
Hosted by Michelle Michael
As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year.
Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth
As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty™ documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several regional awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.
The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael’s interview with Dr. Sayed Aman. Click below to hear the full audio.
Michelle: Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is a colleague of mine here at Alltech, Dr. Sayed Aman. He is the managing director of business in India. Dr. Aman, it's a pleasure to have you with us today.
Dr. Sayed: Thank you, Michelle. Thanks for having me.
Michelle: Dr. Aman, India is home to a very large number of people — 1.3 billion, I believe, is the number — and, currently, you're experiencing some of the harshest and most extensive lockdown measures over COVID-19. Those restrictions are aimed at slowing down the transmission of the coronavirus, of course, but what is life like for you, for people in India right now, just day-to-day living?
Dr. Sayed: Thanks, Michelle, for that question. Let me start by saying a big condolence to all those people who have lost their lives in this pandemic. Our feelings and thoughts and prayers go with all those who are affected and their families, and a big gratitude to all the healthcare workers, the police, all the heroes working in the food chain across the globe.
To answer your question, Michelle, the prime minister of India was very proactive in announcing the first lockdown on the 22nd of March. That was a Sunday. One-point-three-four billion people going under lockdown — that was probably the largest lockdown ever that happened in the history of this planet. Following on from that first lockdown, the second lockdown then started on the 25th of March for three weeks. It was not an easy scenario for people, really, because to get to this kind of new way of life, to get used to new terminologies, new vocabularies, it wasn't easy at all — whether it is the PPEs, the ventilators, all these are new terminologies, in a way. Initially, people faced a lot of difficulties to differentiate between the essential and the non-essential elements, but now, things are a bit more clear. Almost every day, we have new notifications come through from different government departments, and things are getting better as time flies.
Now, as we are on the fifteenth day of lockdown, we are beginning to see life again. It appears that, now, the government of India and the different states are looking at further extending this lockdown. We are getting to know about this scenario by this weekend, how long this lockdown will continue — but then, overall, Michelle, there is significant medical, economic and psychological stress and pain on everyone. Amidst all of this, we still see a silver lining. The air quality in many of our states is improving. For example, in the capital of India, Delhi, the air quality has improved by more than 70%, which is really a promising scenario. We now know, Michelle, in India (that) the sky's color is really blue, and the moon is pink.
Michelle: Certainly, that’s something that's different at this time. I want to go back and echo your comments about those who have lost their lives in this pandemic. Of course, our hearts go out to them. Farmers and producers, they're experiencing a loss of a different kind. Let's transition now to the world of agriculture, where nothing is like it was just a few weeks ago. Talk about the world through the eyes of poultry producers at this time. Rumors and speculation associated with the consumption of chicken linked to COVID-19 has really put a dent in sales. Tell us about that speculation. How did that all start, and how much are producers losing at this time?
Dr. Sayed: I just want to take you a little bit to a pre-pandemic scenario. The end of December was a Q3 financial — it was considered a financial year. Our economy, over the period of the last two years, is a little bit on a downtrend, from a GDP growth of 7.1% to 4.7% in the Q3 that ended December 31, so already, there was very tight pressure to the poultry industry. The producing power had reduced. Then we heard the initial news of the pandemic emerging from China and Wuhan that was linked to the seafood market and the animal market.
Towards the end of January and February, unfortunately, there were rumors and videos being circulated in social media here in India stating that chicken consumption leads to coronavirus. That was really devastating. The entire chicken industry, whether it was broilers or eggs — the prices really nosedived, the consumption nosedived, and the producers were in deeper financial distress.
Michelle: I'm sure you know some of those producers personally. What is life like for them right now, and what is the impact despite the financial distress?
Dr. Sayed: When you talk about the financial distress, the whole poultry industry in India was losing and almost is losing about $300 million per day, which is really very significant. The broiler prices crashed from $1.20 to as low as $0.20. There were situations where we came across and I witnessed that the broilers have literally no price at all and they were freely distributed to the consumers. At this financial distress and at this crisis moment, the poultry producers came together, and this togetherness is very, very critical. All of them came together. They made a collective appeal and a plea to the government of India, to the Animal Husbandry Ministry and the finance ministry, and we are hopeful that there will be some stimulus or relief package coming to us in the poultry industry.
Now, going back to the rumors, there are — FIR has been registered in different police stations and different states. Some states have done incredibly well in trying to investigate where, why and how these rumors — who was behind them, and I'm sure they will book the culprit eventually, but frankly, I think that there is a lot for the industry to look beyond into the future and say, “Are we really prepared for another scenario like this?” and “What will happen if another scenario happens in a similar way?” So, I think it is time for them to really come together and look into the future.
Michelle: It sounds like poultry producers — like you said, it's just great distress at this time. What has changed for, say, milk producers?
Dr. Sayed: Even (for) the milk producers, the milk consumption has really dropped, because all the hotels, the restaurants in India drink a lot of milk, a lot of tea that has milk in it, so many reports suggest that 25% of the milk consumption has reduced. On the other side, if the cooperatives want to convert the liquid milk into SMP or powdered milk, the prices are not encouraging. The exports are not encouraging, so it's quite a challenging scenario for the dairy farmers, the dairy cooperatives, the milk processors, everybody in the supply chain here. It's all of these things. We have cooperatives like Amul that see a silver lining, and they are projecting a growth of 18%, even in this particular scenario. We have situations wherein some of the feed millers, the dairy feed millers, are facing a big issue in terms of getting the raw materials into their feed mill, and that is a situation where Alltech is trying to help them because we deal with feed ingredients as well, and we are trying to support and give our best in whatever way we could.
But we should also remember, Michelle, the corn farmers, the soya farmers. The corn farmers are already suffering because there is a challenge on the harvest. We generally have two crops in India, and while the soya harvest is going to happen late this year, I'm sure there will be a big stress on them as well. The entire supply chain has a big challenge at the moment.
Michelle: Crop farmers are hurting. I've just heard that wheat farmers in India are being asked to delay their harvest that would normally start in the first part of April. It's been pushed back. What's the impact on crop producers at this time?
Dr. Sayed: You're right. There is significant migration of laborers that has happened, particularly if you look at the wheat production, where India stands (at) number two in the world. The northern states — Punjab, Haryana, U.P. — they depend on the laborers that particularly come from the eastern part of India. Due to the lockdown, most of these laborers, they went back home, so the mid-size farmers and the large-size farmers are deeply affected because, to get the mechanical harvester into the field and get their harvest, it's just not possible. Late harvest means there is going to be a significant loss to them.
It is not just the wheat farmers. As I just said, it's the maize farmers as well. They are able to only harvest 10% of the maize, and 90% of the corn is still out in the field and is very vulnerable to the unseasonal rain that may come, so that, again, is going to affect the animal industry, which really is very much dependent on the agriculture industry. We do have situations wherein the vegetables, the fruits, even flowers — in India, since all the weddings have been called off, there are no events happening. The export is really uncertain. The floral industry is hit very, very badly, to the extent that beautiful flowers like marigold and roses go for ruminant feeding today, so the challenges are quite significant, and I hope we find relief very soon here, Michelle.
Michelle: Yeah — that sentiment is echoed around the world. Dr. Aman, the world of agriculture has a proven track record of overcoming strife. Those who work to support farmers and producers are no exception. I've heard stories of our colleagues, Alltech colleagues, delivering supplies to producers in their own cars, on their own motorbikes. Tell us exactly what's happening there, and what does that say about courage and bravery and overcoming during this crisis?
Dr. Sayed: Yeah. You make a really good point, Michelle. I think, after the lockdown, the transport in India was totally shut down. We certainly addressed all the people that are included with the healthcare, the police, everybody as heroes, but I must tell you, all those who are linked with the food chain are also heroes today. Our colleagues really stepped up in these tough moments wherein the layer farmers, in particular, were running short of stock because they did not have too much stock (and on) March 31, March being our financial year-end, they were running low on stock. They called us for Alltech products and supplies because they were not able to produce feed for the layer birds. We have dealers like SLP, Sri Lakshmi Prasanna, and our own people went out there on bikes and cars with one bag and two bags and tried to deliver the products to the farmers so that the farmer can still produce quality feed in these challenging times.
Michelle: Would you say that, at this time, producers and farmers might rely on your colleagues more now than they did before?
Dr. Sayed: Absolutely, and they came back saying that no company could (provide) service in this way, how Alltech and the dealers have done. There was a lockdown across the whole day, (and it was) only (in the) morning from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. that it was allowed within a three-kilometer radius to move, for example, in Andhra state.
Our people really woke up at three in the morning to go ahead with the deliveries, even up to 50 kilometers on bikes, to make sure that the farmers have at least 10 to 15 days’ stock and they can continue to run the show in this lockdown period, so certainly, they will remember Alltech and the Alltech dealer service for a long time.
Michelle: It certainly shows courage from our colleagues, as well, through this entire situation. It's hard to talk about opportunity or to focus on opportunity, but is there an opportunity in this pandemic, in these times, where we have been forced to adapt again and again?
Dr. Sayed: We have seen the challenge of labor, with great respect to all the laborers that continue to serve the industry. However, in this scenario, where we have deep scarcity of laborers, I think there will be more drive towards automation in every industry, whether it's dairy, whether it's poultry or ag-tech as a whole. I think automation is going to take an upper hand and the reliance on people will probably reduce. Also, I feel, with regard to personal hygiene, how we greet people, that's probably going to change. We talk about social distancing. My comment would be, probably, we are socially connected more online than ever before, so it is probably (more) physical distancing than social distancing.
Michelle: Yeah. This crisis is going to have an impact on us in so many different ways, but in the short term, crisis also sometimes drives innovation. In some cases, farmers are doing things that are outside the normal way that they operate. Can you think of specific examples of farmers driving innovation?
Dr. Sayed: Yeah. We have an example in North India, Michelle, where one poultry producer and poultry farmer, his son is basically a medical doctor. He attended ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference last year, and he and his team and his father, Mr. Jagdish too, they've come up and developed a ventilator in just three days. One would (guess) it is very expensive, with the increasing need of ventilators — not just in India, but across the globe — which cost a few thousand dollars, but they claimed to have developed this in just $140 or so. (It) is known as volume control ventilator, with a respiration rate of 12 to 30 per minute, which is incredible, really. They've put up their proposal to the government of India, and we are waiting for the approval. Really, they don't want to make money out of this, but what they are looking for is to work with the people, to save lives — as many as they can — and contribute to the society.
I also have another example to share with you wherein a couple of my school colleagues in my state, when the healthcare workers were running out of the face shields, the two (of them) came together with a club locally and developed a shield in just two days’ time and delivered those hundred face shields at no cost. Now, they are on the verge of making another hundred face shields, so, really, at this time, everybody is coming together to help others and to help the society and the community.
Michelle: Yeah. These farmers, these producers doing these things, they're suffering right now. So, in the midst of all the suffering, they're helping others. What does that say about the spirit of the farmer — the drive, the sacrifice they make to feed us all?
Dr. Sayed: I think it's a really unbelievable effort from the farmer, whether their aim is to really touch the human life or their aim is to do betterment for the society. Money is not everything, they believe, and there's life beyond money. The farmer is an unsung hero. They have been working very hard in the middle of this crisis — going out and feeding the birds, going out to the farm and collecting eggs, going out there milking the cows. Why? Just to get the food onto the table of the consumers when there is a total lockdown in the country.
I think, just like the healthcare workers, farmers need a very, very deep appreciation from everybody across the globe.
Michelle: Do you think, then, on the consumer level, does this change the way the world perceives agriculture? Oftentimes, producers are blamed for things like pollution, but is agriculture more appreciated now?
Dr. Sayed: Well, I hope that is the case, Michelle, and I wish that is the case as we move down the line during this pandemic and post-pandemic. Certainly, we consider doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, those involved in PPE manufacturing, those involved in sanitizers and disinfectant manufacturing, we consider them as heroes, but my only question would be: why not consider all the farmers involved in the food chain, getting the food onto the table of the consumers — why don't we consider them as heroes as well? I hope the government recognizes their efforts, and I hope better sense prevails.
Michelle: I certainly recognize them as heroes during this time and all throughout the year. The second wave of a pandemic, God forbid that'll happen, but will the ag sector be better prepared to react if it does, or is it even possible to prepare for something like this?
Dr. Sayed: I guess so. We are now better prepared if, at all — as you said, God forbid — the second pandemic comes through, but just to let you know the development in India, for example. This week, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare have announced and exempted the group of farmers — the FPOs, the Farmers Producers Organizations — they have allowed the farmers to go directly to the bulk buyers, processors and big retailers and avoiding those mandis, the APMCs. This is a big change, I believe, happening in India. This links the producers to the right people where, probably, they will get a better remunerative price, in a way. In the wake of this, reducing the number of people coming together, where mandis — it's so difficult, where the farmers would normally go to sell their produce, but now, the farmers can directly go and sell their produce to the big processors and the retailers as well.
The other change that we see that has happened (is that) the government of India has started a special eNAM. That is the National Agriculture Market portal, which has helped, and these modules have been released on the 2nd of April for e-trading of the stored agriculture produce of the farmers into the government-designated warehouses, and (this is) enabling the FPOs to upload their produce for their collection centers, for bidding through eNAM, without the necessity to bring these produce to the mandis. I think this really helps the agriculture farmer and the producer to get directly linked, in a way, to the consumers.
I hope a similar sense prevails in the animal industry, where, for example, in the case of chicken, 93% of the chicken in India is sold alive. I hope, post-pandemic and now, that all the stakeholders come together and build that infrastructure so that only processed chicken goes out to the consumers, and they own the brand of that chicken until it is delivered to the consumer so that if the consumer has any query on the quality of the chicken or any rumor they hear on the quality of the chicken, they can always call the producer and get that clarified. It is a big dream, where it might take eight to ten months to build that infrastructure for the poultry industry to convert the whole broilers that are produced in India into the processed chicken and totally stop selling the live chicken. If that happens, I think it is going to be a rebirth for the poultry industry.
Michelle: Yeah, change not just for poultry, but the entire world of ag.
Nobody knows when this is going to end, and certainly, we're all just trying to find our way. Dr. Sayed Aman, from Alltech India, stay safe, stay well, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Sayed: Thank you for having me, Michelle, and thanks to you and the president of Alltech, Dr. Mark Lyons.
Michelle: For additional resources on COVID-19, visit Alltech.com.