Monday, October 24, 2005


No Free Lunch: Sustainable agriculture works
Posted: 7:37 PM Oct. 23, 2005, Cielito Habito, Inquirer News Service
Published on Page B2 of the October 24, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

A FEW YEARS AGO, I AND A COLLEAGUE IN the Ateneo Economics Department did a survey of rice farmers around the country, and found that many of them had seen declining yields per hectare over time. The only logical explanation seemed to be that the quality of the land they were planting to rice year after year was deteriorating through time. Many were getting less than 50 cavans of palay per hectare, or less than half of what had been commonly achieved in the 1960s with the Masagana 99 program.

Farmers commonly described the situation to us as "napapagod ang lupa" (the soil is tired or exhausted). It's an interesting way of putting it, and I defer to the wisdom of people who have spent the good part of their lives eking out a living from tilling the land. They must know what they are talking about.

Magsaysay's DOFS
Two weekends ago, I found myself in the town of Magsaysay in Davao del Sur, witnessing a unique project of the municipal government under Mayor Arthur Davin called the Diversified Organic Farming System or DOFS. I say it's unique as I've heard of numerous NGOs pushing and practicing organic farming and sustainable agriculture. But this was the first time I was seeing a local government unit (LGU) actually embracing and propagating the concept.

What was particularly heartening here was that the municipal government's NGO partner, the Don Bosco Center, attested that it was the LGU that sought them out, not the other way around, which was the more normal experience. I know of many similar NGOs promoting sustainable agriculture who are merely tolerated, even humored, by the LGU or the Department of Agriculture (DA), but typically do not receive any serious government assistance. Betsy Ruizo of the Don Bosco Center describes their relationship with other LGUs as "peaceful coexistence" at best. As such, these initiatives remain few and relatively isolated, even though a number of them have reaped recognition and awards for positive achievements.

Cheap fertilizer
DOFS, which the Magsaysay LGU claims to have 138 farmer-adopters covering 122 hectares so far, promotes a self-sustaining farming system where the farm family combines production of rice, fruits, and vegetables with raising livestock like goats and cattle. No chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are used. Soil fertilization is provided by all-natural organic fertilizers, much of it made on-farm out of animal manure and compost from organic solid waste.

Does it work? DOFS farmers swear that their yields have increased over time, even though the initial impact of the shift may be to slightly reduce yield--though this does not necessarily always happen. By the third crop, they typically match or exceed what they used t o attain with chemical fertilizers, i.e. once the soil is fully rejuvenated. On the other hand, those farmers using chemical fertilizers find that they have to keep raising fertilizer application year after year even just to maintain yield levels they have been accustomed to. With rapidly rising fertilizer prices, this is clearly an unsustainable situation.

Low input, high return
To control pests, crops are sprayed with a mixture of--guess what--milk and honey. DOFS farmers all attest to their superior effectiveness compared to chemical pesticides, not to mention the avoidance of toxic chemicals. A recent pest infestation reportedly led to tremendous damage to conventionally grown crops. But the crops sprayed with the milk-honey mixture somehow proved more resistant. Whereas the former were reportedly lucky to salvage 10-20 cavans per hectare, the DOFS farms still managed 60-70 cavans. It was explained to me that milk and honey were part of a biological control system that attracts predators who feed on the pests infesting the plants.

The clear advantage of DOFS over the usual farming system lies in the cash costs involved, apart from the price premium organically grown rice fetches in the market. With very little cash costs required, DOFS gives the farmer a significantly higher net income per hectare (P24,434 as against P16,984), even under the slightly diminished yield that initially results from the shift.

Moreover, it makes it unnecessary for farmers to borrow working capital, cutting their dependency on trader-lenders who later take advantage by paying lower prices for the committed harvest. Early DOFS adopter Aling Lorna Silvano and her husband Mang Dado attest that they have not incurred new debts since they practiced DOFS. She will soon finish paying off previously incurred ones. DOFS has, in effect, liberated them from bondage to their creditors.

Vested interests?
Mayor Davin and DOFS project manager Carlos Ortiz tell me that one of their more formidable early challenges had been lack of support from the DA, whose current pet program on promoting input-intensive hybrid rice is seen by government technicians to be subverted by DOFS. And yet farmers I met attest that their yields hardly increased using the government's imported hybrid rice seeds, while having had to spend more on inputs. DOFS made more economic sense for them. One farmer expressed suspicion that hybrid rice is being pushed because some people are making money from seed procurements. True or not, DOFS deserves much more than just token support from DA. Magsaysay is showing that sustainable agriculture works-and could improve a lot of people's lives while sustaining our environment. Truly a win-win situation.

Copyright 2005 Inquirer News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

No Free Lunch: Fixing Philippine agriculture
Posted: 7:59 PM Oct. 09, 2005, Cielito Habito, Inquirer News Service
Published on Page B4 of the October 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

BACK IN 1986, I WAS AMONG A GROUP of UP Los Baños agriculturists and economists who prepared a volume entitled "Agenda for Action in the Philippine Rural Sector," which subsequently became known as the Green Book. We produced it with the blessings of then Agriculture Secretary Sonny Dominguez to serve as the "bible" for reforming the agricultural sector under the Cory Aquino administration.

Persistent problemsWhat is striking about this work is that most of the problems we described then, some two decades ago, are still very much with us today. Not only have problems persisted; in some cases, things have gotten worse.

We continue to lament how small farmers get so little share of the final price of their products paid by end-consumers, while the agricultural traders and processors have continued to reap handsome benefits. We continue to lament the lack of farm-to-market roads, irrigation and post-harvest facilities, and other rural infrastructure vital to the livelihoods of our small farmers. We continue to lament how little credit is accessible to our small farmers, preventing them from improving the productivity of their farms and thereby raise their incomes. We continue to lament how woefully little is devoted to research and development (R&D) in agriculture, when the norm in most countries is about one percent of the value of the sector's output (agriculture GDP). And rightly or wrongly, we continue to blame the Department of Agriculture (DA) whenever the poor performance of the farm and fisheries sector comes to the fore.

DA's roleWhenever I would report bad performance for the agriculture sector during the Ramos administration, the primary reason would be unfavorable weather, i.e. droughts or floods. In August 1995, when rice prices hit the roof, I remember having to explain the rice shortages prevailing then as the result of crop damage due to floods in some provinces and drought in others-both happening at the same time! On the other hand, when agricultural output was good, it would then be explained mainly by favorable weather.

DA Secretary Bobot Sebastian would constantly complain at that time that Neda failed to give enough credit to his department when agricultural performance was up--but of course would not claim responsibility and be happy with blaming the weather whenever it was down. But what can DA really do to influence performance of the agriculture and fisheries sector? The more meaningful question is, what should it do?

Incomes, not output
What really should be DA's ultimate objective? Is it raising agricultural production, or is it raising farmers' incomes? I'd like to believe more people would go for the latter. Sonny Dominguez's catch phrase during his leadership of the DA in the late 80s was "Making small farmers profitable," and we believed then, as we do now, that he had it right. For what is increased production if the farmer does no get any better off as a result? Last week, we were talking about Gross National Happiness and the Bhutanese philosophy that increased happiness does not necessarily follow from increased production (GNP) or even increased income. But at least, in the small Filipino farmer's context, the latter could be more directly linked with his and his family's happiness, rather than overall agricultural production.

And yet, DA officials tell me that when they are grilled in congressional hearings, lawmakers seem to be interested mainly in production, not farm incomes. They would be taken to task for unfavorable production levels in this or that crop (depending on the dominant crop in a particular congressman's district), with little regard for the farmers' incomes or welfare. But the true test of the government's success in agriculture is whether the lives of rural farm families are uplifted, and rural poverty is brought down from its persistently high levels.

DA steers, LGUs row
The reality is, poverty continues to afflict more than 40 percent of rural Filipino families, while overall poverty incidence has already dropped below 30 percent. This means that rural dwellers--who are mostly farm families--are being left behind by their urban counterparts in getting out of poverty.

I would rely more on the local governments to address their plight, as they are the units of government closest to, and thus most familiar with the problem. I've come to believe that our farm sector will not overcome its age-old problems until we give full responsibility and accountability to local governments to uplift farms and farmers' families. DA should not insist on directly running projects on the ground, unless they transcend provincial boundaries or are of clear national scope. Direct assistance and support to farmers has already been demonstrated to be effectively provided by award-winning local governments such as Negros Oriental, Tuguegarao City, and many others. DA only needs to help the local governments do the job well, via technical guidance and standards setting, and logistical support. When things go wrong in agriculture, DA need not assume all the blame, as it currently does. DA's leadership in agriculture is best exercised in effectively steering the sector--but leave the rowing to the LGUs.

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