Going back to the basics

Organic farming can feed the world’s growing population, according to the findings from one of America’s leading universities.

The study showed that organic farms in developing countries can yield up to three times as much food as low-intensive methods on the same land.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms.  And in developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods, observed Professor Ivette Perfecto in the university’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and one the study’s principal investigators.

“Organic farming means going back to the basics,” says Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a non-government organization based in barangay Kinuskusan in Bansalan, Davao del Sur.

The center has been promoting organic farming since the 1970s.  “We want people who come to the center that once they return to their respective places,” Alimoane points out, “they have learned something which they could use in their own farms.”

Environment-friendly, natural, not using pesticides and other chemicals, sustainable, regenerative, and healthy – these are the words use to describe this method of farming which has recently captured the attention of many countries around the world.

Thanks to Republic Act 10068, organic farming is now being promoted in the Philippines.  More popularly known as the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010, the law is a state policy that promotes, propagates, and further develops the practice of organic farming in the country.

“Organic agriculture is the answer,” pointed out Jessica Reyes-Cantos of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network.  “It won’t only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable.  If farmers will have additional income from their land they will continue to plant rice.”

Definitions vary, but according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, organic agriculture is a production system that relies on ecological processes, such as waste recycling, rather than the use of synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices – especially in times of drought – when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time,” said Laura Reynolds, co-author of the Worldwatch report, “Organic Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Food Security.”

Reynolds, a researcher with Worldwatch’s Food and Agriculture Program, said that “conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”

Organic farming, she pointed out, has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.

Another benefit of organic agriculture is that it uses up to 50% less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming, and common organic practices – including rotating crops, applying mulch to empty fields, and maintaining perennial shrubs and trees on farms – also stabilize soils and improve water retention, thus reducing vulnerability to harsh weather patterns.

“On average, organic farms have 30% higher biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do,” pointed out Catherine Ward, co-author of the Worldwatch report.

Benefits like these are what inspired Benjamin R. Lao, of barangay Eman in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, to adopt organic farming.  His endeavor paid off when the Department of Agriculture named his as an outstanding organic farmer in 2012.

“We want to teach Filipino farmers the right way of farming through the natural method, without using commercial fertilizer or pesticides,” he said of those people who come to Lao Integrated Farm.

The farm is teeming with coconut (his primary source of income as he produces coco sugar) and various fruits like lanzones (more than a thousand trees), durian (700 trees), mangosteen, and rambutan.

In his farm, you won’t see his farm workers using chemical pesticides.  “I had a tragic experience with chemical pesticides when I was still a teenager while cultivating rice in our farm located at the neighboring barangay,” he revealed.

Instead, Lao recommends using Eman, which stands for “epektibo, mura, at natural” (effective, cheap, and natural).  “This is a concoction composed of fresh goats’ manure, kakawate, makabuhay, and hot pepper,” he informed.  “These are soaked together for 48 hours and after that the concoction is ready for application.”

According to him, Eman is effective in repelling plant pests and diseases.  In addition, it is also a good course of foliar fertilizer.  “We are committed to help preserve our environment.  We want to teach Filipino farmers the right way of farming through natural method and that is by not using commercial fertilizer or pesticides,” he said.

People who have been to the farm described it as a haven.  You don’t see only livestock and crops but ornamentals as well.  “It’s nice to see beautiful flowers underneath the trees,” he explained.  “Also, the flowers serve as breeding areas for beneficial insects like spiders and dragonflies.”

Another organic farmer from Bansalan is the Espinosa family of Lower Mabuhay.  During the Regional Organic Agriculture Congress last year, they were recognized as the organic farming family.  On their farm, chemicals are abhorred.

“I have one-hectare farmland and all that were planted are pure organic,” Janilo Espinosa, the head of the family, was quoted as saying.  “All our animals were fed using organic-based feeds.”

It was his parents who opened his eyes to organic farming.  “When I was a child, my family was into organic farming and I can still remember how we put up our garden,” he recalled.  “When I got married, I continued my family’s legacy and raised my children through organic farming.”

One good thing about organic farming is that it keeps the family healthy.  “Based on our own experience, compared to conventionally-grown food, organic food is much richer in nutrients,” Espinosa said.  “It enhances the nutrients of the soil which is passed on to the plants and animals.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Perfecto said the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is “ridiculous.”

In an article which appeared in People and the Planet, she was quoted as saying: “Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies-all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food.”

The outcomes of their study seemed to jibe with the earlier findings by a British team, which reported in 1999 that organic farming could produce enough food to feed large populations.  In fact, the said study concluded that it could be viable even in developing countries if the political climate is favorable.

Farms could be economically viable on a much larger scale, even in developing countries with large populations, said Dr. Liz Stockdale, of the Institute of Arable Crop Research in England.

“In less developed countries, countries where the conventional agricultural systems aren’t that intensive to start with, we can see that conventional systems and organic systems actually can match yields very closely,” she added. (To be continued)