Going back to the basics

Last of Three Parts

If someone mentions the words “organic agriculture,” what comes into your mind right away?

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.

“The deteriorating condition of the environment has contributed to the increasing vulnerability of the agriculture sector particularly to extreme weather events,” said the Department of Agriculture in a statement.  “Predominance of chemical-intensive farming has contributed to at least 33% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is in this premise that the department aims to promote organic farming.”

These days, organic farming is heavily promoted – thanks to signing of Republic Act No. 10068 on April 6, 2010.  It was touted as “a landmark legislation for the development and promotion of organic agriculture.”

“(The Act) is a result of long years of development efforts mostly by non-government community-based organizations and private groups pushing for agriculture sector reforms around ecologically sustainable, environment-friendly and safer production systems.  It also concerns on the availability of safer and more nutritious staples and food, and increased farm productivity and income opportunities for the Filipino farmers.”

The agriculture’s organic farming program has five objectives.  One is better farm incomes and sustainable livelihood for Filipino farmers: “Increased farm productivity, reduced expenses on external farm inputs, better incomes for farmers and reduction of poverty in the rural sector.”

Environmental protection is another reason: “Enhanced soil fertility and farm biodiversity, reduced pollution and destruction of the environment as well as prevention of further depletion of natural resources.”

Still another: improved health.  By adopting organic farming, the health of farmers, consumers and the public in general are protected.

Another one: disaster risk reduction and resilience to climate change: “Improved resiliency to disaster risks and climate change vulnerabilities caused by human interventions and naturally induced hazards.”

Final objective: social justice.  “Meeting the basic needs and improving standard of living for all, upholding human rights, gender equality, labor standards and the right to self-determination,” the agriculture department explains.

In Davao City, the Association of Davao Organic Advocates is one of the groups that is busy promoting organic farming as it offers more benefits compared with the convention methods in the long run.  “Farmers can have lesser expenses and more profit compared to non-organic farming,” said Maxey Atog, the advocates’ vice-president.

In the beginning, modern farming – which uses chemicals and other farm inputs – may be big in returns but it’s only superficial.  “Production is a big process so the profit for non-organic products is actually smaller compared to the expenses in organic farming,” Atog was quoted in an interview with EDGE Davao.

As stated earlier, the practice of organic agriculture can significantly control the pollution brought about by using chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.  By avoiding using them, the soil fertility is greatly improved.

This is the reason why the Bureau of Soil and Water Management, a line agency of the agriculture department, considered organic agriculture as one of the methods that can combat land degradation.

It has been found that organic agriculture does not only help improve soil fertility but also prevent wind and water erosion of the soil, improve water infiltration and retention capacity, reduce surface and ground water consumption and subsequent soil salinization and reduce ground and surface water contamination.

In the Philippines, land degradation is a continuing serious problem. Around 11.45 million hectares (about 38% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares) is the estimated degraded land.  About 2.6 million hectares are considered hot spots as these are cultivated without soil and water conservation measures.

As a result, soil productivity has been reduced by 30% to 50%.  The estimated total net primary productive loss from 1981 to 2003 was 4,100,145 tons, which affected 33 million people or about 42.75% of the total population at that time, a report said.

It’s almost eight years now since RA 10068 was signed.  But the big question remains: Why most Filipino farmers are still not adopting the technology?  What are the reasons?

To find out, Lucille Elna Parreno-de Guzman conducted a study in selected towns in Laguna and in La Trinidad, Benguet, where farmers are adopting organic agriculture.  Chemical pollution of soil and water bodies is the main land degradation issue in the municipalities where the study was done.  “This is mainly due to the continuous and indiscriminate use of chemical inputs in farming,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.

The study was part of the of the cross-country research project, “Sustainable Land Management: Adoption and Implementation Constraints,” which was funded by the Economy and Environment Programs for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) and the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative.

Agricultural savants believe that continued use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides causes organisms present in the soil to die.  Without soil organisms, chemically saturated land will eventually lose its capacity to nourish healthy and fruitful crops, until finally the soil “dies.”  With “dead” soil, how can farmers grow crops?

“In Laguna, soil erosion occurs but only at a minimal rate,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.  “Farmers who have converted to organic agriculture did so mainly to observed and experienced negative health effects in using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”

Despite the benefits derived from organic agriculture, farmers were still not agog about it.  The author cited four reasons:

For one, organic agriculture is “knowledge-intensive.”  There are so many options available and it’s up to the farmers to select which suit best to their farms.  After training, “constant monitoring and assistance are still needed to ensure farmers’ continuous practice and compliance to organic agriculture standards,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.

Another reason: too much labor in the production of organic fertilizers and concoctions.  Most farmers are used to having quick fixes by simply buying chemical inputs.  “Gathering raw materials and preparing these into organic fertilizers and other concoctions is considered laborious and time-consuming,” wrote Parreno-de Guzman.

Vermicomposting – the process of using earthworms to turn organic waste into vermicompost – is the main fertilizer production technology promoted in organic agriculture.  But doing so entails high capital as it requires construction of vermi beds and the use of a shredder to cut the materials for composting.  “These expenses are beyond the reach of small farmers,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.

But the real reason why most farmers won’t adopt the technology is the low production during the conversion period.  The low harvest is due to the use of organic fertilizer.  “The NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in chemical fertilizers is easily available for plant uptake unlike organic fertilizers which are slow in releasing nutrients,” wrote Parreno-de Guzman.

Aside from those four reasons, the high cost of organic certification has also been cited as a stumbling block.  Section 17 of RA 10068 stated: “Only third-party certification is allowed (for agriculture produce) to be labeled as organically produced.”

The researcher considered that statement as limiting factor in organic agriculture implementation.  In addition, the cost of certification – ranging from P42,000 to P150,000 – is another limiting factor.