PHILIPPINES: Organic Farming - The Way Forward

PHILIPPINES: Organic Farming - The Way Forward
By Prime Sarmiento

Peter Desisto is one happy farmer who switched to organic rice cultivation.

Credit:Prime Sarmiento/IPS

NUEVA ECIJA, Sep 11 (IPS) - Sustainable agriculture was far from farmer Peter Desisto’s mind when he went to an organic farming seminar organised by the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) ten years ago. He and other farmers attended because they heard that PRRM was giving out loans.

Borrowing is a way of life for farmers who need to purchase expensive chemical pesticide and fertiliser before they can even plant rice in their fields. Such borrowings, usually from local money lenders who charge high interest, keep farmers perpetually in debt. The harvest gives them little surplus to avoid fresh loans in the next cropping season.

Desisto came out from the PRRM seminar loaded, not with borrowed money, but with new knowledge and a firm conviction that organic farming was the way forward. He gave up chemical-based inputs and instead bought cheaper chicken manure to fertilise the fields, raised ducks that eat the snails that were ruining his rice stalks, and used indigenous herbs to control pests.

Instead of solely relying on rice, Desisto diversified into hog and poultry raising and planting onions for extra income. "I spent more time applying chicken manure and planting other crops. The extra effort paid off," he said.

Now Desisto is not only free of debt but also able to provide adequately for his family. He is also content that the land he’s renting remains productive, with an annual rice harvest at 90 sacks, which he attributes to the fact that his land is not bombarded with chemicals.

Desisto is one of a growing number of farmers in Nueva Ecija --one of the main rice growing areas in the Philippines -- who have abandoned pesticides and synthetic fertilisers in favour of organic farming. "Sustainable agriculture in rice farming addressed the problem of high cost of chemical farming and acted on health, environmental and ecological considerations,’’ the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) noted in its study published last year.

Organic agriculture products trading in the world is increasing by 20-30 percent every year and the Philippines can easily claim a large share of a market that is estimated to be worth 100 billion US dollars. Popular organic products exported from the Philippines include bananas, beef, mangoes, muscovado sugar, papayas, peanuts, poultry, soya milk, vegetables from the uplands, yellow corn and rice.

Introduction of the so-called Green Revolution technology in the 1970s helped increase yields -- but at a high cost. The high yielding seeds were also dependent on expensive chemical inputs that poisoned the soil and water sources, hurt land productivity and harmed farmers’ health. This is why NGOs like PRRM have been advocating a return to organic farming, believing that this will not just solve environmental problems but will also ensure food security.

"Organic agriculture is the answer. 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,'' R1 lead convenor Jessica Reyes-Cantos said.

Cantos believes that the government should channel more funds to develop organic agriculture and ensure self sufficiency instead of spending money on stop gap measures like rice imports or giving out subsidised seeds.

Cantos urges the Philippine department of agriculture to implement the following measures: support farmers to improve their own seed varieties; promote credit support for organic farmers; provide more post harvest facilities and create a marketing fund to protect the farmers of organically- grown products from unscrupulous traders.

Philippine agriculture officials are now seeing the benefits of organic farming. At a press briefing last month, agriculture secretary Arthur Yap said the department will set aside P800 million (16 million dollars) to encourage rice farmers to engage in organic farming for the September-October planting season.

Yap said he is hoping that this will at least help farmers cut overheads as costs of synthetic fertiliser rise along with global petroleum prices.

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