Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Filipino farmers searching for an environment-friendly system and improving their income should look no further—the answer to their quest: organic farming.
In Magsaysay, Davao del Sur, more farmers are now growing rice organically. In the past, they didn’t want to do so because they thought their harvest would be greatly affected. But when they saw the bounty harvest of those who practiced the system compared to those who didn’t, they immediately shifted their farming method.
“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.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports the idea. Its report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security, clearly states that organic farming fights hunger, tackles climate change, and is good for farmers, consumers, and the environment.
The FAO report frames a paradox within the conventional food production systems. The global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry. The use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing, yet grain productivity is dwindling to shallow levels.
Not only that. Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades. Industrialized food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings, and high numbers of farmers have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.
“While many think of organic farming as something new, it is actually centuries old,” wrote Patrick Raymund A. Lesaca, in an article published in BAR Digest, a quarterly publication of the Bureau of Agricultural Research. “Organic farming was the original type of agriculture and had been used for thousands of years. One can surmise therefore that the practice of organic farming or organic agriculture in the Philippines began when man started to domesticate the land. Our forefathers used organic materials as their primary means to grow and cultivate their crops.”
The practice persisted until the dawn of the chemically induced fertilizers. In the early 1970s — when the oil price and the price of chemical fertilizer shot up — that it paved the gradual entry of organic agriculture in the mainstream of agricultural production. “It may be said that the renewed interest in organic materials as fertilizers in search for alternative sources of nutrients loomed in the face of escalating prices of fertilizers,” Lesaca wrote.
“Actually, organic farming means going back to the basics,” says Jethro P. Adang, the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) director, 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,” Adang 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 used to describe this farming method, 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 organic farming practices in the country.
During the 8th National Organic Agriculture Conference in Hacienda Luisita last year, President Benigno Aquino III directed the Department of Agriculture to allocate 2-percent of its annual budget for the implementation of the department’s programs and policies on organic agriculture.
The Philippines is not the only country adopting organic farming. “Organic farming is now established in international standards, and 84 countries had implemented organic regulations by 2010, up from 74 countries in 2009,” said a report from Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C.
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 the institute’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.
In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, certified organic farming accounted for approximately 0.9 percent of the world’s agricultural land. With a total of 2.8 million hectares, Asia is home to 7 percent of the world’s certified organic agricultural land.
Organic farming is bound to increase manual labor as “sustainable practices associated with organic farming are relatively labor intensive,” Worldwatch said in a statement released to the press.
Organic agriculture uses up to 50 percent less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming. 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 percent higher biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do,” pointed out Catherine Ward, co-author of the 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 him 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.
On his farm, you won’t see his farmworkers using chemical pesticides. “I had a tragic experience with chemical pesticides when I was still a teenager while cultivating rice in our farm located in 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 methods 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.”
In Victorias City’s heart, there is less than a hectare farm, which is considered one of the top agri-tourism destinations in Negros Occidental. “We can address the problem of poverty by teaching people about farming,” said Ramon Dayrit Peñalosa, Jr., the owner of the farm.
“Mr. Organic,” the moniker Peñalosa earned for venturing into organic farming and stuck to it like glue, really never thought of becoming an agripreneur. When his former business, bus transport system, closed down, he was left with a property that was used before as a garage and repair area for vehicles.
“We had to think of something that would make our property into something productive,” recalled organic guru and pillar of organic farming in Negros Island and Western Visayas. “So we tried something far off from bus lines.”
In the beginning, he planted kangkong in the property, particularly near the water-logged areas. Later on, the whole area was swamped with kangkong. So he decided to raise pigs, which he found out to be viable. He added more pigs, and before he knew it, he was already raising 40 pigs all in all. He thought of raising tilapia, ducks, and chickens. He planted fruit trees and vegetable crops.
It was just a matter of time that he learned about organic farming. But to Peñalosa, organic farming has a lot to do with “maka” (a Hiligaynon prefix that usually means “for” ): “maka-tao” (people-friendly), “maka-kalikasan” (environment and wildlife as the main focus), “maka-lupa” (pro-soil), “maka-kalusugan” ( does not threaten the well-being of a person), “maka-kinabukasan” (pro-future), “maka-bulsa” (profitable), and “maka-Diyos” (pro-God).
Peñalosa believes that a farmer should not only be content with merely planting seeds into the soil and see them grow. “To become a successful farmer, he has to understand the whole concept of agricultural production,” he explained. “He has to learn the business side.”
Farmers should never go hungry and should be well off, he believed. But such is not the case in the real sense. “Sixty percent of Filipinos are into agriculture and fishery and yet they still belong to the poorest sector,” he deplored.
That’s why Peñalosa recommended that farmers should think like a businessman. “An agripreneur should go into business opportunities under the concept of farm to market, farm to kitchen, and farm to plate,” he said.
Feeding the growing population
However, if the country goes organic, the primary objective should be feeding its growing population. A study conducted by the University of Michigan (UM) found out that organic farms in developing countries can yield up to three times as much food as low-intensive methods on the same land.
Professor Ivette Perfecto, one of the study’s principal investigators, said that yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms in developed countries. And in developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods.
“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” said Prof. Perfecto, who is with the university’s school of natural resources and environment. In addition, to equal or greater yields, the study found that those yields could be accomplished using existing quantities of organic fertilizers without putting more farmland into production.
Prof. Perfecto finds it “ridiculous” with the claim that people would go hungry if farming went organic. 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.”
Mitigates climate change
Another important role of organic farming: it mitigates climate change. A 30-year scientific trial shows that organic practices could counteract up to 40 percent of global greenhouse gas output. Andre Leu, chairman of the Organic Federation of Australia, claims the trial of organic and conventional farming practices has proved that organic practices “can be the single biggest way to mitigate climate change.”
Scientists at the Rodale Institute in the United States have proven that organic farming practices can remove about 7,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the air each year and sequester it in a hectare of farmland.
According to Leu, the scientists estimated that if all of America’s 100 million hectares of cropland were converted to organic practices, it would be the equivalent of taking 217 million cars off the road.
“This is not a theoretical estimate as in some of the tree plantation models or unproven like the millions of dollars being spent on clean coal or mechanical geo sequestration trials,” Leu pointed out. “This is being achieved now by organic farmers in the United States, Australia and around the world.”