Making both conventional and organic agriculture work in PH

Published November 16, 2019, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

Dr. Emil Q. Javier
Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Global Organic
Agriculture in 2017

Despite the arguments against the soundness of the prohibition of use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and GMOs, organic agriculture had been growing spectacularly during the last 18 years. From 11.0 million hectares in 1999, farmlands devoted to organic production have multiplied in 2017 to 69.8 million hectares, 1.4% of the world’s total farmlands.

In terms of monetary value, organic foods and beverages were worth US$97.8 billion in 2017. This was 4.1% of the global agriculture produce of US$2.4 trillion.

Small farmers are increasingly getting engaged in organic farming. India leads with 835,000 small organic growers. The Philippines with 166,000 is fifth among the countries with the largest numbers of organic producers.

Realities of world agriculture

Thus, there are two opposing views on the future of world agriculture. On one hand is mainstream conventional agriculture which provides the bulk of food for humanity (98.6% of hectarage). And on the other, organic agriculture which claims to address the downsides of the dominant conventional, chemical-based, industrial agriculture. The latter is still very small but growing fast in the developed countries particularly among well-off urban dwellers.

In the global scale, the glaring undeniable reality is the need for more food to feed the planet’s growing population which is projected to grow from the present 7.7 billion to 9.8 billion in 2050. This much increase in food production will have to be achieved with increasingly less farmland, less fresh water and diminishing biodiversity.

On the positive side, we are witness to the increasing sophistication in genome editing and synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. These advances in science and technology are anticipated to raise primary productivity in the farms, introduce new tools to address old intractable problems, produce altogether new products, and establish new livelihoods and industries.

Unfortunately, unless the organic farming community relents in its doctrinal discrimination against synthetic, man-made inputs, these improvements will not pass muster under the organic label.

Domestically, at least in the next two decades, unless our economy takes a sharp turn for the better, an embarrassing proportion of Filipinos will still be poor and food insecure. With continuing population growth, and diversion of precious farm lands to human settlements and industrial uses, our per capita availability of arable land and water for irrigation will worsen. Hence, the imperative to dramatically raise productivity per hectare per year and per liter of available irrigation water, and at a cost affordable to the poor.

This is precisely the argument against large-scale adoption of organic agriculture. The counterclaims of organic advocates notwithstanding, in studies after studies, in many countries over a range of commodities and varying growing conditions, the yields of organic farms are consistently less than their conventional counterparts.

With lower yields and higher costs of production, foods produced the organic way will not be affordable to the poor and therefore make more Filipinos food insecure.

Rationale for organic
agriculture in the Philippines

Clearly, organic agriculture in the strict, legal sense, with the high food costs, cannot be the mainstream means of food production in our country.

Nevertheless, there are at least three niches where organic agriculture can fit, namely: 1) at the household level, using freely available kitchen and farm wastes, and making better use of unpaid family labor, 2) in organic food and herbal production for our nascent agriculture and eco-tourism industry, and 3) for global export to create greater value for certain tropical produce where the Philippines enjoys a significant market share and which we want to protect.

The rationale for organic food production for both rural and even urban households is straightforward. Home gardens using readily available domestic and farm wastes as fertilizers, and exploiting unpaid household labor, can produce nutritious food for the family with hardly any cash cost. Pests and diseases which are invariably problematic in organic farming are minimal for plants grown in small plots or in small containers.

We are regional laggards in tourism and it was only recently when we recognized the opportunities in domestic agriculture and eco-tourism. The main attractions apart from our tropical landscape and spontaneous genial hospitality of our people, are fine local handicrafts and organically-grown food produce and herbals. Since the margins from organic products are very high, the high costs associated with organic produce is not a constraint.

The third niche has to do with value adding and protecting our market share in global exports, specifically in bananas and pineapples where we are the world’s leading producer. Affluent consumers in the United States, many parts of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and now China are willing to pay the premium for organically grown bananas and pineapples. We do not as yet produce organic bananas and pineapples in commercial quantities. But we should, lest the competition beat us to the market.

A third potentially very profitable product niche for the Philippines is organic coconut water (and organic coconut cream, coco sugar, etc.). Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola are jockeying for dominance in the trending healthy, light coconut water market. But as the world’s leading exporter of coconut products, the coconut water market naturally belongs to us and we should assert our claim.

But coconut water has to compete in the crowded and highly competitive global beverage market with established plant juices like orange, pineapple, mango, grapefruit, apple and tomato. It will be a tremendous marketing advantage if Philippine coconut water (and the other by-products as well, like coconut cream, coco sugar, chips) were to be advertised as purely natural and organic.

Actually, for the most part our coconuts receive no fertilizers and pesticides, and therefore, tongue-in-cheek, our coconuts are already organically grown.
Unfortunately, this is the very reason why our coconut farmers are so poor. Our national average yield is very low, at about 34 nuts per tree per year. If we really go organic with legume cover cropping and generous application of chicken and pig manure, and planting the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) high-yielding coconut hybrids, we should be able to raise coconut productivity and income of coconut growers three times i.e. to 120 nuts per tree per year.

Further, we can intercrop the coconuts with coffee, cacao, pineapple, papaya, etc. and claim that all these other produce are similarly organically-grown. Thus, our coconut farmers will realize multiple premiums not only from organic coconut water but also from organic coconut cream, organic coco sugar, and organic coffee, cacao, pineapple, avocado and jackfruit which tropical produce we can profitably grow and export.

(To be continued… Conclusion Part 4)

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email [email protected]