Making both conventional and organic agriculture work in the Philippines

Published November 30, 2019, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

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

One of the key issues confronting Philippine agriculture (and the rest of the world!) is to what extent organic agriculture should be pushed to replace the current mainstream agricultural practices, also collectively referred to, as conventional agriculture.

The advocates of organic agriculture claim that the present chemical-based, industrial agriculture is unhealthy and unsafe to consumers and the producers (farmers) themselves, and destructive of the environment. Further that organic produce are more nutritious and taste better.

The defenders of conventional agriculture, on the other hand, contend that these assertions are exaggerated and at best only partly true.

The claimed advantages from the adoption of natural, environment-friendly practices are not exclusive to organic farming because the same practices are employed in conventional farming to varying degrees.

Among these common sustainable practices are: 1) mechanical cultivation for weed control, 2) mulching and fertilization with straws and other farm wastes, 3) use of legume cover crops, 4) use of conventionally-bred high yielding varieties, 5) crop rotation and intercropping, 6) deployment of natural traps and biological control agents, and 7) use of beneficial microorganisms for soil enhancement and pest control.

The points of divergence between the two alternative farming systems are the complete ban on the: 1) application of chemical fertilizers, 2) use of chemical pesticides, and 3) adoption of genetically modified crops (GMOs) because of their alleged adverse effects. These fears are exaggerated and are not supported by science.

Contrary to the assertions that chemical fertilizers are harmful to soils, long-term field experiments, some dating as early as 1856, have demonstrated that the productivity of farm lands continuously cropped with wheat, maize, soybean and rice can be sustained indefinitely with judicious moderate applications of chemical fertilizers.

The new generation of chemical pesticides are more target specific, less toxic and more effective than the traditional copper sulfate and botanical pesticides allowed in organic farming.

Again, contrary to the fears of organic advocates, there is a global scientific consensus that GMO crops are as safe (or no more risky) compared with conventionally-bred varieties. Even now more valuable planting materials with novel traits are being developed utilizing recent advances in genome editing and synthetic biology.

The bottom line is that the non-use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides generally result in lower yields, less protection and higher costs for organically grown crops. The demonstrated yield penalties per US Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies could amount to as much as 45% in cotton, 35% in corn and 31% in soybean. And in order for the organic farmers to recover income loss, organic produce have to be sold at a premium, making food more expensive to consumers.

Moreover, from the environment point of view, lower yield from organic crops mean that globally, more natural forests and grasslands need to be plowed under to produce the same amount of food for the world’s ever-growing population. More land under cultivation mean more soil erosion; more river, seas and aquifer pollution, and greater loss of habitat, and thereby, greater loss of biodiversity.

Given the foregoing, it is clear that organic farming in the formal sense cannot be the mainstream means of food production in our country. Organic production will raise food costs and make more Filipinos food insecure. Besides with our high population and limited availability of arable lands, there is little scope for further expansion of farm lands to make up for the loss of tonnage associated with organic farming.

On the other hand, there is a rapidly growing demand for organic produce among affluent consumers mainly in Europe, USA and Australia. Since 1999 farmlands devoted to organic farming have grown from 11.0 million hectares to 69.8 million hectares (1.4% of world total farm lands). In 2017, the value of organic foods and beverages were worth US$97.8 billion (4.1% of the total agricultural produce of US$2.4 trillion).

The export of tropical organic products is a trading opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.

Enjoying the best
of both worlds

There are pros and cons to the two alternative farming systems. Modern, conventional agriculture have led to higher productivity and more efficient use of resources, particularly land and labor. However, the excesses in the use of chemicals have led to adverse consequences in the sustainability of the environment.

Therefore, there is a strong case to be made for a return to the many environment-friendly practices preached by organic farming.

However, the rigid exclusion in organic farming of the use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and GMOs is an over-reaction and controverted by science.

In the case of fertilizers, the correct approach is a judicious mix of both organic and chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers provide the density and timeliness of major nutrients for optimum crop growth. The organic fertilizers, on the other hand, provide: 1) organic matter for better soil structure for root aeration and proper drainage, 2) trace elements, and 3) beneficial soil microorganisms, important components not found in the former.

In the case of pesticides and GMOs, advances in science, particularly chemistry, genome editing, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, promise new pesticides which are more effective and less toxic and crops with novel traits. But because they are man-made and do not exist in nature as such, they will not pass muster under the organic label. Depriving farmers and consumers of these future, potentially more productive, healthier and safer options is myopic and mindless.

Niches for organic agriculture

Still and all there are at least three niches where formal organic agriculture makes economic sense, namely: 1) at the household level, using freely available kitchen and farm wastes and making better use of unpaid family labor; also in school and community gardens, 2) for domestic farm- and eco-tourism as attractions, demonstrating sound ecology, proper human nutrition, and health and wellness i.e. organic foods, herbals and supplements, and 3) for global export to create greater vale for certain tropical produce where the Philippine enjoys a significant market share and which we want to protect.

In particular, we are the world’s leading exporter of bananas and pineapple. 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 pineapple. We should set aside certain areas for organic banana and pineapple production to protect our share in the market.

Equally compelling is the new growing global market for coconut water and coconut cream (substitute for cow’s milk) in various plant-based food formulations. Similarly, we should develop the technologies for the organic culture of high-yielding coconut hybrids intercropped with organic coffee, cacao and other fruit crops for export. This is a great opportunity to expand food exports and to multiply the income of our poor coconut farmers, who have been suffering from depressed coconut oil prices.

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).
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