Organic agriculture guided by inclusive agribusiness



(Second of two parts)
From what I have observed, organic farming in the Philippines is also viewed as an activity that does not need the latest in farming technology, with the “purists” shunning even the use of the latest planting materials.

There are purists who also believe that organic farming can be undertaken with folk knowledge, and not applying modern technology and knowledge because that will result in the production of truly organic food.

One good example of the purist approach in organic farming is the use of heirloom seeds, which have very low yields compared to the latest cultivars. For example, you would be lucky if you can get a yield of one metric ton per hectare from using heirloom rice seeds, which is way below the national average of 4 to 5 MT/ha using hybrid and certified seeds. Heirloom varieties also take longer to mature and be ready for harvest.

With the rather low yields from organic farms using folk knowledge and heirloom planting materials, the products from such farms can end up with sky-high prices and isolating a much bigger market of consumers who also want to patronize food that is more nutritious.

What I am saying is this: while there is niche market for organic products from farms that still use heirloom varieties and folk knowledge to grow crops, there are more consumers who are willing to pay a premium for crops grown without chemicals that are popularly known as “organically grown.”

There is also a law, Republic Act 10068 or the “Organic Agriculture Act of 2010” that aims to strengthen the state’s policy to promote, propagate, develop further and implement the practice of organic agriculture in the Philippines.

While there were significant gains since the enactment of the law, much has to be done to make organic agriculture a more mainstream farming activity that is inclusive and a very attractive business undertaking.

As of 2015, the lands devoted to organic agriculture was placed at 234,642 hectares representing a measly 1.9 percent of the country’s agricultural lands and below RA 10068’s target of 5 percent.

The 2015 figure, however, shows that organic farming is also getting popular because in 2012 only 80,974 hectares of land were devoted to organic farming; 86,155 hectares in 2013; and 110,084 hectares in 2014. The Department of Agriculture (DA) also increased spending for organic agriculture from P635 million in 2016 to P818 million in 2017. The proposed 2018 budget for organic agriculture is P895 million.

The efforts of the DA for increasing the lands devoted to organic agriculture is laudable, but I believe much can be done. Also, while I have stated in the first part of this column-series that organic agriculture cannot feed the world, it can be an important component in helping achieve food security and can provide smallholder farmers and the youth the chance to earn even more.

So let me ask my favorite question: what must be done?

The way forward

Increasing the lands devoted to organic agriculture also starts with advocacy, or asking for more support for research on organic agriculture practices and systems, and product development. This should result in the development or adoption of modern agriculture practices and systems for organic farming, like vertical farming, protected agriculture and precision agriculture (all of which I have discussed extensively in the first part of this column-series).

A systematic evaluation of the costs and benefits of different organic agriculture management options should also be conducted, so smallholder farmers and decision makers will gain confidence in shifting to farming without chemicals.

Eventually, the application of modern farming technologies and different organic agriculture management options will allow both farmers and those engaged in agribusiness to also aspire for the export market.

Addressing inclusiveness

Since organic farming potentially offers better earnings, the issue of also getting more smallholder farmers and the youth into that agribusiness activity should be addressed, by taking into account issues like how to make organic agriculture part of rural development and linking producers to diverse markets. The resolution of those two major issues should eventually result in addressing another set of issues like hunger, rural poverty, climate change and land degradation.

I have always been stating in many of my columns that it is important to address the issue of markets and the same should apply for those producing organic products, especially smallholder farmers. Failing to do so would result in smallholder farmers not even considering the idea of shifting to organic agriculture simply because the markets for organic and conventionally-produced food are different. So support from the DA, agribusiness companies and non-government organizations is important for smallholder farmers and the youth to reach the intended markets for their organic produce, especially the niche markets that demand certified organic farm products and are willing to pay the price for such.

Shifting immediately to organic from conventional farming, however, may not be feasible for most smallholder farmers. So the approach of gradually shifting to farming without chemicals can be done with smallholder farmers first adopting the balanced nutrient management strategy, or applying organic solutions and slowly reducing use of chemicals in a farm. A good example of this is Prasad Seeds Philippines and Pratistha Philippines are partnering to study further balance nutrient management in hybrid corn seed production in Pangasinan.

Also, soil health mapping and rejuvenation would greatly help in identifying contingent land areas suitable for organic agriculture or those that can gradually shift to farming without chemicals.

The objectives of what I have just discussed should be productivity, profitability and sustainability for organic agriculture, especially for smallholder farmers.

Shift from subsistence farming

When smallholder farmers take up organic farming, they are also transitioning from subsistence agriculture to agribusiness, so they must be reoriented toward agripreneurship (which is a subject I have discussed in my past few columns).

Subsistence farming focuses more on growing food primarily for a farmer to earn enough to feed himself and his family. There are no investments made to increase production that is mostly for the local market and not for value adding.

On the other hand, agribusiness makes a highly productive farm part of an inclusive value chain where there is product development and value addition. Agribusiness is also a major generator of employment and income, and is supported by policies and strategies to improve competitiveness.

Last but not least, consumers must also be educated on the benefits of consuming organic products, how it supports smallholder farmers and how it is a viable business activity for the youth who want to enter farming. And believe me, there are people who are willing to pay a premium for organic products especially if they learn that a big part of what they pay for goes to smallholder farmers.


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