(First of two parts)
My two past columns on Bhoochetana and the Yamang Lupa Program (YLP) highlighted the importance of managing water and soil resources to help achieve better crop yields and improved incomes for smallholder farmers.
But more steps can be taken, learning from the Bhoochetana system and YLP, to improve soil health in the face of challenges from climate change, especially in the Philippines where soil poor health should be a cause for great concern.
Based on the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Soils and Water Management (DA-BSWM) report “Land Degradation Assessment 2013,” there is declining fertility in rice-growing areas especially in lowland areas and increasing soil erosion in upland agricultural areas. The report also blamed the rapid conversion of agricultural areas to residential and other land uses, and increasing water pollution as major factors in land degradation.
Based on the United Nations Development Program, the country has 13.2 million hectares of degraded lands affecting 33 million Filipinos.
That is not good news. So if nothing is done to reverse soil and land degradation in the Philippines, expect the country’s agriculture sector to experience a downtrend in output in the next decades especially if water scarcity issues are not also addressed. Worse, desertification will take root and will be hard to reverse.
Addressing soil and land degradation issues, however, needs a holistic or integrated approach where water and biodiversity concerns are also addressed.
All in all, sustainable soil and land management is a set of practices and technologies that aim to integrate the management of land, water, biodiversity and other environmental resources to meet human needs while ensuring the long-term sustainability of ecosystems and livelihoods, most especially in agriculture.
Its components include: increasing soil carbon in all ecosystems (from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands); soil rejuvenation and efficient nutrient management; utilization of improved varieties and hybrid technologies (not only seeds); and sustainable intensification framework.
I should also state that there is an urgent need to shift from mono-cropping to multi-cropping.
Under increasing soil carbon in all ecosystems (from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands), there is a need for massive replanting in degraded areas that should not only be limited to reforestation efforts since there is also a need to restore mangrove areas and sea grasses.
Also, biomass, which is literally treated as wastes in the Philippines, should be used for mulching to preserve soil
health, and biochar should be utilized on a larger scale. Biochar is a type of charcoal produced from plant matter that can be stored in soil, and can remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Soil erosion control measures should also be widely applied, and it is worth mentioning that the Philippines has been manufacturing even at the village level geonets made from millions of discarded coconut husks. These geonets are now used worldwide for erosion control and should be used more extensively in the country.
Under soil rejuvenation and efficient nutrient management, there is an urgent need to promote nationwide balanced fertilization or put a stop to the indiscriminate or excessive use of chemical fertilizers. One of the cornerstones of the successful Bhoochetana program in Karnataka, India was making available to smallholder farmers micronutrients like boron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Soil needs 16 micronutrients and NPK fertilizer can only provide three: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Excessive use of NPK fertilizers can make the soil acidic.
The use of improved varieties and hybrid technologies has been stated in my past columns and I cannot help but repeat that again, because traditional farming methods and use of non-hybrid varieties usually produce low yields.
From the research of InangLupa, which I founded and head, improved varieties of rice and corn can yield 7-8 tons per hectare compared to traditional varieties at 4 tons/ha.
Under sustainable intensification framework, there are three major components: socio-economic intensification; ecological intensification; and genetic intensification.
Socio-economic intensification covers the development of markets for the produce of smallholder farmers, building social capital and creating sustainable livelihood. An enabling environment should also be created where farmers are trained to become agripreneurs, and matured technologies are made available to them with appropriate training on how to adopt the technologies, among others.
Ecological intensification includes improving cropping (farming) systems, improving soil and water management (like adopting Bhoochetana principles), integrated nutrient management, diversifying farming systems and putting into place efficient agricultural practices.
Under genetic intensification, the aim is to increase farm yields also through steps like making varieties more resilient or resistant to pest, diseases and effects of climate change. Among the end goals should be improved nutrition from the food produced locally.
One good way to increase yield while preserving soil health is to move away from traditional mono-cropping to diversification or multiple cropping. I am not saying here that we abandon rice, corn and coconut farming which take up approximately 80 percent of the country’s farmlands.
For rice farming, further production intensification must be done to reduce costs and improve incomes of smallholder farmers, while the less productive upland and rain-fed lowland rice farms will be planted to crops of higher value like vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and industrial tree crops like coffee, oil palm, rubber, cacao and hybrid coconuts.
So what is the starting point for sustainable soil and land management? Simple – it all starts with soil health
assessment so science-based interventions can be formulated to produce tangible benefits for farmers through convergence of sustainable technologies, and the incorporation of an effective integrated watershed management approach.
As mentioned in my past two columns, under the Bhoochetana and YLP, soil health cards (SHCs) were produced based from soil analysis to inform farmers on the nutrient recommendation of crops to be planted, amount of fertilizer to be applied, the type of fertilizer to be used, and the soil fertility status of their farms.
I am praying that in next years or decades to come, the importance of soil and land health will be given importance because healthy soil is the basis for healthy food production. I am still hoping that a nationwide soil analysis and soil sampling will be done.
Also, soil supports our planet’s biodiversity and make up a quarter of the Earth. Soil is also the foundation for vegetation that is cultivated or managed for feed, fiber, fuel and medicinal products.
Furthermore, soil helps combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle.
But soil is a non-renewable resource, so we must take good of it while much of it is still left on this Earth.
In the next part of this two-part column series, I will discuss the importance of farmer-centric community watershed projects, and other approaches on how to address soil health issues.