(Last of three parts)

One of the best ways to deal with the effects of climate change is to make the country’s agriculture sector “climate smart” that incorporates various mitigation and adaptation measures to deal with extreme weather changes.

So what are the solutions to achieve a climate smart agriculture? So what is the way forward?

Let me start with discussing the solution of reforestation and rehabilitating watershed areas, particularly those that feed water to the country’s “Big 18” river basins. Rehabilitating watershed areas by planting more trees is not enough because there is also a need to put into place water impounding structures to harvest rainwater, and canals and reinforcing structures to protect farms from flooding.

Watershed management should never be overlooked in this era of climate change and should be made part of the strategy to increase production in rainfed areas, which make up 80 percent of the world’s 1.2-billion hectares of lands devoted to farming.

So where does the country stand now in terms of forest cover, which is an essential component of watersheds?

Based on the research of InangLupa that I founded and continue to head, the Philippines during the 1980s had 7.4 million hectares of forest cover and 8.95 million hectares of farms. In the 1990s, forest cover went down to 6.2 million hectares while lands devoted to farming reached a high of 13.1 million hectares, and by the turn of the new millennium, forest cover was further reduced to 5.4 million hectares while agricultural lands was at 11.5 million hectares.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the country’s forest cover is currently 24 percent, with the ideal level pegged at 40 percent. In the 1900s, the country’s forest cover was an impressive 70 percent.

Forests and other areas that host vegetation and healthy soil also serve as carbon sinks, or areas that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process called carbon sequestration.

Healthy soil is thus essential in helping fight the effects of climate change, but the question is – are our soils healthy?

I would venture to say that there is a need to start rehabilitating the country’s soil resources, especially those devoted to farming, not only to increase crop productivity but also make them part of the Philippines’ carbon sink system.

And we do not need rocket scientists to undertake massive soil rehabilitation in the Philippines, and the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) under the Department of Agriculture only needs to be provided more funds and personnel to undertake its mandate of rehabilitating the country’s soil resources in tandem with local government units.

From what I have gathered so far from experts, the organic carbon content in the country’s soil resources is from 1 to 2 percent or way below the ideal level of 10 to 15 percent.

Learning from the Bhoochetana program

Smallholder farmers along with the country’s army of extension workers can be at the forefront of increasing the carbon content of the country’s soil resources by rationalizing fertilizer use to also incorporate biomass and compost or feeding the soil with manufactured organic nutritional elements it needs. This measure was proven effective by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) when I was still heading it in Karnataka, India, resulting in a 20- to 66-percent increase in crop yields by the fifth year of the Bhoochetana program.

Integrated nutrient management was part of the Bhoochetana program that had the following components: formulation of soil health cards (SHCs) given to individual farmers based on soil analysis; timely application of both organic and inorganic fertilizers in the right amounts; application of the remaining 13 micronutrients that traditional NPK fertilizers lacked, and making those micronutrients available to farmers; and making farmers aware of the Bhoochetana program through training and information campaigns.

In the Philippines, farmers and extension workers with the BSWM taking the lead can start rejuvenating the country’s soils through practices like composting, mulching also using polyethylene sheets, and putting back biomass into the soil. The more advanced measure of balanced fertilization should be widely promoted by the BSWM.

Making our soil resources more healthy should also go beyond the labor-intensive practices today which is time consuming and inefficient. So I highly recommend the use of various equipment to increase the carbon content of soil like shredders (to shred biomass), and tillers (to help apply biomass in the soil), among others.

Water, improved cultivars

Improving the health of our soil resources, however, must be followed or done in tandem with the planting of improved cultivars, particularly those developed to withstand extreme weather conditions like drought, heat, and flooding.

Of equal importance is to put in place water harvesting systems so excess rainfall during the wet season can be stored for eventual use during the dry season. Again, it is within the mandate of the BSWM to undertake that with more spending for the establishment of small water impounding projects (SWIPs), and diversion canals, among others.

Reforestation and watershed rehabilitation efforts should also be accompanied by identifying aquifers that need to be recharged so groundwater can also be made available during the dry season.

All told, we need scientific and technological interventions to put in place mitigation and adaptation measures so our agriculture sector can become resilient toward the effects of climate change. So there is also a need to intensify and even design agricultural research and development efforts to deal with the effects of climate change, and reform the extension system so matured R&D outputs can be transferred into the hands of smallholder farmers and fisher folk the fastest time possible.

We can never ignore the recent findings of the HSBC Global Report and German Watch that highlights the country’s being badly affected and vulnerable to climate change. So we must not lose time putting in place solutions to make the agriculture sector more resilient to extreme weather conditions, or achieve a climate smart agriculture sector.

More important, the Philippines must envision a low-carbon economy starting from now before it is too late. And that means every individual, family, community, province, and the country as a whole must make their significant contributions to achieving a low-carbon economy.

I will set forth my ideas on how to achieve a low-carbon economy in my future columns.