LAST Friday, I was joined by Agriculture Undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian for a Malacañang briefing on the Department of Agriculture's Memorandum Order 32, which sets guidelines for the selection and distribution of biofertilizers by regional DA offices. The government is supporting the improved production of rice by looking for alternatives to the high cost of imported and inorganic fertilizers. It has found a sustainable option in the use of biofertilizers.

According to Sebastian, the rampant use and dependence on inorganic fertilizers is not sustainable. It has made our soil acidic and has caused agricultural productivity to plateau. In a perfect world, all commercial farms would practice more sustainable farming methods like regenerative and organic farming. But Sebastian is realistic. For our farms, we are adopting the application of a balanced fertilization strategy that combines organic, inorganic and biofertilizer in order to reduce cost and revitalize our degraded soil. Sebastian cited Sri Lanka's agriculture crisis brought about by a sudden shift to organic, a campaign promise by President Rajapaksa in 2019. In 2021 Rajapaksa issued a blanket order to ban all importation of chemical fertilizer. Millions of farmers were left scrambling for natural fertilizers, and there wasn't enough. Thankfully, the Philippines isn't jumping into this scenario. We have a careful balancing act of reducing but still using urea fertilizer, introducing biofertilizer, and working with existing organic components like compost.

Urea is an organic compound that contains 46 percent nitrogen. It occurs naturally in urine, fungi and molds. Urea for fertilizer use is manufactured synthetically from natural gas, atmospheric nitrogen and water. Russia was the world's largest exporter of urea until Western sanctions were imposed due to the Russia-Ukraine war. The price of fertilizers skyrocketed in 2022, forcing many farmers to rethink their dependency on urea. In the Philippines, we felt the pinch so greatly even though we are not directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine war. The market price for urea was already rising even before the 2022 invasion due to the rising cost of energy. The production process for making urea fertilizer is heavy on the use of energy derived from fossil fuels. It also uses a lot of wastewater which contains high levels of ammonia. The disruption of food production in 2022 is a theme that is addressed in all global forums.

Farmers all over the world expressed grave concern over the cost and availability of fertilizers. There was enough push to see a pivot in agricultural methods in 2022. While some farmers in the West have stockpiled fertilizers to cover the year 2023, other countries got creative. Brazil saw corn farmers depending less on fertilizers, while its government considered opening previously protected Indigenous land to explore the mining of potash. In some African countries like Kenya, small farmers reverted to using manure to nourish their crops. In our own little farmette south of Manila where we steadily grow vegetables and fruit trees, we also stopped buying urea in 2022. At one point, a bag of urea that used to cost P1,500 was selling for P3,500. This was the time I improved and increased my home composting, and we became more systematic about letting our chickens and goats loose to poop freely on select areas of soil. The global fertilizer crisis forced many farmers to find alternatives, which were thankfully more environmentally sustainable.

I moderated the press briefing wearing both hats as a communications professional and as a weekend farmer. Soil degradation is real, and it affects us all. We have severe run-off whenever heavy rains set in. We try to mitigate the effects of erosion by planting native trees. In between we have cacao. I have learned that everything in farming is interconnected. You really reap what you sow. We continue to try different farming methods such as no-till, regenerative, agroforestry and others. But ours is a small private farm. In the case of Sebastian, he is helping President Bongbong Marcos in the Agriculture department, by using the benefit of his experience as a celebrated scientist and award-winning agriculture, climate change and food security expert. He helped Vietnam's rice production amid its exposure to salinity challenges. Surely he can help Filipino farmers make a gradual switch to biofertilizers. It should be good for food production, and good for the Earth.

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