Monday, October 11, 2010

Challenges and opportunities in agriculture

by Dr. Cezar P. Mamaril
Senior Consulting Expert of Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice)
Los Baños, Laguna

I would like to share my thoughts about current challenges and opportunities in agriculture that institutions like Visayas State University (VSU) should be concerned. I could not over emphasize the fact that we are facing the problem of producing sufficient food to feed the ever increasing population of our country. Last census reported that our population is increasing by 2.3 percent, while our food production (particularly rice) is increasing by about 2.5 percent. The minimal growth difference between population and food production is not sufficient to provide the other requirements of small farmers to live a decent life. I hope the current census will show a decline in population growth so that we will have a better breathing space. (If you have not yet been interviewed by the census takers, you better do so otherwise you may not get your ration of rice!). Furthermore, some recent reports show that the per capita rice consumption in the Philippines has been increasing from less than 100 kg/year several years ago to almost 120 kg/year currently which suggest that some people can not afford to purchase other kinds of food besides rice. Yet in developed countries like Japan and Korea, the per capita consumption is decreasing with increasing income. I was told by my younger son who is an Agric. Economist that the Philippines is now the largest rice importer in the world. I read in the newspaper that this year alone, the government will be importing 2.45 million tons of rice. Is this a sign that Filipinos are retrogressing economically while our Asian neighbors are moving forward?

Besides inadequate food production, lands suitable for the expansion of food production is declining fast suggesting that time will come when we can no longer increase food production by expansion of area. Likewise, there is also the problem of conversion of agricultural lands for other human activities such as real estate housing projects, industrial activities, game parks like golf courses, etc. It is also unfortunate that most of these areas being converted into other human activities are productive lands mostly irrigated lowland rice areas. Since land is a finite resource, we should properly and efficiently utilize it.

Population also creates pressure on water resources which is quite critical especially in rice growing areas. Forests are also subjected to tremendous pressure with increasing population because of the demand for building materials and for fuel. With increasing deforestation, water resources will also diminish. Likewise, when water resources decrease, the share for agriculture for water will also decrease while domestic and urban needs increase because of increasing population. Thus, food production will be greatly affected especially for lowland rice and could lead to lower yields. It has been observed that not only the surface water resources that is affected by deforestation but also the ground water level. It is doubly serious especially in coastal areas because as the fresh ground water table gets deeper, sea water intrusion takes place to replenish the fresh ground water. Subsequently when ground water which is contaminated with sea water is pumped for irrigation the soil may become saline which is adverse to crops production.

The challenge therefore is how one can proceed to produce sufficient food for an unabated population growth with less land and declining soil productivity and less water resources and climate change. The current scenario looks bleak but we should remain optimistic and be challenged and remain hopeful for Divine intervention. We should put our efforts and minds together to use effectively and efficiently whatever resources are available.

Currently there are technologies being disseminated which are not cost effective because they are highly generalized rather than site specific. Thus most often farmers do not realize the benefits that are claimed to be obtained through these technologies. You may also agree with me that there is no “perfect” or “universal” technology that is appropriate for all sites and conditions. Technologies being generated should define the site characteristics and conditions where such technology is effective. Certain technologies are being disseminated prematurely; i.e. not extensively tested before being released for dissemination under all conditions and crops. What is effective for one crop is not necessarily true for all crops. A more specific example is technologies suitable for upland rice is not necessarily appropriate for irrigated or rainfed lowland rice and yet they are the same crop. A friendly advice to researchers is to define and characterize your experimental sites thoroughly so when you finally will disseminate your findings, you can specify where such technology works or where it does not.

In preparing research programs, it might be wise to involve the different stakeholders, such as the farmers and providers of farm inputs, to insure that there is relevance to the stakeholders’ need and capability and for the eventual adoption of whatever results generated by research. As researchers we often feel that we have better ideas than the farmers to resolve their problems and yet while research results might seem encouraging, farmers are hesitant to adopt these due to other factors that the research failed to consider during the process of conducting the study. I can cite several examples. A technology may produce successfully high yields but it requires high cost of inputs, both materials and manpower, which some farmers does not have the capacity to obtain the inputs. Naturally it is likely that many farmers will not adopt such technology. It might be a good idea to generate a cafeteria of technologies that require different levels of inputs and capabilities from which farmers can choose depending on their financial and technical capacities. Thus, socio-economic characterization of target stakeholders is imperative besides biophysicochemical characterization of the target areas.

There are rice areas where once farmers can grow two seasons of rice a year with reasonable yield but because of declining supply of water resources, the dry season rice crop often fails. Under such situation, crop diversification may be considered wherein during the dry season other crops should be planted. In choosing the alternative crop, however, the crop being introduced should have an economic value equal or better than rice if possible. Crop diversification will also enhance soil productivity. In a rolling landscape, it is possible that the bottom portion of the toposequence will be planted to rice while those in the top and slope portion to upland crops. Integrated crop diversification will likewise reduce economic risks on the part of the farmer.

With increasing cost of farm inputs, we should assist the farmers to utilize these external inputs effectively and efficiently as well as the proper utilization of farm biomass. One reason why chemical fertilizers are claimed to cause soil degradation is because of misuse rather than overuse of fertilizers which could lead to nutrient imbalance. There is increasing evidence of widespread multi nutrient deficiencies in our country especially in areas where crops are constantly applied with chemical fertilizers like rice, corn and sugarcane. This is because most often than not, only NPK fertilizers are applied and in the meantime the native supply of the other essential nutrients are being depleted. It is imperative that proper diagnosis of the nutrient status of soils should be regularly undertaken so that only the limiting nutrient should be applied in proper proportion to the other essential nutrients. Unfortunately the cost of soil analysis is beyond the reach of small farmers plus the fact that there are limited and inaccessible soil laboratories in the country. Therefore, there is a need to develop cheap and simple techniques to diagnose nutrient status of soils. Currently, the available simple diagnostic tools being promoted are the Soil Test Kit (STK), Nutrient Manager, a computer assisted method developed by IRRI, and the Minus One Element Technique (MOET) kit which is designed primarily for lowland rice soils.

Integrated nutrient management strategy may also reduce the cost of external input use especially if one will fully and efficiently utilized farm produced biomass as supplemental source of nutrients. Utilization of on farm biomass should not require special handling of the materials to the extent that additional time and facilities are required for the farmer to process these materials before such can be applied to the soil. Farmers usually are apprehensive to do extra efforts especially if the additional benefit will not significantly compensate the extra effort spent. More efficient and effective ways to utilize these on farm biomass has to be developed rather than the traditional composting and inoculating with decomposing or mineralizing organisms. There should be some means to stimulate the indigenous and heterogeneous soil organisms to decompose and mineralize organic materials rather than utilizing isolated pure strains of organism which will be an added cost to the farmer.

There must be many more opportunities that could enhance agricultural production and help uplift the well being of farmers but I leave them for you to think about. I would like to point out, however that based from my own farm experience, increasing production does not necessarily lead to better livelihood for a small farmer mainly because under our present situation, the middlemen or traders usually earn more than the farmers. Marketing is an important problem that small farmers face. Unless small farmers are organized to be able to dictate the price of their produce, they will never improve their lot. Unfortunately farmers’ cooperative movements in our country do not have a commendable history. These should be one area of interest that the new government should look into. Coincidentally, while preparing my talk, I heard in the radio last Wednesday, that one of the advocacies that the new Secretary of Agriculture Alcala has proposed to President Aquino during his interview for the DA position which impressed the President is the elimination of middlemen by providing opportunities for small farmers to sell their produce directly to the consumers. It will be interesting to see what plans, programs and strategies our new government will pursue to enhanced the well being of our small farmers and fisher folks.

In closing I would like to reiterate that we should remain optimistic that the seemingly bleak scenario of our agricultural sector mentioned earlier can be overcome if we put our acts together and with the guidance of our Almighty God. Moreover, I would like to leave the following quotation from Henry David Thoreau “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet a success unexpected in common hours.” Success in any endeavor could be attained through perseverance, determination and hard work.

*Excerpt of keynote speech delivered during the College of Agriculture Day, Visayas State University, Baybay, Leyte on July 2, 2010.

*Dr. Mamaril is a retired UP Los Banos soil science professor and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scientist. He is the son of Mr. Julian Mamaril, the first Superintendent of Visayas Agricultural College (forerunner of Visayas State University) in the early 1960s.

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