Thursday, September 15, 2016

Refocusing Agriculture in the Philippines

Refocusing Agriculture: Excerpt from my Convocation Speech at the 45th Founding Anniversary of Visayas State University (VSU)-Alangalang Campus, Leyte, Philippines on 09 Sept 2016.

By V.B. Asio

Your theme “Agrivolution: refocusing farming for food and nutrition security” is very timely and very relevant.

When I was an agriculture student in ViSCA in 1980, the agriculture battle cry was: we need to increase crop yield by increasing the yield per unit area and by cultivating new lands because of rapidly increasing population. Population of the country at the time was only 48 million. The hot research topic was farming system, which slowly became cropping system, then sustainable agriculture or ecological farming, and now organic agriculture. If you examine these farming strategies, they are closely related. But the last, which is organic agriculture, has become very narrow in scope and very impractical in many aspects.
Highly productive alluvial lands in Baybay, Leyte, are threatened by conversion into residential areas 
But where are we now?

Now more than 30 years have passed, with a staggering country’s population of more than 100 million, we still have the same battle cry:  to increase food production by increasing yield per unit area and by opening new lands. This time though, there are a lot more complications. The problem of increasing food production has become more urgent, and very problematic. Let me cite some reasons:

1.       The gap between population increase and food production has greatly widened. Our population has more than doubled but crop yield has not doubled despite the availability of new high yielding varieties, fertilizers and pesticides. For example, average rice yield in 1980 was 2.3 tons/ha. Now it is only 3.8 tons/ha. What is aggravating the problem is that production cost has greatly increased, and the area of our agricultural lands have decreased.

Many of the new high yielding varieties which showed great potential in the experimental stations, have failed to show their yield potential in the actual world-- in farmers’ fields . According to Dr. Francisco of Philrice in an undated paper, the yield gap ranges from 2 t/ha in the wet season, to 3.9t/ha in the dry season. This also partly explains why we cannot find our new high yielding varieties (say, of sweetpotato) in farmers’ farms in Leyte and Samar.

2.       There is increasing soil degradation due to destructive farming practices, resulting in the decline in soil fertility. This is coupled by increasing incidence of pests and diseases. The latter triggers the farmers to over apply pesticides. In our on-going ACIAR-funded soil research, vegetable farmers in the Visayas and some parts of Mindanao just apply any amount of fertilizers without scientific or logical basis. Worse, they over-apply a cocktail of pesticides, 2-3 times a week, endangering the health of the consumers.

3.       As if to make matter more difficult for the next generation, the widespread soil degradation is accompanied by the shrinking of our prime agricultural lands because of urbanization. Urbanization is eating fast our rice lands. In many parts of the country, you would see former productive rice lands have become subdivisions, factory sites and shopping malls.

4.       Climate change has entered the picture. It has changed rainfall pattern, temperature fluctuations, and occurrence of typhoons, floods, and drought. Crops are now subject extreme weather conditions. In short, we are in a more challenging and exciting agriculture.

5.       As a result of the over-application of farm inputs, there is also a degradation of the environment. Soil, water and air pollution are very serious in many places.

6.       This has led to the rise of the organic agriculture movement. The Philippine government has enacted the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010. But we know that organic agriculture cannot produce the amount of food required to feed the fast rising population of the country. Organic agriculture cannot feed our more than 100 million population.
So, we are now facing a dilemma:  protect the environment even if the food production is low, or continue the environmentally damaging practices but with a higher food production. This is like the choice between the ocean and the deep blue sea.

7.       The Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) technology hold great promise for some crops, but are we sure that they are safe? The debate is raging in the international scientific community. Time will tell if GMO crops are really safe to our health and to the environment.

8.       Despite the more than 40 years of designing of agricultural implements, most of our farmers are still practicing manual labor due to a lot of reasons. Have we really looked into why majority of our farmers are not using modern farm implements until now?

9.       What threatens further our agriculture is the decreasing interest in farming among our young generation. It seems everybody wants a happy and easy life. Interest in agricultural science has continued to decline as reflected by the general decline in enrollment in universities and colleges around the country (fortunately, our enrolment in agricultural sciences at the main campus has continued to increase in the last five years).

10.     The mainstream media are partly to blame. Just observe what kind of TV programs are created and promoted. To cite an example, beauty contests are very popular because of the intense media campaign. No wonder many young girls dream to be a beauty queen instead of becoming scientists. The media have failed to create awareness among the youth about the importance of agriculture or about science. And of course, our government institutions too. Much of the blame should go to them.

What should we do? How can we refocus farming or agriculture?

The problem is so serious and so complex. It needs the active participation of all sectors involved. As an academician, I will just focus on the things that we can do in the academe.

1.      There is a need for retooling of those involved in teaching students agriculture. Agricultural science now is different in many aspects from that 30 years ago.
2.       We need to revise and improve our curricula and the courses we are offering.
3.    We need to change our strategy in promoting agriculture. If we still project agriculture using the image of a farmer with the plow and the carabao, we will not gain bright young students to agricultural science.
4.       There is a need for more involvement of our students in OJT in successful and progressive farms.
5.      We need more reliable data on the effects of fertilizers on crop yield. In the last decade, everywhere, there has been a sprouting of all kinds of organic fertilizers whose efficacy have not been scientifically verified. Proponents just cite anecdotal evidence to promote their products. This has led to the erosion in people's confidence in organic fertilizers.
6.     We need to change our strategy in extension. We need to educate more our farmers. How? It is for all of us to think about.

Before I end my talk let me quote Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer and philosopher. He said that:

 “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Thank you for your kind attention. Happy 45th Anniversary to VSU-Alangalang!

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