Thursday, November 13, 2008

Going organic, better late than later

What a surprise to learn that the government has gotten serious about pushing organic fertilizers and organic food production. This is indeed a major policy shift. I heard bells ringing and farm animals rejoicing and I imagined the citrusy, earthy smell of composting matter. Yes, all that and suddenly feeling the peace of wild things that Wendell Berry, prophet of rural living, spoke about.

The skeptic may view this government move as turning the public attention away from the raging multi-million fertilizer scam which is one of toxic-est this country has ever seen. One journalist was murdered because of this and the brains have yet to be brought to justice.

Whatever its motives, the Department of Agriculture (DA) could be but right to push organic. Can it sustain the campaign? How far will it go on the long and winding road? Agriculture secretary Arthur Yap who projects himself as a non-nonsense agri-crat should better put organic fertilizer where his press pronouncements are. And we better like this guy.

I know many private individuals, non-government organizations (NGOs) and people’s organizations (POs) that have long been practicing organic, sustainable agriculture with absolutely no help from the government. They battled the odds and succeeded, and with great results to show. They are heroes in my book. But it meant double efforts on their part, not to mention unsure yields and markets at the start. Still they kept on and took the risk, because they knew it was good for the people and the planet. The easy way would have been to stick to the toxic.

As one forum on productivity I attended recently stressed, one must always bear in mind the three Ps—people, planet and, not to forget, profit. Something good for the people and the planet should be profitable, sustainable, enduring. And why not?

The latest news in the Inquirer (“’Go Organic’ campaign launched with P20M” by Amy R. Remo, 11/6/08) is that the DA is allocating “an initial P20 million to start a program promoting the extensive use of organic fertilizers and encouraging local farmers to produce safe and healthy food crops.”

That could have been front page news but the Barack Obama presidential triumph pushed aside everything else. The story on organics sure was good news but the P20 million made me gasp. What a pittance, I thought. The fertilizer scam was in the vicinity of P728 million which was supposed to be in fertilizer subsidies for farmers. Here was yet another case of the magsasaka turning into magsasako holding empty bags.
This crime against the farmers is for the books. Ask, why are our food producers among the hungriest? Former agriculture undersecretary Joc-joc Bolante must now spill the beans or he would be fodder for Yap’s organic fertilizer program sooner than he thinks. He must—no matter who gets hurt—release the toxic from his system, or else.

The ‘go organic’ news is not only good news for the farmers, it is also good news for the organic fertilizer producers who took the road less travelled by producing something not mainstream. Many years ago I did a long magazine feature on an amazing organic fertilizer factory in Bulacan, where the organic stuff for composting came mainly from homes and markets, not from farm organic waste.

It was amazing to watch the whole process—from the smelly garbage bins to the hauling to the composting, to the packing to the marketing. I should visit that composting facility again. A concerned balikbayan started it almost single-handedly, with his green-friends cheering him on.

For the organic program, the DA, with its agency Bureau of Soils and Water Management, had a signing ceremony and with local governments and civil society groups like the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and the La Liga Policy Institute. The program is called Organic Fields Support Program. Pilot sites in Luzon have been identified and 600 farmers are supposed to get hands-on training on System of Rice Intensification (SRI), organic and nature fertilizer production. (I wrote about SRI some years ago and it is indeed worth trying.)

One-hectare learning farms—either government- or privately-owned—will be used for the “Tamang Abono” process which uses rice straws and other farm wastes. On these sites, farmers will go through “experiential learning”.

Organically grown food is now finding a niche in regular markets. But I still go out of my way to patronize the small, brave innovative stores where these are sold at competitive prices.

What is organic? Here are some standards as applied to field crops (source: IRRI website): 1. No synthetic or artificial chemical pesticides and fertilizers have been used, 2. Soil fertility is maintained through natural processes such as growing cover crops and/or the application of composted manure and plant wastes, 3. Crops are rotated in fields to avoid growing the same crop year after year in the same field, 4. Alternate (non-chemical forms) of pest control are used to manage insects, diseases and weeds—that is, beneficial insects to prey on pests, mulches to suppress weeds, etc.

There is also a way to grow pigs the natural and healthy way on soft ground (no smell, little water for washing, only farm-made feeds) which several NGO friends of mine are now practicing. Their pigs grow lean but strong. “Herb-baboy”, they call them. (Send email and I will give you the numbers to contact for learning natural farming.)

Sec. Yap should now produce how-to manuals either on-line or as hard copy with illustrations and in several Filipino languages. A nationwide marketing strategy should also be put in place.
What a happier place on earth we would have.