Organic Farming: Benefits and limitations

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In recent years, organic farming has become a trend toward a healthier lifestyle.  The government formalized the adoption of this farming system when Congress passed Republic Act No. 10068 or the Organic Act of 2010.

Through the Act, the government has been mandated to “promote, propagate, develop further, and implement the practice of organic agriculture in the Philippines.”

Organic farming has many benefits, the Act said. This farming practice cumulatively conditions and enriches the fertility of the soil, increases farm productivity, reduces pollution and destruction of the environment, prevents depletion of natural resources, saves on imported farm inputs, and protects the health of farmers, consumers, and the general public.

The Act paved the way for people to be aware of the benefits of chemical-free agricultural products, especially among those who are healthy-conscious.

Still, there remains concrete limitations to the successful practice of organic farming in the country.

ORGANIC PRODUCTS

Benjamin R. Lao of Barangay Eman in Bansalan, Davao del Sur has completely transformed his farm into a haven for organic products.

Lao is one of the many farmers in the Davao region who follow the organic methods of farming.

Benjamin R. Lao

The farmer-scientist managed to produce coconut sugar and coconut syrup under the brand “Donnabelle,” a combination of her two daughters’ name.   Both are alternative sweeteners which are known for their lower glycemic index.

Today, Lao Integrated Farms, Inc. (LIFI) is one of the country’s biggest exporters of coconut syrup to the United States.

It likewise exports coco sugar and coco syrup to Japan and the Netherlands and ships coconut sap-based teriyaki sauce to Germany and Australia.

Aside from coconut-based products, LIFI has also come up with other saleable foodstuffs: ice cream with goat’s milk, flavored with malunggay, turmeric, durian and soursop; and tea from coco sugar, mixed with natural extracts from malunggay (moringa), turmeric, lemon grass and mangosteen.

BACK TO BASICS

In 2011, the Department of Agriculture named him as Agri-Achiever on Organic Farming during the Gawad Saka Awards.

“Organic farming means going back to the basics,” said Roy C. Alimoane, director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC).

The center, a non-government organization based located in Barangay Kinuskusan in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, has been promoting organic farming since the 1970s.

“We want people who come to the center that once they return to their respective places,” Alimoane pointed out, “they have learned something which they could use in their own farms.”

Environment-friendly, natural, not using pesticides and other chemicals, sustainable, regenerative, and healthy—these are the words used to describe this method of farming which has recently captured the attention of many countries around the world.

“Organic agriculture is the answer,” stressed Jessica Reyes-Cantos of the Manila-based Rice Watch and Action Network.  “It won’t only retain soil productivity but it can make farming viable.  If farmers will have additional income from their land they will continue to plant rice.”

BENEFITS

Definitions vary, but according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, organic agriculture is a production system that relies on ecological processes, such as waste recycling, rather than the use of synthetic inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it can outperform conventional practices—especially in times of drought—when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time,” said Laura Reynolds, co-author of the Worldwatch report, “Organic Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Food Security.”

Reynolds, a researcher with Worldwatch’s Food and Agriculture Program, said that “conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”

Organic farming, she pointed out, has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.

Another benefit of organic agriculture is that it uses up to 50% less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming, and common organic practices— including rotating crops, applying mulch to empty fields, and maintaining perennial shrubs and trees on farms—also stabilize soils and improve water retention, thus reducing vulnerability to harsh weather patterns.

“On average, organic farms have 30% higher biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do,” said Catherine Ward, co-author of the Worldwatch report.

CORPORATE INTEREST

Aside from Lao, another organic farmer from Bansalan is the Espinosa family of Lower Mabuhay.  During the Regional Organic Agriculture Congress last year, they were recognized as the organic farming family.  On their farm, chemicals are abhorred.

Composting

“I have a one-hectare farmland and all that were planted are pure organic,” Janilo Espinosa, the head of the family, was quoted as saying.  “All our animals were fed using organic-based feeds.”

It was his parents who opened his eyes to organic farming.  “When I was a child, my family was into organic farming and I can still remember how we put up our garden,” he recalled.  “When I got married, I continued my family’s legacy and raised my children through organic farming.”

One good thing about organic farming is that it keeps the family healthy.  “Based on our own experience, compared to conventionally grown food, organic food is much richer in nutrients,” Espinosa said.  “It enhances the nutrients of the soil which is passed on to the plants and animals.”

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms.  And in developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods, according to Professor Ivette Perfecto in the university’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and one the study’s principal investigators.

Perfecto said that those who believed the world will go hungry if farming went organic is “ridiculous.”  In an article which appeared in People and the Planet, she explained: “Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies—all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food.”

The outcomes of their study seemed to jibe with the earlier findings of a British team, which reported in 1999 that organic farming could produce enough food to feed large populations.  In fact, the said study concluded that it could be viable even in developing countries “if the political climate is favorable.”

Farms could be economically viable on a much larger scale, even in developing countries with large populations, said Dr. Liz Stockdale, of the Institute of Arable Crop Research in England.

“In less developed countries, countries where the conventional agricultural systems aren’t that intensive to start with, we can see that conventional systems and organic systems actually can match yields very closely,” she added.

LIMITING FACTORS

Despite the benefits derived from organic agriculture, Filipino farmers are still not agog about it.  To find out, Lucille Elna Parreno-de Guzman conducted a study in selected towns in Laguna and in La Trinidad, Benguet, where farmers are adopting organic agriculture.

The researcher found four reasons:

For one, organic agriculture is “knowledge-intensive.”  There are so many options available and it’s up to the farmers to select which suit best to their farms.  After training, “constant monitoring and assistance are still needed to ensure farmers’ continuous practice and compliance to organic agriculture standards,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.

Another reason: too much labor in the production of organic fertilizers and concoctions.  Most farmers are used to having quick fixes by simply buying chemical inputs.  “Gathering raw materials and preparing these into organic fertilizers and other concoctions is considered laborious and time-consuming,” wrote Parreno-de Guzman.

Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting—the process of using earthworms to turn organic waste into vermicompost—is the main fertilizer production technology promoted in organic agriculture.

But doing so entails high capital as it requires construction of vermi beds and the use of a shredder to cut the materials for composting.  “These expenses are beyond the reach of small farmers,” Parreno-de Guzman wrote.

But the real reason why most farmers won’t adopt the technology is the low production during the conversion period.  The low harvest is due to the use of organic fertilizer.  “The NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in chemical fertilizers is easily available for plant uptake unlike organic fertilizers which are slow in releasing nutrients,” wrote Parreno-de Guzman.

Aside from those four reasons, the high cost of organic certification has also been cited as a stumbling block.  Section 17 of RA 10068 stated: “Only third-party certification is allowed (for agriculture produce) to be labeled as organically produced.”

The researcher considered that statement as limiting factor in organic agriculture implementation.  Another limiting factor cited is the cost of certification, which can range from P42,000 to as much as P150,000.

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