Transitioning from chemical to organic agriculture

The Philippines institutionalized organic agriculture with the passage of Republic Act 10068 (Organic Agriculture Act of 2010). This law was recently amended by RA 11511, which adopts the Participatory Guarantee System, a more affordable community or group-based organic certification process than third party certification.  While most welcome, the amended Act and its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) do not address adequately the fundamental issue of how to wean away the 97-98 percent of producers (mostly small) from chemical-laced farming to natural, organic and agro-ecological agriculture.

Under our current laws as well as in the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), “organic conversion” starts when a farmer has stopped using agro-chemicals and ends when his farm enterprise is declared 100 percent organic or chemical-free, following a rigorous certification process. IFOAM and Asian Regional Organic Standards (AROS) for market-mandated certification require about three years of zero-use of chemicals.

Reaching this goal will take time and resources.

Meanwhile, consider this scenario: If all farmers adopt abruptly zero use of chemical fertilizer, yields may drop by as much as 50 to 60 percent. Many Filipinos will go hungry, unless we will import a lot of rice (5 to 6 million tons of well milled rice, costing about P175 billion to P210 billion, at P35 per kilogram).

Clearly, an effective organic agriculture program must recognize the actual conditions of most farmers.  It should assist farmers in undertaking a gradual, calibrated reduction of chemical inputs while progressively transitioning to a more robust or fully organic regime.

Our soil fertility has declined by almost 40 to 50 percent. Soil organic matter (SOM) currently ranges from 1.5 to 2.0 percent only. Our benchmark SOM in the transition process is 3 percent. Building up soil health (using crop/weed biomass recycling only) is slow. To arrest yield decline, a large amount of composted organic fertilizers or vermi-compost should be introduced. Chemical fertilizer (NPK) may be applied, together with micronutrients and farm-produced compost or humus, under a “balanced fertilization” regime. We emphasize farmer-made compost or humus because buying them will cost a prohibitive P7,000 per hectare (P350/bag of 50 kilos x 20 bags).

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Hence, the Department of Agriculture (DA) and local government units (LGUs) should provide technical, financial and other support, including bulk procurement of farm animal manure. Municipalities must encourage poultry or hog growers to sell their manure only in their localities. Under the Sagip Saka Law, LGUs may procure these manure and convert them into composted organic fertilizer for free or at-cost distribution to farmers.

Organic inputs like seeds and planting materials must also be provided to farmers to facilitate the transition process. For greater sustainability, farmers should be trained to produce and save their own seeds. (To be continued) — Leonardo Q. Montemayor, Teodoro C. Mendoza and Pablito M. Villegas

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