Plant, plant, plant

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In my little garden there are several eggplant bushes that have been giving me a bountiful harvest for several months now. It’s amazing how much yield you can get from just one plant.

Just recently, our household also harvested kalamansi and dayap (native lime) and tamarind fruit from a potted dwarf variety.

Having been a plantita long before the word was coined, I also have culinary herbs in pots and a pepper vine trained over a pergola. I get bay leaf, pandan, kaffir lime and curry leaves fresh from my garden.

If I had a bigger sunny area, I would plant pechay and tomatoes, but my mango tree keeps much of the garden under shade.

During the pandemic lockdowns, however, I saw pocket vegetable and herb gardens sprout all over, including in pots on condominium unit balconies and on small vacant soil plots beside the stations of security guards. Pechay and okra, fast-growing and high-yielding, were favorites.

The plantitos and plantitas among us obviously see the usefulness of urban gardening.

But I also understand the snickers that greeted the proposal of Agriculture Secretary William Dar to “plant, plant, plant” even in urban areas and to engage in backyard poultry and livestock raising and aquaculture, to ease the impact of what he says is a looming food crisis.

For most plantitos and plantitas, urban gardening is just a de-stressing hobby. The harvest cannot be enough to deal with any food shortage, although perhaps if enough people grew vegetables at home, it could have some impact.

As for urban poultry and livestock production, Dar told us last week on One News’ “The Chiefs” that this would depend on local ordinances. Hog and poultry raising is banned in many communities, although breeding a few fighting cocks and racing pigeons is allowed.

For aquaculture, many years ago I attended a seminar on tilapia propagation in tanks, so I can tell you it needs a tank with a capacity of at least 500 liters to be sustainable.

Still, if millions would engage in backyard farming, livestock and poultry raising and aquaculture where space is available, it would undoubtedly ease demand for commercially sourced food, and minimize the impact of a food crisis if it does happen.

*      *      *

Dar is not the only one sounding the alarm on a “perfect storm” of factors that would create a food crisis this year.

He must have picked it up from the United Nations Task Team for the Global Crisis Response Group, which warned of the impact on supply chains of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The UN team warned that about 1.7 billion people mostly in developing economies such as ours are seen to suffer from food insecurity, surging fuel prices and national debt burdens caused by the pandemic, on top of the adverse impact of climate change.

Ongoing COVID lockdowns in China and, in several countries including ours, African swine fever, will aggravate the problems.

The Philippines is 100 percent dependent on imports for fertilizers needed for high-yield varieties of rice and other crops. The supply has been affected by the Ukraine crisis; fertilizer prices have tripled since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. Poultry feed prices have also doubled.

Dar is seeking an additional P6 billion as fertilizer subsidy this year. Green groups are suggesting a greater push for the use of organic fertilizer. Compost, vermicompost and dried cow manure for fertilizer are currently available in gardening centers. But these are pricey and won’t produce the same high yield from chemical fertilizers.

Farmers can be taught to produce their own organic fertilizers, although they may not have the time or resources for production on the scale that they need. Someone may have to do this and simply distribute the finished products at subsidized costs to the farmers.

In the meantime, the government is negotiating for more chemical fertilizer supplies from Indonesia and Russia.

Dar is also proposing the allocation of P1 billion to promote urban farming, and more funds that can be accessed for backyard livestock and poulty raising and aquaculture.

*      *      *

I’m not sure what players in the agriculture sector think of Dar’s proposals.

Done properly, urban farming can in fact enhance food security and help in climate change mitigation. It is being encouraged globally. In our country, some enthusiasts have started rooftop gardens – the type with a layer of soil laid right on the roof instead of in containers.

Backyard farming and poultry / livestock breeding can augment the household food supply. We’re not doing them enough, compared with several of our Southeast Asian neighbors. When I toured Indonesia years ago, one thing that struck me while traveling by land from Bali to the island of Java on the way to the capital Jakarta was how even the smallest soil plots beside modest homes in the countryside were terraced and planted to edible crops.

The Department of Agriculture has received flak for responding to every agricultural supply and pricing problem, it seems, by increased importation. Amid the warning about a food crisis, the DA has approved the importation of 38,695 metric tons of fish and other aquatic products to stabilize market prices. The DA says this will address a deficiency of 90,000 MT in fish supply in the second half of the year.

*      *      *

If the food crisis does happen, let’s hope the food insecurity will lead to an honest-to-goodness push for greater agricultural productivity.

We are trailing our Southeast Asian neighbors notably Thailand and Vietnam in this area. There’s a wide room for growth in agribusiness, and we have many products whose potential for food, herbal supplements, medicine and ornamentals are still untapped.

We have been regional latecomers in the export of coconut juice, coconut milk, canned mangosteen and rambutan, ube or purple yam and its byproducts, and even rock salt.

My rice flour and glutinous rice flour are still mostly made in China. We ban the harvest of bamboo shoots; China has sustainable farms dedicated to this food product for export. Our coffee and cacao production can use a boost.

And will we ever wean ourselves from rice imports? That campaign promise of P20 per kilo rice will be the incoming administration’s equivalent of the current one’s vow to end the drug problem in six months.

There’s wisdom in “plant, plant, plant” – but only if it is carried out properly, through sustainable practices and sufficient state support.


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