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A Success Story From the Philippines

Nicanor Perlas

Everyone knows that to feed its growing population the world must rely on the chemical-intensive agricultural technologies of the Green Revolution - everyone, that is, except the growing number of farmers who are outperforming their chemical-dependent neighbours using methods that work with, rather than against, natural ecological forces. Their commercial-scale success is beginning to win over even resistant sceptics.

The staging centre for the original Green Revolution was the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Its hybrid rice varieties produced record yields in response to intensive inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation. International institutions like the World Bank mobilised massive funding to encourage widespread monoculture of these varieties.

IRRI produced its first "miracle rice" variety in the 1960s. By 1973 most Philippine farmers were already using the new seeds; but their harvests of 1.7 tons per hectare were well below IRRI yields because fertiliser and other inputs were not up to recommended levels. Suffering a serious rice deficit, the Philippine government launched Masagana 99, a programme intended to raise rice yields to 99 cavans (nearly 5 tons) per hectare by significantly increasing use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Lorenzo Jose, a small rice farmer in Pampanga Province, became one of the government's early green revolution heroes, by producing a yield of over 8 tons of paddy rice per hectare on his 1.6-hectare plot. Yet, less than ten years later, Mr Jose found his soil so depleted that he had to apply four times more chemical fertiliser to maintain his earlier yields. His soil had also become hard, sticky and difficult to plough [much like compacted clay]. In order to control infestations of increasingly chemical-resistant insects he had to continually increase insecticide applications. Wild fishes and snails - important protein sources - began to disappear. Returns no longer covered costs and his debts mounted. He was more prone to illness. His skin was itchy and healed slowly.

Farmers from the Abra River Irrigation Association who had had green revolution experiences similar to Mr Jose's went with representatives of a local NGO, the Abra River Irrigation Project, to ask the government's Department of Agriculture (DA) for help in shifting to organic farming methods. Meeting a hostile reception, they turned to the Centre for Alternative Development Initiatives (CADI), an NGO promoting ecological agriculture, and Ikapati Farms & Co, CADI's for-profit affiliate which operates several farms throughout the Philippines. Ikapati demonstrates the commercial viability of biodynamic farming, using high-yielding seeds combined with natural pest control; together with preparations and practices that enhance the fertility of the soil, maintain nitrogen levels, promote the balanced breakdown of composts, and stimulate the activity of photosynthesis and other beneficial physiological reactions.

Working with Ikapati and CADI, the Abra farmers chose the methods they wanted to try and worked out plans for commercial-scale trials on their farms. DA technicians stopped by regularly during the trials to ridicule the farmers; until, that is, the rice plants began to grow - green, vigorous and aromatic - yielding bountiful quantities of golden grain. Though the farmers used not a drop of pesticide, their fields were kept virtually free of harmful pests by beneficial insects like wood spiders.

In the first year of large-scale experimentation, one farmer who used the full spectrum of Ikapati technology harvested 6.5 tons per hectare, three times the provincial average. A third of the participants had yields that exceeded the Masagana 99 target and were well over twice the provincial average. Nearly all had yields in excess of the average for chemical farmers. The enhanced flavour and aroma of the biodynamically grown rice fetched premium prices, while input costs per ton were substantially lower, resulting in net profits in some instances more than two and a half times those of typical chemical farmers.

The farmers' final triumph came the day that DA technicians erected a big placard in front of one of their fields proudly announcing "Biodynamic Rice" in luminous DA colours, and the DA initiated a programme to promote the method in other regions.

These farmers demonstrated that it is possible to shift immediately from chemical to biodynamic methods on a commercial scale, while increasing yields and profits. Contrary to prevailing myth, it is the continued reliance on chemical-intensive agriculture that threatens the food security of a growing world population. Fortunately, small farmers and NGOs around the world are now leading the way towards detoxifying the green revolution.

Nicanor Perlas is president of the Centre for Alternative Development Initiatives (110 Scout Rallos, Quezon City, Phillipines) and a PCD Forum Contributing Editor.

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