Making both conventional and organic agriculture work in PH (Part 1)

One of the key issues confronting Philippine agriculture (and the rest of the world!) is to what extent organic agriculture should be pushed to replace the current mainstream agricultural practices, also collectively referred to, as conventional agriculture.

This was the theme of the public consultation organized by the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, Inc. (CAMP), the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD-DOST), and the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), College of Agriculture and Food Science held at UP Los Baños campus last week.

The advocates of organic agriculture claim that the present chemical-based, industrial agriculture is unhealthy and unsafe to consumers and the producers (farmers) themselves and destructive of the environment. Further that organic produce are more nutritious and taste better.

The advantages of organic agriculture are attained by adoption of environment-friendly farming practices such as use of resistant varieties, green manuring, mulching, crop rotation, and use of beneficial soil organisms. Likewise, from the exclusive use of natural products for fertilizers and for pest control. Moreover, organic agriculture specifically prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The defenders of conventional agriculture on the other hand, contend that the claimed environmentally-friendly practices are not exclusive to organic agriculture but are also practiced by conventional agriculture.

And, pointedly, the complete ban on chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and GMOs because of their alleged adverse effects is controverted by scientific data.

Definition of Organic Agriculture

According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM),… organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved…

The concern for the health of people; conservation of biodiversity and the environment; application of the principles of science, particularly ecology; respect for tradition and promotion of fairness in the definition are unassailable noble purposes.

However, the implication that the inverse of organic agriculture (i.e. conventional agriculture) is bereft of these noble purposes and features is not true. These features are common to and shared by the two competing farming models.

The point of departure and bone of contention in the definition is the phrase… rather that the use of inputs with adverse effects, namely chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and GMOs.

Complete Ban on Chemical Fertilizers an Over-Reaction and Uncalled For

Crops extract mineral nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur, magnesium, manganese, iron, zinc, and boron from the soil. Over a period of time the soil is depleted of these minerals and becomes barren. Hence, the need for fertilizers to replace the lost minerals. Fertilizers can come in the form of crop residues, animal manures, and chemical fertilizers. In the case of nitrogen, certain microorganisms which can fix nitrogen from the air, can be deployed.

Environment degradation such as soil acidification, salinization, pollution of aquifers, rivers, lakes and seas, and emission of greenhouse gases leading to global warming are attributed to excessive application and misuse of chemical fertilizers.

But this is true as well with the over-application of animal manures.

That the judicious moderate application of chemical fertilizers is sustainable and not necessarily inimical to soil health is borne by long-term experiments in three continents.

The well-known Rothamsted Station plots in England which had been sown to wheat and applied with chemical fertilizers since 1856 are still growing wheat. The Morrow plots at the University of Illinois in the USA (where I earned a master’s degree in agronomy) had been growing maize and soybean with fertilizers since 1876.

And closer to home, the Chandler plots at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños had been growing three crops a year of chemically fertilized rice since 1963 and still producing 20 tons of palay a year.

On the other hand, organic fertilizers compared with chemical fertilizers, have low nutrient density and need to be applied by the tons per hectare. The collection, transport and spreading in the field of organic fertilizers involve high logistic costs. Moreover, organic fertilizers are not always available in the volumes required and could be expensive, like chicken manure and vermicompost.

Not so appreciated is the lack of synchrony between the slow, steady release of nutrients from organic fertilizers, on one hand, and the uneven crop demand for nutrients, on the other. This is particularly true for the spike of nutrient requirement of annual crops during the rapid tillering, flowering and fruit development stages.

Thus, for most crops in different growing environments in many countries, organic crops yield less than their conventional counterparts. A USDA meta-study (2014) reported yield penalties of as much as 45% in cotton, 35% in corn, 31% in soybean, 17% in okra, and 7% in safflower.

Hence, the higher retail prices of organic products to make up for higher production costs and lower yields. It goes without saying that higher food prices will make more Filipinos food insecure.

However, there are very important benefits from organic fertilizers which are not provided by chemical fertilizers. Organic matter improve soil aggregation and facilitate aeration and drainage. Many beneficial organisms come with organic fertilizers (but also deleterious microorganisms). And third, organic fertilizers supply essential trace elements not found in pure synthetic compounds.

Therefore the judicious approach is a balanced mix of organic and chemical fertilizers.

Complete Ban on Synthetic Pesticides Idiosyncratic and At Times Contradictory

The real advantage of organic produce lies in the fact that often they are clean of pesticide residues because truly organic farmers refrain from the use of pesticides as much as possible. Or they resort to botanical pesticides which are often less toxic and less persistent in the environment (albeit less effective) compared with most chemical pesticides.

However, this is not always true.

Methyl bromide is toxic to humans and a known carcinogen but still allowed in organic strawberry production in many jurisdictions.

Pyrethrins from chrysanthemum flowers are safe to humans but very toxic to bees and aquatic life. Rotenone from the derris plant is mildly toxic to humans but extremely toxic to insects and aquatic life and is associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Copper sulfate is a common fungicide allowed in organic farming. It contains copper which is a heavy metal. LD50 is a measure of toxicity; it is the dosage of a poison at which half of a target population die. Copper sulfate has an LD50 of 300 mg/kg of bodyweight. On the other hand, Mancozeb, a chemical fungicide has an LD50 of 4,500 to 11,200. Thus, Mancozeb a forbidden fungicide is 15 to 37 times "safer" than copper sulfate which is allowed.

A chemical is synthetic if it does not exist in the natural world. The basis for prohibiting use of a pesticide is its active ingredient. But the organic label prohibits compounds existing in nature if they are produced by chemical synthesis. Thus prohibition is idiosyncratic, not based on the pharmacology of the chemical, but based on doctrine.

The global chemical industry reeling from massive lawsuits and relentless pressure from environmentalists, the medical profession and the consuming public is turning out chemicals and biostimulants which are increasingly more benign, less persistent and more target specific than the existing traditional organic pesticides. Depriving farmers and consumers of these future potentially healthier and safer options is myopic and mindless.

To be continued… Part 2

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).