Organic rice festival
By Ceres P. Doyo
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 20, 2003

"ORGANIC ang pag-ibig ko sa iyo, Hindi genetically modified ako..." [My love for you is organic. I'm not genetically modified]. Thus sang Joey Ayala at the opening of the one-week Organic Rice Festival at the Glorietta mall in the Makati business district last Monday.

What is organic? All living things are organic. I had one semester of Organic Chemistry, which I barely passed, but looking back now, it certainly was more understandable than the other chemistry courses I had taken. I can still remember all those hydrogen chains on the blackboard and then floating in my mind at night. But until now I have not ceased asking the impertinent question: How did anyone know they looked like that?

When I hear someone saying organic rice, I am tempted to say, "Of course, it is organic." Imagine eating something inorganic, like pebbles or motor oil.

Organic refers to living organisms or anything derived from them. Water is a major component of all living matter. When true believers say organic this or organic that, they're not saying there is such a thing as non-organic or inorganic rice or veggies. It's just a way of saying that the food they are referring to, as well as the fertilizers, pesticides and animal feeds used to make them grow, have not been tainted with synthetic and toxic chemicals. Meaning, all-natural, from nature, organic. Not genetically altered too. The meaning of the word organic has now expanded.

Straightaway I must say that the problem with so-called organic rice is not in semantics but in its price. It is more expensive than the "not organic" (meaning not grown in the all-natural way) because it takes more effort and resources to grow it. Also, poisoned land has first to be brought back to its natural condition. It was not like this before the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The good news is that many people's organizations, NGOs and environmentally correct institutions all over the world are helping bring back the ancient way of growing things and in a more scientific way.

Organic rice farming as part of sustainable agriculture has been wrongly called "alternative" (because marginalized?) while the high-yielding, chemical-dependent technology propagated by the (un)Green Revolution is called "conventional." It's time to turn this around.

The Organic Rice Festival at the Glorietta is one way to push this, to make people support the efforts by buying organic. When organic becomes thoroughly mainstreamed and sustainable, the economics part will fall into place. We will pay less, eat well and live healthily.

Since 1997, the Philippine Development Assistance Programme (PDAP) has been into Promoting Participation in Sustainable Enterprises (PPSE). The PDAP says it is "refocusing its thrust to fulfill the upscaling of four anchor enterprises," etc. A journalist would simplify this corporate jargon by saying that PDAP is now shifting its focus on four main areas: production of organic rice and organic fertilizer, food processing and handicrafts. Of the four, organic rice production has the highest potential of becoming full-scale.

The PDAP is composed of Filipino and Canadian NGOs involved in poverty alleviation. These NGOs have been working closely with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for more than 16 years.

The PDAP points out that the government's rice productivity programs that use high-yielding varieties and high chemical inputs have not resulted in rice sufficiency. Studies have shown that the Green Revolution technology has wreaked havoc on farmlands.

For organic rice yield and income to increase, small farming households must be supported and protected from external pressures. Locally available technologies must be promoted and indigenous farming practices must be preserved.

PDAP's PPSE programs have resulted in successful organic ventures in the provinces of Camarines Sur, Iloilo and Bukidnon, meaning that a turnaround has been made. Those using organic fertilizer and who refrained from using pesticides have earned higher net income than those practicing conventional (pesticide-dependent) agriculture. And when compared with national averages (for both rain-fed and irrigated farms) farmers practicing sustainable agriculture fared better.

But there are still many blocks to hurdle. The organic rice industry needs more access to mainstream markets. It needs more linkages and networks with the private sector and the government. Organic seed varieties need to be recognized by the government so that farmers can get support services. Organic rice certification by the government is still being processed.

Then there is the issue of packaging as well as the sustainability of supply and quality. NGOs and local communities are just learning marketing skills. But the biggest threat comes from trade liberalization and rice imports.

The PDAP's initial survey showed that about 18,000 hectares in 15 provinces are now producing more than 82,000 metric tons of organic rice per year. More than 35,000 farmers are now practicing organic farming.

The PDAP believes there is a big market out there for organic rice. Two organizations -- the Upland Marketing Foundation Inc. and Bukidnon Organic Products Corp. -- have begun marketing organic rice in about 50 major outlets in Metro Manila, the provinces of Pampanga, Laguna and Iloilo, and Cagayan de Oro City and several other places. The Landmark department store in Makati gets about 50 sacks of organic rice every month.

PDAP executive director Roel Ravanera thinks that given more exposure, organic rice will capture a big slice of the market. It is more nutritious, chemical free, environment friendly and helps small farmers earn more, he says.

The festival runs till Friday at the Glorietta. Go.

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