Food under threat: Struggle to harvest

Farmers see indigenous crops in a new light

Climate change has made rice harvests unpredictable in the Philippines. To help farmers, local organisations have set up community-based seed banks. Researchers are also racing to breed rice varieties that are resilient to floods and drought.
Climate change has forced Mr Bernardo Pelayo to relook his rice-growing practices, which include introducing varieties that are resilient in both heavy rain and drought.
Climate change has forced Mr Bernardo Pelayo to relook his rice-growing practices, which include introducing varieties that are resilient in both heavy rain and drought.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Climate change has forced Mr Bernardo Pelayo to relook his rice-growing practices, which include introducing varieties that are resilient in both heavy rain and drought.
Tan Hui Yee

Besides reintroducing native rice varieties, Philippine growers are eyeing other crops like cassava

Mr Bernardo Pelayo carefully scoops up a handful of rice from a sack in a corner of his home, which doubles as a village sundry shop.

The stubby grains of Camuros, a native variety of rice well adapted to the mountainous Maragondon municipality, some two hours' drive from Manila, are not for sale.

Difficult farming conditions mean that the wiry-framed widower has little surplus to sell, so he keeps it to feed his four children and himself. The 49-year-old is among the falling numbers of people in Layong Mabilog village who grow their own rice.

"When I first came here 30 years ago, there used to be rice fields everywhere. Everyone was secure. There was plenty of rice and different kinds of rice," he tells The Sunday Times in his patio, which gave respite from the searing mid-morning sun.

But climate change, labour shortage and a host of other hurdles forced many of his neighbours to give up planting padi.

"Now some of them are complaining because they have to find money to buy rice," he said.

Rice is the most important staple in Asia, where the term "having a meal" literally means "eating rice" in many languages. Asia produces over 90 per cent of the world's rice and consumes over 80 per cent of it.

 

Global consumption of rice is expected to grow even as rising affluence and changes in lifestyles make Asian diners shift more towards protein-rich diets. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, in its most recent update in April, predicted that global consumption of rice will rise from 53.7kg per capita in marketing year spanning 2017 and 2018, to 53.9kg in the next marketing year.

In the Philippines, which depends on rice imports but is grappling with food inflation, planting one's own padi is a source of pride and security to farmers like Mr Pelayo.

"When I have rice stored there, I can always borrow or get other food items from elsewhere," he says. "If the rice is good, I can even eat it with just fish sauce."

Unlike in Thailand and Vietnam, where the presence of well-irrigated plains makes rice harvests abundant, agricultural development in the Philippines is hampered by the higher proportion of rain-fed farms and weaker transport systems.

In the upland farms of Maragondon municipality, which touches the waters of Manila Bay in its west, rice is mainly grown in rain-fed, upland plots, as irrigated lands are rapidly being converted into homes or commercial spaces. With growing industrialisation, it is getting harder to persuade young people to work these farms.

Meanwhile, scorching heat wilts crops and intense bursts of rain pound saplings and wash precious topsoil downhill, making it almost impossible to predict an ideal time for planting.

"Sometimes you'll spray fertiliser, then there will be a one-, two-week dry spell, the palay will die," he says, using the local word for unhusked rice. "That was not the case before - we could predict and maximise our harvest."

Many of his discouraged neighbours have abandoned rice for other crops like sugarcane.

"I see them losing faith. They're asking, 'Why make the sacrifice? I wouldn't be harvesting much anyway. Why not just buy the rice, so we won't have to work so hard?'"

Mr Pelayo himself has had to adjust his workday. Thirty years ago, he used to be able to tend the fields from 8am to 5pm, taking an hour's break for lunch at noon.

Now, he has to leave for the field at 6am and he stays out of the sun, which he describes as "close to my skin" from 10am to 3pm.

The Sunday Times had a taste of such mercurial weather one day in September, when a scorching morning turned into a dark, sodden afternoon in a matter of hours, with hailstones pounding the corrugated metal rooftops.

The disappearance of rice farms has had a domino effect as it has redirected pests to the remaining plots of rice, say farmers.

DWINDLING SUPPLY

When I first came here 30 years ago, there used to be rice fields everywhere. Everyone was secure. There was plenty of rice and different kinds of rice... Now some of them are complaining, because they have to find money to buy rice.

MR BERNARDO PELAYO, who grows his own rice in Layong Mabilog village. He says climate change, labour shortage and a host of other hurdles have forced many of his neighbours to give up planting padi.

Mr Pelayo's neighbour, Mr Loretto Ilagan, 68, stopped planting rice on his 2.5ha plot about three years ago after one bad harvest left his family with only three sacks of rice. In better days, each hectare could yield as many as 50 sacks of rice. His family eventually had to sell three cows to survive.

Mr Pelayo, meanwhile, rues having abandoned the hardy, indigenous varieties of rice too hastily when higher-yielding breeds became available.

He used to grow native varieties called Balibod and Bulao, but switched to a new high-yielding breed called UPLRi5 in the 1980s. Eventually, he no longer had the seeds of the traditional types of rice.

Poor farmers typically face the same problem, notes Dr Julian Gonsalves, a senior programme adviser at the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), a Philippines-headquartered non-governmental organisation.

"If you don't produce enough rice, you have to eat it or sell it for emergency money. You can't keep seeds," he told The Sunday Times.

IIRR is now setting up community-based seed banks from which farmers can borrow the grains.

It is also helping Mr Pelayo reintroduce Balibod and Bulao - as well as five other varieties of rice - in an experiment to see which might be best for his needs. Malido, one local variety involved in this test, is resilient in both heavy rain and drought, notes Dr Gonsalves.

VITAL TO MAINTAIN VARIETY OF CROPS

In the past, our focus was only on high yields... Now we know it's important that, even though we have a small plot, we have to maintain a variety of crops and have good post-harvest practices, like storing seeds.

MR PELAYO

IIRR, working with Maragondon's local government and Latter-Day Saint Charities, is trying to turn agricultural practices around in Maragondon by introducing climate-smart and eco-friendly practices to small farming households.

These include controlling soil erosion with leguminous crops like peas and beans, using trees as windbreaks as well as sources of natural manure and diversifying with high-value crops like ginger and fruit trees.

Apart from rice, Mr Pelayo is growing sweet potato, peanuts, banana, coconuts and cassava on his 2ha plot. The latter three crops earn him 25,000 pesos (S$650) a month.

"In the past, our focus was only on high yields," he says on reflection.

"Now we know it's important that, even though we have a small plot, we have to maintain a variety of crops and have good post-harvest practices, like storing seeds."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline 'Farmers see indigenous crops in a new light'. Print Edition | Subscribe