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Time to shift gear to rice-based and coconut-based farming systems


Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

For reasons of ecology and culture, our smallholder agriculture is dominated by two crops — rice in the fertile valleys and alluvial plains and coconut in the uplands and slopes.

Rice is our staple food which we share culturally with most of our Asian neighbors in the humid tropics and subtropics. We grow rice because during the wet monsoon season, the valleys and plains are partially flooded and will only support semi-aquatic plants like rice.

For the hills and slope lands, deep-rooted perennial trees like coconut are ideal to make up for lack of water during the dry season and for soil and water conservation. The slope lands are prone to soil erosion and it is best that the soil is protected from erosive rain drops by a permanent canopy.

But coconut has two added beneficial features. Unlike timber crops which are not edible, coconut produces food of multiple uses all-year round. And, as importantly, for typhoon-prone Visayas and Luzon, the coconut is relatively resistant to typhoons and strong winds. The majestic coconut palm sways gently with the wind and only the strongest of typhoons can uproot or break them. The flowers and immature coconuts drop but the trees normally recover within a year or two.

Unfortunately, the farmers’ incomes per hectare from both rice and coconut are inferior to that derived from other crops. Therefore, wherever ecologically feasible, and whenever there can be an assured market, the farmers are better off planting something else.

For rice, in the valleys and plains, the farmers have little choice but to plant rice during the monsoon season because of flooding. But the crop after rice can be something else more profitable than rice. Hence, the farming objective is crop diversification (i.e. relay cropping after rice).

For coconut, because it is a perennial, the solution is intercropping i.e. simultaneously raising two or more crops on the same piece of land. There is sufficient sunlight filtering through the coconut canopy to support valuable partial-shade tolerant crops like coffee, cacao, black pepper, ginger, and even full sunlight crops like papaya, bananas, pineapple, and various short-season vegetables.

Not only are the margins per hectare higher from these other crops compared with rice and coconut, they require more labor to cultivate and process and thus create more livelihoods in the countryside.

Thus, the scientifically and economically correct paradigm is farming systems rather than monocropping.

Policy and organizational

Such being the case, this agronomic paradigm shift from monocropping to farming systems, has important economic policy and organizational design implications. For rice the national priority ought to be redirected not necessarily to rice self-sufficiency but to food security i.e. generating more livelihoods and incomes for the rural poor with which to purchase food.
In the case of coconut, the national objective is still optimizing the productivity of the coconut palm with hybrids and proper cultivation but also to provide additional and complementary sources of income to buffer the poor coconut farmers from the ups and downs of the global vegetable oils market where coconut is a minority player.

Organizationally since rice and coconut each with three million hectares account for 2/3 of our total farm area, it is appropriate that we have national agencies dedicated to their research and development — the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA). Both have made their marks in scientific research for their respective crop responsibilities. PhilRice is well-led and appropriately funded. PCA, on the other hand, had leadership problems in recent years and chronically underfunded.

Both agencies are aware of the opportunities of multiple cropping but are conflicted by their narrow, specific crop mandates. Multiple cropping inevitably receives attention only when funds can be spared from their main research agenda.

Therefore, relay cropping in the case of rice, and intercropping for coconut ought to be major headings in the research agenda of PhilRice and PCA. Not just after thoughts!

Finally, since the expertise for the other crops reside in the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), and some of the state universities and colleges (SUCs) like Cavite State University, Benguet State University, and University of Southern Mindanao for coffee, cacao and other industrial crops, PhilRice and PCA by themselves cannot be held solely responsible for pushing the farming systems paradigm.

The rest of the Department of Agriculture family of agencies, namely the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), Department of Agriculture (DA) Marketing Services as well as Land Bank of the Philippines, Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation (PCIC) , the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), and some of the larger SUCs should be mobilized around national Rice-based and Coconut-Based Farming Systems research, extension and promotion networks.

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

For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com

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