Monday, March 19, 2007

Green Revolution and Int'l Trade

Many rich countries of Asia are less concerned with "food self-sufficiency" now.
The trend is:

The poorer an economy is, the more urgent the issue of food self-sufficiency.
The richer an economy, the less urgent is food self-sufficiency.
Their wealth assures them of "food security".

You can see it in HK, Singapore, Brunei, middle-east countries, to a certain extent Korea and Japan. Their wealth plus easier trade among Asian countries assure these countries of sufficient food supply from abroad that can supplement their domestic production.

Middle-income countries like Thailand and China, even Vietnam, are now in the business of food exports. They supply the food needs of their richer neighbors in the continent, as well as other countries outside Asia. Thus, there is continuing, non-stop research and innovation in agriculture, from improved seeds to post-harvest and packaging technologies. Agri is becoming more and more knowledge-intensive, more science-based.

There are institutional and public policies that are supposed to help farmers and agriculture, but they tend to work against farming and agricultural development when you look deeper. One such policy, in the Philippines for instance, is "land reform".

The law on "comprehensive agrarian reform law" was made in 1988. The law stipulated a 10-year time-table. After 10 years, they extended it to another 10 years. Now, there is no more timetable, it will be a "continuing land reform". And this creates disincentives to some businessmen who want to put their money, expertise and technology in agriculture. Once you're done developing vast tracts of land for commercial agri plantation, there is a danger that the government's "Department of Land Reform" will come to you to get your land, subdivide it to the workers, and pay you a pittance, a small amount. This kind of uncertainty is one of the big reasons why commercial agricultural plantation in the Phils. is not well-developed.

More government investment in agriculture is not necessary. Maybe in infrastructure, like rural roads and bridges. But in technology (planting, marketing, packaging, etc.), it should be more private sector -- the network of producers (farmers) and buyers (traders, consumers, restaurants, importers, etc.) to determine the pricing, quality, quantity, and timing of agri production and marketing.

Canals vs. Terraces

Our farm is hilly and has a rolling terrain. There are a few flat lands, but the bigger area is hilly. It's in the middle of the flat lowlands, and the mountainous upland.

Uplands and hilly areas naturally have strong current of floodwaters during heavy rains by the simple explanation of gravitational pull. In order to protect hillsides, we facilitated pathways of rainwater by constructing canals. What I observe however, is that constructing canals also facilitate more soil erosion, aside from facilitating strong floods. Over the last rainy season alone last year, about 2-3 inches deep of soil along a canal path that we constructed have been eroded by the rain waters and occasional flash floods. Many shallow roots of trees previously covered by soil are now exposed.

So this year, we're changing track: instead of creating canals, we put up strong stone terraces, several "humps" along the waterpath, to (1) trap some of the eroded soil and organic matter (fallen leaves and branches, etc.), and (2) slow down the speed of water and flood, thereby help minimize the damages of flash floods.

Repeating this process through time, by constructing ever-higher terraces as more eroded soil and organic matter are trapped and deposited along those stone terraces, we expect the formerly low and depressed areas to be gaining height, and hilly areas should become flatter through time.

As to how strong those terraces should be so they can withstand strong flash floods, it's an experimental project that should vary from one place to another.

Utilizing this practice and similar soil erosion control technologies, the height or elevation of agricultural lands should be rising through time, as more organic matter are deposited in the soil every year. A "bonus" could be the emergence of new water springs in your area since those organic matter deposit in your land are trapping more rainwater, releasing the water hours, even days, after the rains have stopped.

Who benefits from GMO crops?

Someone asked, "who benefits from GM crops?"
My answer is: the public, the expanding population of the world.
And if I make my own question too, like "who benefits from organic crops?"
my answer is: the public, the expanding population of the world.

The Philippines alone for instance, population is expanding by 1.8 million people/year, net of death and migration. At this rate, we are creating the equivalent of Sweden's population every 5 years; or 1 Singapore every 2 years and 3 months. What is the population of Jordan, 5M? Then the Filipinos can create one Jordan every 2 years and 8 months!

We are not talking about population increases in China (100+ million/year, net of death), India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and many other countries in the world.

We just have to continue producing food, whether by GM, or organic, or inorganic.
People will buy the food based on their budget and food preference.
Because the alternative to not consuming GM crops if supply of organic (and inorganic) crops is not enough, is... HUNGER.

Besides, based on my limited readings with literature by some local scientists here, GM crops are approaching organic production (minimal if not zero pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, for instance).

Our farm caretaker once told me that when he was young, about 40 years ago, the rice varieties during his father's time were tall, the grains were few, and harvest comes after 6 months, so he could plant only 1 crop a year. The rest of the year, the land's on fallow.

With the new varieties developed and commercialized in the 60s and 70s and he started farming himself, he was very happy because the rice varieties (like IR 42) were short, had plentier grains per stalk, and harvestable after 4 months, so that they could plant 2 crops per year; even 3 crops if irrigation is available during summer. In short, their incomes have increased.

Obviously, rice is among the most common GM crops, and there are hundreds, even thousands, of new varieties that have been developed through plant breeding and biotechnology. So my understanding is that with plant breeding and GM technology, scientists (and many GM companies) are forced to preserve as many varieties of old and "orig" plants for them to develop newer varieties based on certain needs and the environmental situation of their farmer-seed buyers.

Agri production should continue to expand. Some growers use only organic crops; others use traditional, inorganic crops that use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and so on. Others use GM crops which are developed by science and use cultural and planting practices of organic farming (ie, minimum if not zero chemical fertilizers and pesticides) because the new and specific varieties have been "engineered" to withstand certain pests and insects that use to prey on those crops.

So that ultimately, the public should be allowed to choose what crops they will buy based on their household budget and consumption preferences. Those who are economically well-off would tend to buy organic products which are generally priced higher than non-organic products. Those who have little money would buy cheaper but inorganic crops. Short-term savings in money in exchange for long-term health risks. And they may be aware of this, it's just that they cannot afford to choose a worse alternative, which is hunger and severe malnutrition.