Friday, March 28, 2008

Rice prices and soil conservation

Food prices in both global and domestic markets have been rising steeply lately. In 2007, world food prices have risen by almost 40%. Here in the Philippines, rice import value has increased from $474/ton in January to $708/ton this month, an increase of almost 50% in just 2 months! And these are rice imported from our neighbors in the region, mainly Thailand and Vietnam.

The volume of rice importation has also been increasing. In other years, average importation was around 1 million MT a year. In 2007, rice import was 1.8 million MT, and this year, projected imports will be around 2.2 million MT, about ¾ of which to be sourced from Vietnam.

High domestic demand for rice is largely a result of the country’s high population growth. If each of the 1.8 million new people every year (net of death and migration) is consuming 0.2 kilo of rice a day (roughly 4 cups equivalent), then consumption in one year is around 73 kilos per person, or 131,400 MT a year – this will be the annual increase in rice consumption on top of the previous year’s total demand.

There is big pressure to increase rice supply to stabilize prices. And there are three important steps to achieve this: One, increase hectarage by converting more forest land or land planted with other crops to rice land. Two, use more science and modern technology to expand rice yield on the same rice land area. And three, do both.

Expanding rice land hectarage (currently around 4.2 million hectares nationwide) is a bit difficult as many rice lands are actually being converted to residential or commercial land, while forest land continues to shrink. The demand for land for other crops, from vegetables to fruits to cash crops, even for biofuels, is also expanding. So, only option #2 is the least costly and the most appropriate.

The adoption of modern - often genetically-modified (GM) - rice varieties is one of the most practical things to do. Average rice yield must rise from the current 3.7 MT/ha to 4 MT/ha and up. And since the price of many commercial fertilizers is also rising, as they are petroleum-based, the use of organic fertilizers will be relied upon more and more.

Using short-duration rice varieties – harvestable in 90 days, unlike most varieties that need 120 days or more – is another option. It is possible to have up to 3 harvests in one year for some farms (with good irrigation) and still have at least 2 months of either a fallow period to allow the soil to rest, or produce some short-duration vegetables like legumes, to allow the soil to recuperate.

The importance of soil conservation to produce more yield per hectare or more harvests per year on fixed agricultural land is thus becoming more pronounced, both nationally and internationally.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hydroponics and urban farming

One of my friends here in Manila, Jules Calagui, plunged into the hydroponics (or soil-less farming) business. Hydroponics, by the way, is from greek words "hydro" (water) and "ponic" (working); ie, water working, no need for soil for the roots to hold on. He put up a hydroponics system on the 2nd floor of the apartment that he is renting in Marikina, one of the outskirt cities in Metro Manila. On the ground floor is his restaurant for fresh and organic food. So just imagine -- you harvest lettuce, eggplant, cherry tomato, other vegetables on the 2nd floor, and serve them fresh or half-cooked to customers on the ground floor.

Jules is very happy with his new system -- no tilling of soil, no pests from the soil (hence no pesticides), very little water needed for the roots, and he's using his own organic compost including worm cast, for the organic fertilizer that he mixes in the water for the roots. Unlike planting on soil, a big portion of the irrigated water either seeps under the soil or spills to other areas that cannot be used by the crops' roots, or simply evaporate. In hydroponics, almost all the water are used up by the roots, very little goes to evaporation, and this allows the crops to grow vigorously.

A number of his neighbors and clients were impressed by his system, they' started inviting him to develop their areas too, something like 250 sq. meters each. He dreams he can beat other hydroponics farmers from the nearby provinces because he's within the city already, so in terms of freshness, he can beat all of them.

With continued expansion of the population – the Philippines for instance, is growing by 1.8 million every year, net of death and migration – demand for agricultural land, along with demand for residential, commercial, industrial lands, will increase. Usually it’s the forest land that will ultimately be sacrificed and converted to other non-forest uses. By putting farms above some houses and buildings, and right in the center of urban areas, hydroponics farming will indeed be the one of the major solutions to lack of agricultural lands, and for soil and water conservation.

By producing pesticides-free vegetables and fruits, pollution of topsoil and water will also be eradicated, and giving people healthy food. By producing right in the middle of the cities, transportation of such products from the provinces will be minimized, resulting in less traffic and air pollution.

Other people have also turned to hydroponics farming but did not prosper. One reason is the absence of ready and regular market for the produce. Another is the relatively high cost of setting up one if the entrepreneur did not design or study the basic engineering aspect of a hydroponics system. By integrating production with household consumers, and putting one’s heart and mind into the design and construction of a hydroponics farm, said problems will be addressed.