Organic farming and poverty reduction

I grew up on a small farm in the farming town of Talavera, Nueva Ecija.  The farm produced food for the family table and enough income for the household needs of our big family of nine children. 

That was before the nationwide implementation of the Masagana 99 rice production program by the Marcos government in the early ’70s.

My late father practiced a type of agriculture now called “organic farming.”  Back then the nomenclature was unheard of since everybody was farming rice without chemical fertilizer and pesticide.

Our farm seldom yielded more than a hundred cavans of palay every cropping season, but my parents were never in debt with loan sharks or Chinese traders for certified seeds, chemical fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide and all sorts of farm inputs that are essential to the so-called “conventional farming.” 

Cash crops of corn, tomato and other vegetables augmented the family income.  A small orchard provided year-round supply of banana and other tropical fruits.

Fish, mollusks and crustaceans were plentiful in rice paddies and irrigation ditches during monsoon season before these important sources of food and extra income for the farmers were wiped out by chemical farm inputs. 

Free ranging chickens, hogs and goats fattened in our backyard and grazing area free of manufactured livestock feeds.

Crop rotation, compost fertilizer and dried foliage were extensively used by my father to renew and condition the soil. 

In short, my father and the rice farmers of his day were already practicing “sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming” long before the terminology became fashionable among environmentalists and non government organizations.

Today, conventional rice farming yields an average of around 100 cavans of palay per hectare against around 60 cavans for organic farming.  It may first appear that the conventional method is the more lucrative of the two farming methods but when the cost of farm inputs is factored in, it is not uncommon for conventional farmers to be left with a net income that will barely meet their household needs and the cost of the next cropping season. 

In contrast, the yield in organic farming, while lower, provides the farmers with a much higher net income because its inputs are lesser and cheaper.  Organic rice also fetches a higher price in the market.

Small rice farmers requiring chemical inputs into their farm cannot afford a bad harvest or a sharp decline in the market price of palay because they might have to borrow inputs for the next cropping season.  Organic farmers are less vulnerable to such financial risks.

Borrowing to finance the cost of expensive farm inputs is a way of life for many rice farmers in the country today.  It is a vicious cycle of subsistence farming that keeps them perpetually in debt, which is sometimes made even worse by periodic visits of destructive typhoons.

The absence of an affordable and accessible credit facility for small rice farmers drives many farmers into the hands of loan sharks and scrupulous traders whose usurious lending practice in many parts of the country charges payment of four cavans of palay for every P1,000 loan.

I’m not against progress or productive methods of farming per se.  But it is undeniable that after four decades of extensive application throughout the country, conventional farming has not made much of a dent in rural poverty.  And we still import rice.

Many farmers have long abandoned rice farming for low-paying and back-breaking jobs abroad, often pawning or selling their farm to finance the cost of high recruitment fees for jobs abroad.  One will also find many households in farming villages around the country with at least one member working odd jobs abroad in order merely to escape farm poverty.  And their numbers keep rising every year in spite of harsh working conditions and diminished wages for workers abroad.

Organic farming has its own disadvantages too — lower yield, caters to a small segment of the population, overexpansion of cropland to produce more, and risk of E.coli infection from consumption of infected organic products.  But its advantages — eco-friendly, lesser and cheaper inputs, higher market price of produce, financial and environmental sustainability, and better income for the farmers — far outweigh its disadvantages.

The passage of R.A. 10068 (The Organic Agricultural Act of 2010) is a welcome development for the organic farming sector in the country.  The law tasked the national government to carry out a comprehensive organic agricultural program of promotion and commercialization of organic farming practices and methods of production and processing, and provided for incentives for small to medium scale organic farms.

At the same time, a review of the government’s stop gap measures like distribution of subsidized hybrid seeds and rice importation is also in order, for the purpose of channeling some of their funds to support organic farmers with affordable system of accreditation,  improved seeds, credit facility, extension service, post harvest facilities, and technical assistance in the processing and marketing of their produce for both domestic and foreign markets. 

A vibrant and government-assisted organic farming sector will provide the country with fresh opportunities for reducing rural poverty, generating foreign currency, and enhancing food security.

Organic farming also helps address a number of environmental and health issues that result from agrochemical residue. 

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 05 November 2011

Combination organic rice farm and fishpond


Organic vegetable garden

Urban organic vegetable garden

Organically-grown vegetables

A farmer proudly displaying his organic produce

A farmer threshing his palay harvest with a small mechanized thresher 


Free ranging “organic” chickens

Vanishing breed of traditional rice farmer in the Philippines