As countries struggle with rising costs for wheat, corn, and other food imports, there is a renewed call by many around the world for governments to support small-scale sustainable farmers as a way to reduce dependence on volatile global food markets.

In the Philippines, we have the opportunity to ask dozens of organic farmers what they think of their new government, and what it could do to help the transition to more sustainable farming. In 2010, Benigno Aquino Jr. was elected Philippine president. We tell farmers that Aquino’s new Agriculture Secretary, Proceso Alcala, has emphasized two goals in his early pronouncements that might surprise them: achieving Philippine rice self-sufficiency within three years, and promoting organic farming.

Many farmers are pleased to hear this, but almost all are wary about how much will really change. After all, in the decades since Aquino’s mother, Cory, had become president as a result of the 1986 “People Power” uprising against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, national government policies have largely reflected elite and corporate interests. They have favored exports and what we have termed a “vulnerable” model of development. Still, the farmers acknowledge that they need help. So, we push them to tell us what the national government can do to assist them and to reach Secretary Alcala’s two goals. We get a wide range of answers, but here are the five responses we hear most consistently, answers that could help build a more rooted farming future:

  1. Training: These organic farmers want more training and education to help them farm efficiently; consumers need more education about organics. But, farmers stress, the so-called “experts” need different training. Farmers report that their main interaction with the national government is via agricultural extension workers who mostly promote chemical farming and hybrid seeds. “Train the extension workers to promote organics and have them give out traditional seed varieties,” is one farmer’s advice. Carlito, the self-trained “farmer scientist” we introduced in our last blog, suggests that the government should invite “farmer scientists” like him to train its thousands of extension workers, who could then share such “zero-chem” expertise with other farmers.
  2. Education: More than one farmer stresses that this shift in content needs to begin immediately in the agriculture schools. Indeed, graduates of such schools describe to us how chemical agriculture is often all that is taught—making it not surprising that it’s what Agriculture Department extension workers know. Others suggest that the change needs to start in elementary schools with big shifts in curriculum: “Put organic farming in the social studies and science curriculum. Focus on the children; they will understand the health and environmental issues.”
  3. Irrigation: Many farmers emphasize that rather than pushing major technological “modernization,” the government must take better care of the existing infrastructure. Most of the irrigation canals in the country are decades old and farmers need them repaired and upgraded. Agricultural experts at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and at Rice Watch and Action Network declare that such an upgrade could add 10-20 percent to the country’s rice output, so that this alone could eliminate the need for rice imports.
  4. Speed Up Land Reform: As in many countries, the grossly unequal distribution of wealth remains at the root of many of the Philippines’ problems. As farmers stress to us, too much farm land remains in the hands of the few. Too many of the country’s small farmers do not own the land they till or have been forced to mortgage their land, and they are crushed under the burden of debts. Several farmers (and advocates) emphasize that, in his first year in office, President Aquino would do well to initiate land reform on his family’s sprawling Hacienda Luisita in central Luzon, something that his family has promised but failed to act on since his mother’s term in office. This action would have huge symbolic significance and could open the door to more meaningful redistribution of land and wealth.
  5. Protect Rice from “Free Trade” Agreements: Farmers want and need the Philippine government to offer protections against cheap, chemical-laden rice imports. Some farmers and their advocates tell us that rice should be included among the “special products” that World Trade Organization exempts from large tariff reductions. In addition to the WTO, there is a trade agreement among Southeast Asian nations which has member governments cutting or eliminating tariffs on many goods; again farmers and advocates want the Philippine government to fight to have rice exempted.

Organic rice farmers we interview are proud to tell us about the positive changes they have initiated in their rice fields, and they are clear about what they need from their national government. Moreover, time is of the essence for the Philippines and other governments to step up assistance to organic, “rooted” farmers; many governments are now rightly frightened about depending too heavily on food imports at a time of wildly fluctuating prices.

Trying to internalize the wisdom we learn in the Philippine rice fields: as we see it, the Philippine government faces an historic opportunity. The Philippines could be an organic rice frontrunner in Asia. It could make significant progress toward achieving what the global small farmers’ movement, Via Campesina, calls “food sovereignty”—that is, “defending small-scale farming, agro-ecology and local production.” And the beneficiaries would not just be farmers, but also the tens of millions of Filipinos who would eat healthier rice in a cleaner environment—and the rest of us who would have one more model of a less vulnerable and more rooted way forward.

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

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