Modern agriculture key to reducing poverty

By Adriel Dave A. Alvarez

December 4, 2017

AD Alvarez, top, discusses farming with Derek Mathews of South Africa, left, and Marcos Guigou of Uruguay. Photo by Robert Hazen

Agricultural choices don’t just affect food availability. They also have significant economic and social ramifications. A case in point is the Camotes Islands in the Philippines, where I am a corn farmer and community development worker with the Parakletos Project.

Nearly 73 percent of Camotes’ land mass of 53,318 acres is in agriculture. Yet because the farmers are using outmoded agricultural practices, it must import large quanitities of corn, which is ground into grits, the staple food of its 102,996 inhabitants.

Right now, farmers don’t harvest enough corn to sustain them to the next harvest. So they end up buying corn and they’re already impoverished. What they do is send a family member out of the island to work in mainland Cebu and/or overseas, and send back remittances.

Using their traditional methods farmers could produce only 8,480 megatonnes (MT) per year of corn grits from an average yield of 600 kilograms of corn per hectare, even if they cultivated all the available agricultural area in Camotes. Yet each household eats a minimum of 40 kilograms of corn grits per month. This means the total population of Camotes requires 963 (MT) of corn grits monthly, or 11,236 MT annually simply for food security. The result is a staggering deficiency of 4,589 MT of corn, just to meet the requirement for food consumption. Naturally, the deficit must be sourced somewhere else. As a result the island is importing corn valued at 68.8 million pesos (USD$1.37 million).

On the other hand, adopting modern agricultural practices could dramatically reverse the economic climate of the island. Corn is the most adaptable crop that can be produced in the island. Camotes has the capacity to produce 169,650 MT of corn grain per year if farmers used currently available technology. In other words, the farmers could feed themselves and generate 150,650 MT of corn for sale elsewhere, generating Php 1.8 billion or US$36 million.

The shift to modern agricultural technology could generate an incredibly positive impact to the economy of the island. It would also reduce food costs and improve food security and the overall quality of life for households in the island. I have seen this myself in my own fields, where pest-resistant Bt (GMO) corn has given me yields 10 times the average.

We need a comprehensive approach that can effectively address issues that limit these technological adaptations. The different issues we have seen during the seven years we have been doing agricultural community development are: resistance to technological change; lack of capital support and policies; an overall negative mindset towards agriculture; insufficient political support; limited accurate information for farmers coupled with a proliferation of misinformation; supply limitations; logistical limitations; and location challenges unique to the island.

These are just simple, straightforward interpretations of data within the context of the island. There is opportunity that is not being tapped for the benefit of the people in the island. The challenge now is to get this technology disseminated to the farmers. Considering the disparity between traditional and modern agriculture, there is great urgency to make technology work for the farmers in Camotes.

The technology is not a problem because in the Philippines it’s legal to grow the pest-resistant Bt corn. And for the last three years there’s been a clamour to copy what we’re going. It might catch on like wildfire and we might turn the economy of this small island around. Right now, it’s just a vision, but that’s our intention. Modern agriculture is the key to reducing poverty.

AD Alvarez participated in the first Alliance for Science communications and grassroots training program for farmers, held this past September in Illinois.