Andres Ignacio, PhD
The uplands is home to many of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in the Philippines, particularly in Luzon and Mindanao Islands whose ancestral domains were logged in an earlier era. In many areas, the IPs have moved to higher lands to avoid conflict and the influx of migrant farmers, and now live next to the last remaining forests of the Philippines. Lands cleared of the original forest cover have been burned while imperata cylindrica grass dominates with a marginal agriculture of corn, root crops, and small gardens of the migrants. Corn as a food staple had been the basic extensive agriculture. With the availability of fertilizers and pesticides in recent years, farm areas have become much more intensive areas for corn that now supply the animal feeds industry.
In 2009, the incidence of poverty among agricultural households in the Philippines was 57%, which is thrice that of non -agricultural households (17%) (Reyes et al. 2012). In this same report, it was noted that households with heads that are primarily engaged in corn growing have the highest comparative poverty incidence at 64% compared to other crop growers. In addition to this, it is also in the corn sector where being food poor (or subsistence poor) is highest at 37%. Households with corn as their main source of livelihood also have the greatest deprivation from basic amenities such as potable water and electricity. What these figures show is that farmers engaged in corn production are among the poorest in the agriculture sector. With the steady growth of the corn sector for animal feeds nationwide since the early mid -1990s, the high poverty incidence of farmers engaged in this crop seems to contradict the high productivity being enjoyed by the corn industry as a whole. It is apparent therefore that those who are gaining from this agricultural activity are not the smallholder farmers themselves.
The age of corporate -driven agriculture
In recent decades, a form of corporate -driven agriculture has emerged that is built upon the use of the herbicide glyphosate, now the most widely-used agri chemical in the world (Main 2016). A whole industry has been built on the use of this weed killer through the modification of the genetic make up of crops to be resistant to glyphosate and to acquire traits from other organisms giving them the capacity to resist some common pests. This process is called genetic modification and produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs), altering the genetic makeup of the plant at the cellular level. The results are “super crops” that need much less maintenance and inputs than their traditional counterparts.
In the Philippines, the most widespread GMO crop is corn which peaked production at 7.77M metric tons in 2014. According to the Philippine Grain and Feed Situation and Outlook 2017 published by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, 70% of all corn produced in the Philippines is the yellow GMO variety, almost all of which goes directly to livestock feed production (Corpuz 2017).
GMO technology, however, does not come cheap. The normal cost of planting one hectare of GMO corn ranges from €550 to €600 depending on the quality of the seeds used. This includes all necessary inputs and related costs for a successful harvest such as seeds, fertilizers, glyphosate, and labor for planting, applications of fertilizers, and spraying glyphosate. The potential profit from a very successful harvest coupled with a very good market price for corn is almost thrice the initial investment, which is enough to entice any corn farmer to invest in such a potentially profitable activity.
However, a poor farmer with access to only one to two hectares of land will normally not be able to afford such a hefty investment even though the potential returns may be that high. So in order to market the technology to the masses, traders and financiers with favorable terms from seed and fertilizer companies provide farmers the needed capital for the latter to encourage a buy -in to the technology. The financing normally covers all inputs — seeds, glyphosate, and fertilizers — as well as labor costs in planting, spraying, harvesting, shelling, and drying with farmers being obliged to sell their crops directly to the same financiers. This has turned out to be a major success in that the farmers are easily able to get loans for corn planting, but with interests ranging between 5%-10% per month covering between 20% -40% respectively in a 4 -month cropping cycle.
A risky venture with few, if any, safety nets
But there are many risk factors in upland farming which include weather conditions exacerbated by climate change, pests, and market prices at harvest time. Should any of these factors adversely affect the harvest, it will be the farmer who shoulders the brunt of the crop failure, and forced to pay the financier the amount loaned plus interest. The farmers are then thrust into a cycle of debt that increasingly gets more difficult to escape from. The farmer’s livestock, possessions, and land are eventually assumed by the creditors if they are unable to pay. The most adversely affected in this system are the poorest farmers with landholdings of 2 hectares and below, who eventually end up as farm labor for the financiers who take over the land until the farmers are able to pay their debts.
Advances in agriculture and the decline of ecological integrity
The so called benefits of the use of glyphosate in agriculture that promise reduced labor and greater autonomy, are contributing to a broader crisis. Communities used to interact through communal labor in farming, working together in rotation to till the land of the individual farmers in what was a seasonally collective activity. Farmers used to not only practice share-cropping but also shared seed stocks and had greater control over food security, the impact of typhoons, and intense rains as they would also maintain diversity in some root crops.
Now with the monetization of labor, the practice of communal labor in agriculture has all but disappeared in these areas, making the people more and more dependent on the technology in order to survive.
“Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves.” (LS 128)
On a broader level this is affecting regional food security. Furthermore, the impacts on health of glyphosate (not dealt with in our investigation) being a carcinogen are unknown. All of these factors are contributing to a global web of ecological crises.
As mainstream society shifts its priorities and goals towards more consumerist ideals it inadvertently brings about devastating impacts in its wake, particularly to the producers situated at the margins the land and of society. Corporations have promoted the advancement and adoption of new technologies in the guise of alleviating poverty and the fight against hunger, though it is clear that profit has been the main driver. The push to maximize gains from agriculture have altogether reduced the land to a planting medium devoid of the organisms and processes that promote the natural regeneration of the soil.
“Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses.” (LS 129)
The resulting fragmentation in rural society and the shift from a nurturing to an exploitative relationship with the land has led to greater hardship and suffering for the poorest farmers in these areas of the Philippines.
Securing a path to hope
In seeking a way forward, it is important for us to recognize the gaps that have erupted in society resulting from our ecological disintegration. Only then can we begin to work towards connecting the fragments of our society that continue to drift apart, oblivious to the impacts a few have on the lives of the many — such as corporate decision-makers. We need to inspire emerging leaders in business and the corporate world by providing them opportunities to witness and engage the suffering of the people who are affected by corporate policies and strategies in an attempt to make them aware of the great responsibilities they carry. This long-term effort to bring about lasting change in the business sector is rooted on the foundations of Catholic social teaching and is meant to promote a more just, equitable, and inclusive economy.
Andres Ignacio, PhD
Director for Planning and Geomatics at the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change
In partnership with Pedro Walpole, sj, Director for Research at the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change
This article was originally published by CERAS.
Corpuz, P. 2017. “Philippine Grain and Feed Situation and Outlook 2017.” Required Report – public distribution RP 1702. GAIN Report. Washington, DC: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.
Francis (2015). Encyclical letter Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis. 1st ed. Vatican City. June 18, 2015.
Main, Douglas. 2016. “Glyphosate Now the Most-Used Agricultural Chemical Ever.” Newsweek. February 2, 2016.
Reyes, C., A. Tabuga, R. Asis, and M.B. Datu. 2012. “Poverty and Agriculture in the Philippines: Trends in Income Poverty and Distribution.” Discussion Paper. DISCUSSION PAPER SERIES NO. 2012-09. Philippine Institute for Development Studies.