Industrial farming, which relies on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, was once regarded as the backbone of food supply chains. But its productivity has plateaued due to widespread soil degradation, and the practice has damaged ecosystems, causing biodiversity loss.
More soil-friendly methods are now being explored, among which is organic farming, which aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate synthetic inputs. But going 100 per cent organic is not easy. Farmers are resistant, and there are just not enough buyers for the more expensive produce.
Recently, a botched attempt by Sri Lanka to ban the import and use of chemical fertilisers raises more questions about the viability of large-scale organic farming.
Can organic farming be scaled in Asia? Is there a middle road to take where a gradual shift can be managed, while ensuring that the livelihoods of farmers are taken care of?
In May last year, Sri Lanka issued an abrupt nationwide ban on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, requiring that the two million farmers in the country go completely organic. It was a disaster. Paddy and maize harvests plunged. The government eventually lifted its fertiliser ban and provided price subsidies to certain sectors, but the damage was done. Reduced domestic supply led to high food prices and acute shortages, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.
Sri Lanka’s story proves that the total elimination of agrochemicals alone is not enough to support a shift away from conventional farming. But despite its difficulties, the transition to alternative modes of food production is urgently needed, as chasing crop efficiency and yield using aggressive chemicals is no longer delivering desired results.
In Asia, there is growing evidence that land productivity has reached a plateau for advanced agricultural economies such as Malaysia, Vietnam and China. The Indo-Gangetic plains, which have the most fertile soils in India, are also undergoing severe land degradation. For the majority of farmers in Asia who are smallholders and operate on less than a hectare of farm area, many are seeing stagnating yields even as they apply more chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Still, it is a challenge to get farmers in Asia to return to pre-industrial methods or adopt more nature-led approaches to farming. The primary reason is the lack of financial motivation to do so – consumer demand for organic produce is restricted to a few affluent markets such as Singapore, and market incentives are distorted such that chemical inputs get more subsidies than organic ones. Even if farmers opt to transit to organic farming, they need to be prepared to manage the “yield gap” – usually a period of four to five years when croplands are not as productive, producing less crop per acre than conventional farms.
Muhammad Firdaus, professor from the Faculty of Economics and Management at IPB University, Indonesia, said that when smallholder paddy farmers switch to organic farming, they would lose about two tonnes per hectare, or a third of their usual output.
To encourage more farmers to take up organic methods, Dr. Firdaus, who is also part of the World Trade Organisation agricultural products negotiation expert team, says that governments design policies to help farmers reduce crop reliance on chemical fertilisers. The aim is to incentivise a gradual transition rather than implement sweeping reforms.
Smallholder farmers are driven by survival and economic returns. They are smart and they follow price signals, and will transition to organic as long as the conditions are right.Omer Zafar, principal natural resources and agriculture specialist, Southeast Asia department, Asian Development Bank
Omer Zafar, who specialises in agriculture policy in Southeast Asia at the Asian Development Bank, believes that when there is demand from consumers, farmers will respond. “Right now we do not see the signal from consumers yet, and as smallholder farmers are risk averse, there is no push for them to drastically change their methods.”
Zafar says that what regional financiers like the ADB can do is work with governments to build institutional structures, improve agricultural governance and drive capital towards technology that can help farmers manage the transition yield gap, once they switch to organic when there is significant market demand. This includes helping to train farmers, enhancing their knowledge of more nature-led approaches to food production, as well as promoting the use of organic fertilisers.
In the Philippines, the ADB has worked with the state to set up a participatory guarantee system — where local farmers assure the quality of each others’ produce — to certify organic producers, especially smallholder farmers. It has also funded development of …..
By Ng Wai Mun
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