Rice farmers cushion losses with resilient farmer-bred variety | Land Portal
By ANGELIZA ARCEÑO with reports from Mavic Conde
Language of the news reported: 

By Angeliza Arceño with reports from Mavic Conde 

This story has been developed as part of Nieves Zúñiga’s 2022 LEDE Fellowship project awarded by the Solutions Journalism Network and developed in collaboration with Land Portal.

HINIGARAN, Negros Occidental — A farmer-bred rice variety never leaves farmers from barangay Calapi in Hinigaran town in mid-southern part of this province empty handed.

“With PBB 401 variety, there’s always something to harvest,” said Ruben Laquita, member of a small peasant group in Hinigaran.

Farms in this coastal town are frequently flooded following heavy rains, which Laquita described as an unfortunate experience in the last three cropping seasons. “We used to plant other rice varieties [through organic farming], but floods completely destroyed them.”

The PBB 401 rice variety, on the other hand, stands out because it has repeatedly demonstrated its resilience to floods. Extreme weather events, also known as conditions beyond average weather and climate patterns, have become more common because of climate change.

Over the last two decades, the country has had the highest occurrence of extreme weather events, particularly tropical typhoons, among Asian developing countries included in this study, with flooding being one of the major agricultural damage-causing hazards. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, these unmitigated disasters have cost the agriculture sector the most, with 63 percent damage or P290 billion pesos recorded from 2010 to 2019, further impoverishing the poorest members of this already vulnerable sector, the majority of whom significantly contribute in their local economies’ food production as a big part of rural population.

As a result, farmers like Laquita prefer the PBB 401 because preventing total production losses is “better than nothing.”

What is PBB 401?

PBB 401 is an organic white rice variety developed by the late Pepito Babasa, a farmer-breeder from Camarines Sur in the Bicol region. Babasa used two parent materials for breeding: native red rice Bulao and salinity-resistant M115-1. This resulted in a slightly “blonde” husk, droopy flag leaf, a not-too-slender/elongated grain which ripens before the leaves. It can reach a height of one meter.

“Here in our place [in Bato town] there’s no irrigation system. Upland farms are rainfed, and farmers can only plant once per year. Those in the lowlands pumped water from the river, which can also flood their riceland during heavy rains,” Babasa said.

According to him, the PBB 401 is drought-resistant due to its deep-penetrating roots, and farmers in other Philippine provinces such as Negros and Cotabato in Mindanao, where irrigation is also scarce, attest to its productivity amid extreme drought, even without using chemical fertilizer.

But while the PBB 401 was made as drought-resilient, its adaptors also found it flood-resistant, including the Hinigaran farmers. Their most recent experience was when super typhoon Odette (Rai), the strongest typhoon to hit the country in 2021 and the first to develop strength beyond tropical storms in December since typhoon Nina in 2016, flooded their communal farm. It is also the second most damaging after super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, which a study published in Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology estimated to have a return period of 13 years for affected rice farmers, adding 12.5 million tons of rice have been lost to typhoons since 2001.

Despite the severe flood, the Hinigaran farmers were still able to harvest 35 cavans of rice, compared to their normal harvest of 95 to 100 cavans, while the Rc10 variety was completely destroyed.

In a phone interview, Ronald Labrador, who obtained a salinity-resilient PBB variety called 410 for a coastal communal farm that he used to manage in Albay province, said these varieties are highly adaptable. According to him, the communal farm was established in response to saltwater inundation of ricelands, an environmental hazard that has become more common with the rapid climate-induced sea-level rise.

Moreover, Babasa said his farm is along Lake Bato, one of the largest in the country and is part of the lake system in Camarines Sur. It overflowed after heavy rains, causing flooding that could last two weeks.

Trial farming

Laquita is a member of the Barangay Calapi Daat Small Farmers Association (CADASFA), a Hinigaran peasant organization made up of beneficiaries of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform program (CARP). The CARP is a government program that provides agricultural lands to landless farmers such as agricultural tenants and lessees, regular and seasonal farmhands, and other farm workers.

After obtaining their Certificate of Land Ownership, the CADASFA started to grow rice varieties, including the PBB 401 in the .75 square meters of trial land. A trial land is a communal land where farmers grow farmer-saved rice varieties to test their adaptability to local conditions. Prior to harvest, participating farmers select varieties that are compatible with their farm ecologies and hazards. The ten most picked will be mass produced at the trial farm and distributed for free.

PBB 401 has a “strong body,” according to CADASFA farmers, and produces a lot of yields, especially when not sprayed with chemical pesticides. “If you do not add poison (commercial pesticides), the plant will grow strong and will not be attacked by pests,” Laquita said.

At the trial farm, these farmers practice organic farming to save money while maintaining the soil’s microbial health. “Why buy when you have natural materials around you? If you have it, use it. The plants remain healthy,” said CADASFA member Roger Noblezada.

CADASFA farmers typically use natural pesticides derived from vermicompost and a blend of madre de cacao, tobacco, peppers, lemon grass, and makabuhay — all of which can be found on the farm.

“We never had problems with organic pesticides,” Noblezada said, adding “commercial pesticides are expensive and we know what happens when we use it.” Excessive use of chemicals, according to him, “causes soil acidity, results in pesticide-resistant insects, and increases health risks to farmers.” Unlike organic farming, inorganic farmers have to buy chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and even seeds.

But while both organic and inorganic fertilizers contain nitrogen, which crops do not absorb entirely, the latter is more prone to leaching and surface runoff. As a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide can warm the atmosphere 300 times more than carbon dioxide. Fertilizers must be used and produced strategically in light of their potent emission impacts, which organic and pastoral farmers have been doing. Furthermore, the production of inorganic fertilizers contributes to the increased use of fossil fuels such as methane gas. Agriculture, along with forestry and land use, are second to the energy sector in terms of global human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which caused the climate crisis.

Argene Seron, Kabuhian Association chairperson, believes that an adaptable seed is critical to cultivating climate-resilient crops. KABUHIAN is a farming association of CARP beneficiaries from Kabankalan City that also planted PBB 401 in their trial farm and saw similar yield results.

Trial farming shows them that climate-resilient seeds are locally-adapted, diverse and rely on fertile soil. As Babasa put it, a resilient seed in one place may not be the same in another. Thus, the need for on-farm testing, which farmers can do if they have control over their food production practices, such as choosing what seeds to plant and cultivating and exchanging them for diverse varietal lines without the legal constraints of patents, among other things.

Farming support network

The CADASFA farmers have been working closely with the non-governmental peasant organization Paghida-et sa Kauswagan (Peace in Development Group/PDG) and its partner Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development/MASIPAG), both of which assist them in having control over their food production. The PDG through ensuring land rights, and MASIPAG (with its progressive scientist members) by encouraging agricultural biodiversity of staple crops, particularly rice, through localized food systems.

PDG focuses on peasant communities, including CARP beneficiaries’ struggles, whereas MASIPAG works with its network of 50,000 marginalized Filipino farmers to ensure access to farmer-saved seeds and training on how to cultivate them without being tied to the costly monocrop, chemical-based farming prioritized by the Green Revolution. The latter’s exclusionary nature resulted in agro-biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and debt-overwhelmed rural subsistence farmers — the same reasons that prompted the formation of MASIPAG to combat these threats.

CADASFA farmers obtain their seeds from the PDG and MASIPAG seed libraries, which currently contain 2,000 rice varieties, including 600 traditional varieties, 1,299 MASIPAG rice, and 506 farmer-bred rice. Its 188 trial farms spread across the country keep at least 50 traditional seed varieties.

Babasa used a MASIPAG line, the M115-1 variety, to produce the PBB 401. The organization was also able to save Philippine native rice varieties, like the Bulao, and has served as its custodian since.

PDG coordinator Gilberto Premediles also attested to PBB 401’s resilient characteristics. “For example, if rainfed irrigation becomes clogged, PBB varieties like 407, 436, and especially the 401, have resistance to flooding and also drought. This is based on my experience with other farmers in Negros.”

According to Premediles, Hinigaran farmers have been growing this rice variety for over two years and it has greatly aided their harvest. This is because it is a F7 crop that underwent (more or less than) three years and seven croppings of testing to become a pureline using MASIPAG’S breeding process. As a result, an established variety emerges (based on the breeder’s goals) that is distinctly superior from its parent materials.

“Usually when you plant something successfully the first time, there is no guarantee that the next production will still have good seeds, sometimes a variation occurs,” Premediles said.

This is also why farmers who grow commercial seeds (often hybrids) buy every planting season because hybrids revert to the traits of one of the parent materials. As a result, replanting does not guarantee the same qualities. Whereas based on Negros farmers’ experience with PBB 401, the second production will be just as good as the first.

Other associations planted the PBB 401 and experienced the same positive results, including a good eating quality for having a fragrant smell, according to Premediles. Farmers from southern Negros Occidental towns, particularly Kabankalan City, are among them. He adds that all the grains must be ripe before harvesting in order to maximize yields.

Core challenge: land rights

Peasants are benefiting from the PBB 401 rice variety thanks to trial farming, which would have been difficult without access to land. Farmers can test rice varieties before planting them on their own farms by using communal lands as trial farms.

According to Premediles, they usually grow a variety of rice seeds per gram and spread them on a small area of the rice bed that can hold at least 50 pieces of seeds. When those begin to grow, they observe and document how they perform, whether they are healthy or if they have any defects.

Landless farmers, instead, grow what their landlords prefer, which is often inorganic crops, because the government prioritizes them for subsidies. That is the same reason why smallholder farming families continue to practice chemical farming despite knowing its economic impact on them and its environmental tolls.

In 2022, the government’s budget allocation for fertilizer and oil price hike subsidies amounted to P20 billion pesos. Farmers qualified for such subsidies are those that receive chemical-dependent, high-yielding rice seeds from the government and those registered in the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA), which, according to the Department of Agriculture, “contains basic information of legitimate farmers, farm laborers and fishers.”

Because of this, as well as the lack of support for farmers to organize, including CARP beneficiaries, Premediles laments how, despite the PBB variety’s success in reducing losses from extreme weather events, it is not widely used by Filipino farmers.

Trial farming is a systematic activity that people’s organizations mobilize on the ground. Its members voluntarily participate in organic farming training provided by MASIPAG, attend regular meetings in their localities for the exchange of agricultural knowledge, and are willing to provide MASIPAG with a copy of their bred seeds, which will be distributed for free to its trial farms nationwide.

According to Premidiles, “aside from simply granting them land, it would be preferable if the government would assist new beneficiaries in better managing their lands.”

This is one of the reasons the CARP and its various iterations have failed to deliver on their promise of closing the gap between landless farmers and land ownership, despite having reportedly distributed 4.9 million hectares (out of 5.4 million hectares designated for CARP) since 2005. CARP beneficiaries struggle to keep their lands because farming is a capital-intensive and high-risk endeavor, especially inorganic farming, and many farmers end up giving up because of debt. In other cases, they suffered from and struggled against intimidation and harassment.

While the CADASFA farmers had a smooth turn over and have no issue of land grabbing on their end, others are not as fortunate. The former are currently holding individual lands as well as eighty five square meters of communal land, which includes the trial land.

Nancy Vingno, a peasant farmer from KABUHIAN Association in Kabankalan, said it took years to process their certificate of land ownership award (CLOA). “Having it for 24 years now is also 24 years of never ending struggle against land grabbing and constant harassment by landlords and the military when we simply would like to focus on farming and to be able to farm in peace,” she said.

This is also happening in other parts of the country where land disputes have resulted in human rights violations of farmers, indigenous groups and environmental defenders. In June this year, members of the Philippine National Police illegally and violently arrested agrarian reform beneficiaries in Tarlac for rightfully claiming their land rights in favor of a local politician claiming ownership of the land.

Other challenges

Furthermore, there are no monetary funds to invest in the trial farms, which are managed locally and must be organized to obtain funding through donations or grants. Because their seed libraries are housed in simple huts, they are vulnerable to typhoons, as was the case in Kabankalan.

Prior to typhoon Odette, farmers from Negros provided seed to typhoon-affected MASIPAG farmers, while those from Albay held feeding activities for farming families who were affected by movement restrictions during the lockdown.

Still, the available seeds are limited, so CADASFA farmers had to make do with a non-flood resistant RC10. “We’d like to have a more consistent operation of the trial farm on our communal land, but it’s currently empty because we don’t have the money to maintain it,” Laquita said.

Developing locally adapted rice varieties like the PBB 401 also takes years, and some members may become inactive along the process due to lack of adequate support. This is happening now with some CADASFA members.

“Sometimes it is not just about the money but also about other resources. Owning our own land gives us control over our time and food production, and receiving the necessary support for land improvement activities and management constitutes true agrarian reform,” said Cutie Dalumpines, PDG coordinator for CADASFA. (JJE, RVO) 

Reporting for this story was supported by Solutions Journalism Network.

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