Cruising through the winding roads of the Halsema highway, one is delighted with the scenery of fields on a rolling terrain of temperate vegetables.
But for all the picturesque sight, a large portion of the soil here holds a menace to the environment and the health of both farmers and consumers.
The raising of temperate vegetables goes back more than a hundred years ago, when the first early Chinese migrants observed that the Americans then stationed in the city of Baguio were fond of salad vegetables. But the Chinese employed their natural way of farming, using crushed soya beans to nurture the soil and produce sweet vegetables.
In the late 1960’s the Green Revolution swept through the Asian countries, and Benguet farmers, seduced by the promise of greater yield fell into the trap of chemical farming, a system that also put them in a cycle of indebtedness.
As early as the ’70s, farmers already suffered the consequences of mono-cropping, a practice that was part of chemical farming. Swarms of leaf miners destroyed most of the cabbage fields. Years of chemical spraying also gave rise to pests resistant to these chemicals. Farmers then started doing cocktails of pesticides, with the false notion that this would have stronger potency.
As pesticide use became increasingly and intensely used in these towns over decades, alternative medicine practitioner, Dr. Charles Cheng, noticed a sharp increase in the cases of leukemia and of cancers of the mouth, lungs, breast, liver, etc. among his patients coming from these towns and did a study on this and found the correlation between pesticide in the environment and the ailments, some leading to deaths. No solid scientific claims could be made because of the lack of clinical tests until the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health (UP-NIH) did a study.
The research, ‘Pesticide Exposure and Health Profile of Vegetable Farmers in Benguet, CAR’, was headed by its chair of environmental and occupational department, Dr. Jinky Lu.
Farmers tested showed organophosphate poisoning from blood samples, ranging from an alarming 87.8% in one town to 11.1% in a more remote area. Lu said that even low levels of organophosphate, an active ingredient in the most commonly used pesticide, Tamaron, in the bloodstream is alarming as this eventually leads to loss of motor functioning, muscle weakness and at worst, paralysis.
Further, a 2007 Greenpeace study “Nitrates in Drinking Water in the Philippines and Thailand” showed two of seven groundwaters tested in Buguias in Benguet Province to have nitrate levels higher than the safety limits established by the WHO.
Greenpeace found a relationship of this water pollution with the use of excessive nitrogen fertilizers in these areas.
The study also said that half or more of the fertilizers applied to the soil is leached to adjacent ecosystems and the environment. Some of these excess nitrogen is transformed to nitrous oxide gas, a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming capacity of CO2.
Aside from these nitrous oxide gas emissions, synthetic fertilizers are sources of CO2 emissions, as production of these are responsible for 1.2 percent of all global greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
Nicanor Perlas, a UNEP Global 500 awardee who brought bio-dynamic farming to the Philippines, says that to make one ton of urea, five tons of oil are needed, contributing to more CO2 emissions to the air.
A study of the Department of Agriculture also said that grasses laden with pesticides can kill grazing animals. This may explain the decline of cattle in Benguet, Perlas said.
Natural Farming: A Science For All
South Korea also suffered the same consequences of chemical farming, imposed by a then authoritarian military rule.
A brave agriculturist and veterinarian, Dr. Cho Han Kyu, took a different direction. He formulated a Natural Farming (NF) system that made use of natural material found in any farm that can be used in any region under any climate.
Cho was imprisoned and tortured for going against government policies.
But today, all of the countys of South Korea, after rice farmers in one county practiced NF and came up with bigger and better quality yield at less cost, have adapted Cho’s system.
Cho’s natural farming method has also been adapted in more than 30 countries.
The NF methods run one- on- one contrary to the ways of conventional farming.
NF does not use chemical fertilizers because when applied, the crops don’t take in albumen, but instead feed on the chemicals. Albumen is the nutritive material stored within the seed used by young plants until it develops roots and leaves. What is albumen to seed is mother’s milk to humans.
NF is also a no- tillage system. Instead it relies on earthworms and micro-organisms to keep the soil soft. Cho says that earthworms burrow as deep as seven meters while machines plow 20 cms. at best.
NF also does not use pesticides which not only kill insects but also go to the fruits and deep into the soil and water table. Instead NF uses light, aroma, alcohol, and others to control pests.
NF practitioners regard weeds as compost material and do not use herbicides but instead use wild grass for mulching to control weeds from sprouting, to keep moisture in the soil and propagate micro-organisms.
Josephine Gamboa, one of the first NF practitioners in the country, encountered Cho in 1999 when he came to spread NF in the Philippines. From thereon, NF has happily been seeping into thousands of farms with Gamboa’s team and converts, giving lectures all over the country, including Eric Tinoyan,an engineer and Magsasakang Siyentista in the Cordillera region.
Walking into the chicken house of Tinoyan in Camp 1 Tuba, Benguet is a surprising experience for one used only to how chickens in conventional farms are raised in crowded coops and to the awful odor of chicken manure wafting in poultry areas.
The sweet earthy smell of compost permeates the air in the chicken house An odorless way of raising chickens (and livestock) is a strong feature of Natural Farming as taught by Dr. Cho.
The secret is in the use of indigenous micro-organisms or IMOs formulated by Cho incorporated in the feed of fibrous green vegetables such as camote tops.
It is the IMOs that break down the chicken feces so that there is virtually no offensive odor emitted.
IMOs in the soil convert the nutrients in the soil into food the plants can use.These important bacterias increase carbon in the soil by depositing glomalin in it. It is the glomalin which gives the soil its rich and soft texture making tillage unnecessary.
“Natural farming is not retrogression to a primitive past. It is a leap into the future. NF products have as much as 300 percent nutrients than conventionally produced products. It is my small hope to make NF a living tool for humanity,” Cho repeatedly says.
By Marilou Guieb
Photo by PNEJ / Mau Victa.