Covid-19 propels city-farming opportunities to centerstage

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THE coronavirus disease of 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic not only highlighted the flaws of various food systems in the world but also emphasized one vital thing that has been ailing the farm sector: neglect for food production.

The disruptions in domestic trade caused by lockdowns have resulted in an imbalance in the food supply, resulting in the shortage of food products in certain areas like the metropolis while having a glut in food-production areas.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar and
newly designated Ambassador on Food
SecurityJames Reid. Department of
Agriculture.

Such a situation, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said, puts cities, particularly those in developing countries like the Philippines, in a vulnerable state with the urban poor having to bear the brunt of the food system disruptions.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems worldwide, posing a number of challenges for cities and local governments that are obliged to deal with rapid changes in food availability, accessibility and affordability – which strongly impact the food security and nutrition situation of urban populations,” the FAO said in a policy brief.

“The bottomline is that poor people in urban areas are seriously affected not only by the spread of the virus itself but also by policies and measures to contain its spread – unless effective [programs] are put into place to mitigate these effects and to support their livelihoods,” it added.

Food system

THE FAO noted that the Covid-19 pandemic did not only expose “serious limitations” in the global food trade but also in the urban food system “functioning and resilience.”

“Along with the evolution of the pandemic and also in its wake, important questions have to be answered regarding how urban food systems can be better managed to avoid such events turning into food security, nutrition and livelihood crises,” it said.

In fact, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on urban food systems hit Filipinos close to home: the lack of household food security.

Sen. Cynthia A. Villar, the current chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, pointed out that the current public health crisis is an “eye-opener” that should prod authorities to promptly address the “limitations of the country’s food supply and shortcomings in its distribution system”

Villar said a shift in government priorities for food production is not only urgently needed but would also change people’s mindsets on farming.

“We have seen a renewed interest and enthusiasm in urban farming and backyard gardening. That’s a good indication and we should keep the momentum going,” she said.

Organizing programs

ACCORDING to Villar, “growing food in one’s backyard is the most effective way, especially for food-poor families, to make sure that they will not go hungry during emergencies.”

The solon said urban agriculture is a key measure to avert and alleviate “food poverty,” particularly among the urban poor. “We can empower people to grow or produce their own food as much as we can, but agriculture officials and policy-makers should put in place a sustainable program to ensure that the people will not run out of food, with or without a crisis.”

Villar’s views weren’t lost on the Department of Agriculture (DA).

The DA said it is cognizant of the various impacts on different layers and segments of the country’s food value chain of government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of these segments is household food security and urban agriculture.

In April, the DA kick-started its urban agriculture program aimed at boosting local food production, particularly ensuring household food security, during the public health crisis.

Outreach project

UNDER its urban agriculture program, the DA said it will distribute free seeds to interested individuals as well as partner with local government units (LGUs) in Metro Manila and nationwide to establish an urban agriculture system.

“The urban agriculture initiative serves as one of the DA strategies to provide Filipino families, including city dwellers, who were affected by the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, with adequate, accessible and affordable food,” Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said. “With this project, we are empowering urban residents to be self-reliant and enjoy a regular source of nutritious vegetables.”

To date, the DA has served about 721,169 individuals/households out of the 966,956 households it targets to benefit from its urban agriculture program.

The DA added that it has already partnered with 19 provincial LGUs, 243 municipal-level and city-level LGUs and 13 communities, barangays and schools. The DA is eyeing to partner with 20 provincial LGUs, 291 municipal-level and city-level LGUs and 41 communities, barangays and schools under its urban agriculture program.

Designating a champion

LAST May, the DA unveiled that local celebrity James Reid would be its Ambassador for Food Security. The DA added that Reid volunteered for the role.

Reid himself admitted he is not an “expert” in agriculture but disclosed that he wanted to use his “visibility” to champion agriculture.

“I am still new to the world of agriculture. I’ve always wanted to use my visility for something I believe in. I want to push for innovations in the field of agriculture,” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

Reid revealed that he started a new company, The Freshest Inc., which will focus on urban farming, particularly promoting hydroponics in cities as part of the new normal. The actor said he would release details of his new venture in the coming weeks.

Beyond gimmickry

NONETHELESS, Reid disclosed that he plans to create “a lot of content” to expose to more people “the importance of urban farming” and, hopefully, “inspire” the youth to venture into agriculture and become “the next generation of farmers.”

“[Farming] is something we tend to overlook and is something that should not be taking for granted. I believe farming should be one of the biggest industries in the Philippines and something Filipinos should be proud of,” he said.

Economist Pablito M. Villegas said the DA’s move to tap Reid as “Ambassador for Food Security” could be viewed as the embodiment of the future of farming: Millennials with a passion for agriculture.

“This could be a sound investment of the DA as he could encourage a particular representation of the population the Millennials to venture in farming. To encourage them that there is money, there is hope and there is food security in agriculture [is a good move],” Villegas told the BusinessMirror.

“It could be easily misconstrued as a simple gimmick but, if properly used by the DA, it can boost the demand for urban agriculture,” Villegas added.

Engaging LGUs

GOOD Greens + Co (GG+C), a subsidiary of Delbros group, has said that vertical farming infrastructure is one of the technologies that city dwellers and city LGUs could utilize in establishing and sustaining their very own urban agriculture systems in the new normal.

GG+C said the use of vertical farming infrastructure is ideal to kickstart urban agriculture in various cities in the country due to congested and limited space.

GG+C has built a 23-square meter tower farm in San Fernando, Pampanga, that produces the same volume as much as a 2,700-square meter plot of ground. The tower farm produces around 170 kilograms of vegetables, according to the firm.

“The company has plans to further its reach in Bacolod, Silay, Quezon City, Makati City, Siargao, Davao, and Boracay within the year. Food security is of primary importance, and is a key pillar of our national sustainability,” GG+C President Simon Villalon said in a recent statement.

GG+C said it costs about P500,000 per farm tower but the LGU provides the land. Villalon said their expansion entails a mix of both privately-owned and publicly invested vertical farms.

“The vision for the Good Greens’ vertical towers is to be growing in the center of a vibrant and healthy community. The automated vertical farms are designed specifically to maximize available space, and in our studies the harvest yield of our farms is ten-times the volume of traditional farming,” he said.

“A farm that would, for example, output 1.7 tons of greens monthly would require around 500 square meters to 800 square meters, and cost about P6 million,” he explained.

Creating a market

VILLEGAS, a former United Nations’ food security and value chain consultant, said various urban agriculture programs of the government in the past have repeatedly failed because of one key reason: they were not demand-driven.

Villegas explained that “assured markets” should be created in order for urban farmers to sustain their food production and even go beyond household food security level.

“It has to be more on the demand and not supply lead. Create first the market. If it is only aimed for household food security it will not be sustainable. It should go beyond that the government should show that as a community, you can grow it together,” he said.

One way to create a market, Villegas explained, is by requiring LGUs to source all the food requirements of its employees, for example a city hall, from its own farmer-residents or from a partner subdivision that has a community garden or farm.

Villegas said LGUs could also kick-start providing their employees with healthy food packs every pay day or once a month, which includes fruits and vegetables directly sourced from their urban farmers.

Urban farming

VILLEGAS added that LGUs could also pass an enabling order requiring households to plant in their own backyards or in their subdivisions their very own food requirements.

“When I was in Tonga, that small-nation state had a planting-order law wherein all households must plant what he can produce for his household food security. The same could be done by the Metro Manila Council,” he said.

Furthermore, Villegas said LGUs should also hire agriculturists, preferably new graduates, for every barangay to sustain proper practices for urban agriculture. This would not only ensure a working urban farming system but will also provide employment to young agriculturists, he explained.

The government should also complement its urban agriculture program with proper consumer education on why they should produce certain types of foods and the benefits of various products, Villegas added.

“Educating them what to eat and what kind of food they are able to access right now creates demand,” he said. “If people realize that food sold in the market is pesticide- and chemical-laden, then they would prefer to produce their own organic food.”

Reducing waste

THE Covid-19 pandemic also puts a spotlight on one of the usually neglected problems of the country’s food system: wastage.

Villegas said reducing food waste is also a vital component of urban agriculture as scraps could be turned into compost while other waste materials like plastic bottles could be utilized as gardening pots.

The FAO pointed out that reducing food loss and wastage is also one of the best ways to increase food production. Reducing food loss and wastage, the FAO said, would generate additional food supplies that could be distributed to households that are at most risk during this pandemic.

“FAO encourages countries to adopt holistic approaches to tackle food loss and waste reduction, in an effort to facilitate access to food for all and particularly for vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

Jovita B. Raval of the National Nutrition Council said the promotion of urban agriculture by the DA is a step in the right direction to ensure that households have available food supply.

However, Raval proposed that the DA educate city dwellers to produce healthy and nutritious food that would help them boost their immune systems and improve their well-being.

“We should really promote a sustainable healthy diet in our food system. Based on the studies of our experts, our healthy diet should be shifting to a more plant-based diet,” she said. “We should lessen consumption of meat products and move toward fruits and vegetables.”

Based on the survey of the National Economic and Development Authority, Filipinos would demand healthier food products as they seek to stay healthy and boost their immune system under the new normal.

Integrative ecosystem

PHILIPPINE Permaculture Association (PPA) founder Bert Peeter said the Covid-19 and the “New Normal” is a golden opportunity for permaculture to grow in the country. Permaculture is a system that works according to the ways how nature is designed, Peeters explained.

Peeters said permaculture could help urban cities to establish a sustainable and ecological farming system by assessing first the current assets that they have such as soil and water availability.

Peeters, who lives in an off-grid house in a Marikina subdivision, said greening the metropolis should be part of the “New Normal.”

He proposes pocket-parks and urban-farming zones in cities to ensure that residents have a stable supply of healthy food and allow them to earn additional income.

Peeters said urban agriculture should be more of a community endeavor to ensure sufficiency of food stocks among city dwellers.

“Residents could now do barter with their neighbors if they have bumper crop harvests,” he told the BusinessMirror. “And better if they can go and trade with other cities as well.”

Tweaking the system

SEN. Francisco N. Pangilinan said the “Sagip Saka” (save farming) law that he principally authored, helped farmers to cope with the adverse impacts of Covid-19.

The direct and negotiated purchasing by LGUs and national government agencies for their agricultural needs, particularly for their relief operations and feeding programs, has been allowed by the Republic Act 11321 or the  Sagip Saka  Act, according to Pangilinan.

“Under that law, direct and negotiated purchasing of agricultural requirements of LGUs and national government agencies is now allowed. What happens now is that the government units become the ‘big brothers’ of our farmers,” Pangilinan said during a webinar hosted by Greenpeace Philippines.

“These provincial and municipal governments have jails to feed, have hospitals to feed; and they can now fill their requirements by buying directly from local farmers and fishermen there’s no need for a bidding process,” the lawmaker added. “What happens there, therefore, is that our farmers have an assured market already.”

The assured market and the right price for their produce are the best incentives for farmers to continue planting amid these challenging times, the senator said.

“This should be the new and better normal: farmers having access to the market at the right price,” Pangilinan said.

Yielding gains

THE DA has reported that local farmers have earned at least P2.38 billion for directly selling their produce to about 425 LGUs since the country was placed in various forms of quarantine measures or lock-downs. The DA noted that such an amount of farm procurement was unprecedented.

Pangilinan noted that the direct procurement by LGUs for farm products, as a way to fill their needs for relief packs, was able to save farmers from losing their income.

He cited as example the case in North Cotabato wherein the prevailing farm-gate price for squash was at P1 per kilogram but farmers were able to sell their produce at P4 per kilogram to local governments.

Pangilinan and Dar pointed out that such partnership shall continue and be strengthened under the “New Normal.”

Direct purchasing of farm produce, which promotes a shorter supply chain, should be part of the new normal especially for urban food systems, the FAO said.

“The crisis provides an opportunity to underline the multiple benefits of local food systems, enabling local actors to better coordinate during such crisis to avoid main gaps in food distribution, and above all, making cities more food resilient to such crisis thanks to existing urban and peri-urban food production, processing and the setup and maintenance of local food reserves,” the FAO added.

Image Credits: Department of Agriculture

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