Seeds Of Struggle: Reaping Climate-Resilient Crops Through Peasant Science

by Dominic Gutoman

The recent drought in the Philippines, brought by El Niño, put farmers at a grave disadvantage on the frontlines of food security and environmental defense.

Lauro G. Diego, 63, a farmer based in Bataan, Philippines, is among the one million farmers affected by El Niño, with agricultural damage reaching P6.3 billion ($109 million). He and his community took it upon themselves to respond to the drought and larger climate crisis by cultivating climate-resilient crops. 

Lauro has been farming for more than 22 years. He has been a firm advocate and practitioner of organic farming ever since he joined the farmer-led network Magsasasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG).

“It is important for farmers like us, to have our sovereignty and security to the seeds. From our [indigenous] organic tradition, we produce varieties that have a strong climate adaptability. In times of disaster, we can produce crops fitting to our area and can respond to the crisis,” Lauro said in Filipino.

He is also training other farmers to embrace organic farming in pursuit of climate resiliency. As a MASIPAG farmer, they have control and autonomy over their seeds and innovations – which is the heart of their advocacy – resulting in more sustainable use and management of biodiversity. It is contrary to the default ownership of private companies, which are often associated with biopiracy.

Training of farmers on peer review for their farmlands | Photo by MASIPAG Luzon

The framework of resilience

In a Diinsider Life interview, Lauro narrated that they led the collection, identification, maintenance, multiplication, evaluation, and breeding of the seeds. “We conduct trial farm strategies to identify which varieties can specifically thrive in our lands… We have to study the right variety during our field days in the trial farm.”

Trial farms are built as an avenue for farmers to study rice varieties — their unique characteristics in the type of land, climate, and its needs. They studied a minimum of 50 rice varieties and evaluated which seeds they were going to sow in their farming cycle.

Farmers’ field day in the trial farm | Photo by MASIPAG Luzon

“I have many components to cultivate crops. Even the fertilizers came from our own farm ecosystem. The waste from the animals– goats, chickens, ducks, cows– is being composted, while the rejected crops are being used to feed the animals. From here, there is nutrient cycling,” Lauro said. 

This practice of self-reliance is more known as the diversified integrated farming system (DIFS). Each component available to the farmers is being used to sustain their whole agricultural system.

There are corresponding levels of DIFS, pertaining to their capacity for self-reliance as an individual, family, and community. The highest level of DIFS refers to the capacity of the farmer to supply enough nutrients from crops and animals and respond to the nutritional and medical needs of the family, with a 30% increase in profit. 

This system safeguards farmers, not only in the health and climate risks but also in economic repercussions.

Defiance in drought

El Niño started in January and is predicted to persist until May 2024. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) predicted that 47 areas all over the Philippines will be experiencing drought by the end of this month.

The strong level of El Niño was already anticipated by 2023, prompting MASIPAG to coordinate with farmers nationwide through forums and discussions to kickstart early preparations for the cultivation of crops.

“Although we were not able to plant crops in some parts of our lands due to the El Niño, we successfully reap the early-maturing varieties that we sow, ensuring that we will have crops to sustain our families amid the drought,” Lauro explained.

Beyond the climate-resiliency of the crops, efforts are also attributed to the preparations of the farmers beforehand. Due to the anticipation of drought, Lauro initially reaped early-maturing rice varieties. He also cultivated drought-tolerant varieties during the El Niño season.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. issued Executive Order No. 53, which is more commonly known as the Task Force El Niño, this January 2024. It was chaired by the Department of National Defense Secretary, and co-chaired by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary. Lauro said that the reconstitution of this Task Force arrived late, as the phenomenon was already anticipated by July 2023.

The backbone of sustainability

Peasant science is at the core principle of MASIPAG. This is a set of knowledge and practices by farmers, which seeks to promote the shift in understanding the role of peasants in rural development.

“From being passive recipients promoted by the Green Revolution, peasant science turns farmers into active knowledge producers from their actions, lived experiences, preserved knowledge, and practices, embracing and democratizing knowledge,” said Patrick Dela Cuerva, 26, National Advocacy Officer of MASIPAG.

Crops cultivated by farmers of MASIPAG | Photo by MASIPAG Luzon

The Green Revolution was criticized by grassroots organizations because farmers were excluded from developing seeds and technology, which led to their alienation and loss of local knowledge in rice farming.  

PANAP documented that ten years after the official pronouncement of the Green Revolution, farmers started to experience negative effects of the technology, particularly soil nutrient depletion and imbalance, which led to the ever-increasing application of chemical fertilizers which were “becoming more and more expensive.”

“By inherently upholding peasant science, farmers’ assertion of sovereignty becomes grounded. This means that farmers themselves define and construct their agricultural system. This also emphasizes that research and other forms of knowledge production work are done by the communities to address the priority issues of the farmers,” Patrick added. 

The success of the climate resilient crops is also highly attributed to the collective efforts of the farmers, communities, and the network. In the most recent data of MASIPAG, farmers now have 114 locally adapted varieties and selections (LAVS), 39 varieties resilient to strong wind, 33 drought-tolerant varieties, 9 pest and disease-resistant varieties, 8 flood-tolerant varieties, and 3 saltwater-tolerant varieties all over the Philippines.

Climate justice as a critical component

More than the adaptability of the farmers, climate resiliency could only be fully realized in the presence of climate justice.

Crops monitoring | Photo by MASIPAG Luzon

“While the crops of the farmers may have climate-resilient characteristics, it is not the be-all and end-all of drought, floods, storms, and disasters. There are limits to the extent that the crops can tolerate and resist. In times of abnormal or extreme climate conditions today, we must not solely rely on the capacity of farmers to cultivate climate-resilient crops because the survivability of the crops may also differ,” Patrick said.

In addition to this, Lauro underscored the importance for the government to develop a long-term climate action plan by collaborating with the farmers. “We can only protect our environment and secure our foods if the government will help us in advancing organic farming and by bringing the sovereignty of the seeds to us, not to the private corporations.”

There are still a lot of issues that the government needs to unpack to help farmers in sustaining their climate-resilient initiatives. From landlessness to development aggression, these vulnerabilities of the farmers must first be addressed. Only in the recognition that climate justice is intertwined with climate resilience can the government and the people solidify their defense against the global climate crisis.

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