Markus Wolter

Policy Advisor , MISEREOR

“Seeds are life and life is sacred”, said Cris Panerio to me during my visit in January. He is the National Coordinator of Masipag, a farmers’ organization in the Philippines.

50,000 small-scale farmers from all over the country work under the umbrella of Masipag and they all farm organically. They are a good example of how resilient and truly sustainable agriculture can be carried out – in a country where the so called “green revolution” was very predominant with heavy social and ecological impacts.[1]

Masipag farms are often a small oasis in diverse rice varieties in the Philippines © Anja Mertineit, MISEREOR

Up until the 70s, the Philippines was exporting rice. However, due to degradation of soils and flooding, they now import up to one million tons of rice. Therefore, the strategy of “producing enough food” and “lifting” farmers out of poverty by using high yielding varieties and pesticides was mostly a failure.

I met a former technical assistant from the breeder, Pioneer, who shared,

We were trained at university and then at Pioneer to spray, spray, spray. If there is a problem, you have to spray pesticides, even knowing that they are toxic for the people and the soil. There was a clear focus on yield – nothing else was counting.

An employee of Masipag breeding rice © Achim Pohl

Organic experiences at the trial farms

At Masipag, the farmers use a different strategy; the trial farms. Masipag’s seed bank contains over 2,000 rice varieties of which 171 were bred by the farmers at the trial farms.

A trial farm can contain about 50 rice varieties from which the farmers can select up to 10. These rice varieties are adapted to local agro-ecosystems and are organically mass produced.

From the trial farms, farmers are able to select which parental material to use based on the objectives they set. For example, they are able to select a variety with good yield and resistant to prevalent pests in the community. However, this variety may not have a profound taste. This particular variety can be bred with another rice variety that is aromatic and glutinous on small plots. The resulting progenies are then selected using taste quality as the most important criteria.

The seed bank at Masipag that has over 2000 rice varieties © Markus Wolter

For the farmers who are transitioning from chemical and monoculture production to organic rice production, shifting is relatively easy. This is mostly because they can experience it themselves that integrated farming systems ensure actual food security for the family and community at large.

With the diversified and integrated farms, Masipag farmers are able to utilize different varieties of rice and other crop species, and integrate them in to their animal production.

I was most impressed by the way the rice seeds were handled. Seeds are the beginning of every agricultural action and farmers know and respect that. They are trained to be breeders themselves instead of buying non-propagable seeds. Due to this practice, already 171 rice varieties in total have been bred by Masipag farmers.

They breed seeds native to the Philippines. The seeds are adapted to the diverse challenges in a country facing climatic extremes, for instance, drought, floods and are salt resistant. And especially in times of extreme climate uncertainties, they perform nearly as good as hybrid seeds; yielding an average of 4 tons per year.

Such local varieties are adapted to the extreme climatic conditions © Achim Pohl

From the Soil, the Seed Grows!

Usually in market economies, seeds are commercialized. However, at Masipag, the farmers freely swap seeds as it is viewed as a vital element that should not be monetized. To maintain this view, I realized a certain attitude of the farmers necessary.

They feel very connected to their soils, to their actions. In agricultural practices based on a lot of external input into the soil, I sense a growing trend of separation. If you do not see yourself as part of your environment, if you are in constant “war” against pests and diseases, you are disconnected. You as a farmer are not part of the environment anymore. If you approach your farm work and nature with respect – you work differently. And that starts with your seeds.

If you are the one who breeds the seeds, or one of your community members – you feel connected to it. And then as an outcome, you experience more healthy yields, profits, satisfaction, and food security. I saw the abundance of life and diversity, and less sickness.

One of the farmers, Leodi, shared that:

I have eleven children. I used pesticides on my farm and had to go to the doctor often. I converted to organic and have been farming that way for several years now, and I hardly have to go to the doctor now. With less pesticide use, I have more food variety on the table and less sickness.

LeodiNueva Ecija

Leodi at his farm. He is also a proud water buffalo breeder © Markus Wolter, MISEREOR

At the end of the day, many farmers like Leodi are able to free themselves from the debt trap. He is not dependent on external inputs any more – he feels connected to his own being and surrounding. He works with nature and not against it!

Along all necessary political and economic frameworks which have to change for more sustainable agriculture – I am convinced that consumers and farmers will have to face a transformation towards this feeling of mutual connection. And the sparks coming from farmers like Leodi, members of Masipag give me hope that we will succeed. I am inspired by this and do not doubt that the organic way is the path to take to ensure a sustainable present and future.

[1] Green revolution was a period when food production, especially of grains, was intensified through the use of high-yielding varieties and pesticides

Markus Wolter, MISEREOR

Markus is an organic farmer in Northern Germany who is passionate about sustainable agricultural practices. He has a diploma in Geography and Agronomy from the University of Göttingen and has worked as an agricultural consultant for the German development aid in Botswana and Bioland in North-Rhine Westfalia. He is currently the policy advisor for agriculture and nutrition, at the department of Policy and Global Challenges at MISEREOR. See more stories that Markus has published in his blog: https://blog.misereor.de/author/markuswolter/