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Marvin A. Tort

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Way back post-war, I was told, public schools taught practical skills like carpentry; maintained school gardens planted to vegetables; and put students in “junior police” forces that assisted in directing vehicular and pedestrian traffic, among others. In short, schools produced not just “graduates,” but also youth that were manually skilled and productive members of society.

In the 1970s, my late maternal grandmother was an elementary school principal in a public school in Pasay City. I recall my late mother bringing us to visit Lola in school many times. And, I remember the school, while relatively small compared to many others, also maintained a garden. In fact, I recall seeing many other public schools with gardens during the period.

This was not the case in private schools, however. I never experienced tending to a garden in private school.

At home, however, we had fruit trees.

At one point, we had two guava trees, three kamias trees, one coconut tree, and one avocado tree. We even had a grape vine crawling the fence. And, we also had gumamela, santan, sampaguita, ylang-ylang, and bougainvillea. And my father always planted banana trees and root crops in vacant lots around our house.

Nowadays, public schools in provinces still maintain gardens. I am not sure about schools in big towns and cities. And it is in this line that I support the proposal of party-list Congressman Salvador Belaro, Jr. to promote “urban agriculture” and “vertical farming,” which, according to him, can help fight poverty and hunger.

I have yet to secure from Congress a copy of Belaro’s House Bill 7526, but initial news reports on it indicate that the bill intends to include urban agriculture and vertical farming in the K-12 school curriculum, “to ensure food security, promote livelihood and to regenerate ecosystem functions in metropolitan areas.” The bill will also encourage colleges and universities and training centers to offer advanced elective courses for students in agriculture-related programs.

In some sense, the Belaro proposal is not exactly new. As I had noted, public schools used to have vegetable gardens. But, reintroducing the gardening program, particularly in urban schools, will be a big plus. In fact, I personally prefer the legislation to cover all public and private schools nationwide, and not just those in urban settings, with gardening being taught weekly.

Presently available technology now allows vertical farming, currently defined in available literature as “producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers, vertically inclined surfaces and/or integrated in other structures (such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container),” using “indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where all environmental factors can be controlled.”

In a statement released to media, Belaro was quoted as saying that school gardens could provide particularly for the urban poor, where corn and root crops could be cultivated to substitute for rice. Urban gardens can also be good sources of spices and vegetables. Taking the Belaro proposal further, school gardens can result in weekly community markets for the poor.

I am uncertain whether the Belaro plan includes raising livestock, milk production, aquaculture, agro-forestry, and horticulture, among others. I suppose in areas where suitable, these can be included or considered. But, in urban settings, perhaps vegetable and fruit gardens may be the most appropriate.

The Belaro proposal should be careful, however, to ensure that schools introduce sustainable gardening programs, and this means efficient use of available land footprint; minimal carbon footprint; producing crops and vegetables that can be easily sold; using plants that rely more on sunlight rather than electricity-fed lighting; and plants that require minimal use of potable water and relying more on rain as well as recycled water.

I suggest that HB 7526 also require composting and the use of Vermiculture technologies that help recycle natural waste products while at the same time produce suitable fertilizer for urban gardens. Vermiculture, in my opinion, can help significantly in waste management, as worms consumer kitchen refuse and in turn produce high-grade natural fertilizer for plants.

Under Belaro’s bill, he wants local government units (LGUs) to allow “urban farmers” to make use of idle or abandoned government-owned areas, or to extend assistance or give incentives to communities, homeowners associations, neighborhood associations, and community and/or people’s organizations that host urban farming activities.

He noted, “LGUs can put open spaces and idle lands to good use with vertical farming and urban agriculture, while campus gardens can do more than just have ornamentals and herbs… Idle and/or abandoned government lots and buildings owned by either national and local governments or available land resources in state universities and colleges can be conducive for growing crops, raising livestock and producing food using said methods, provided that these are compliant and subject to safety standards such that of DoST and other pertinent agencies.”

I hope Belaro’s colleagues in Congress can appreciate the value and potential of his proposal. I am inclined to believe that children in particular will truly benefit from it, even if only for the learning and the discipline of producing what they eat, and keeping their hands busy not with video games but with dirt that produce food.

 

Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.

matort@yahoo.com