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Smart tech to help PHL achieve sustainable agri goals

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Oxford Business Group

The Philippines is hoping to modernize and strengthen its agriculture sector, with both the state and private companies promoting the adoption of advanced technology and smart farming methods to increase harvests and minimize losses.

In early April officials broke ground on the country’s first state-funded smart farm, part of the P128-million ($2.5-million) Smart Plant Production in Controlled Environments (SPICE) program, designed to develop and promote urban farming and high-tech plant conservation.

Located at the Department of Science and Technology’s nursery of indigenous and endemic plants in Quezon City, and operated in coordination with the University of Philippines-Diliman and the University of Philippines-Los Baños, the facility will serve as a greenhouse for new technology and modern farming methods.

According to officials, techniques such as vertical farming, micropropagation, cryopreservation and hydroponics will be practiced, with the aim of developing technology to boost crop production and reduce the need for manual labor.

The SPICE project is part of a wider drive to reform and modernize the sector through the introduction of new techniques and the wider application of technology, a policy direction of increasing importance as the country’s population expands and the issue of food security becomes more pressing.

The Philippines has been identified as one of the countries most at risk from climate change, with the Global Climate Risk Index 2018, released by Bonn-based NGO Germanwatch, ranking the country as the fifth most affected by changing weather patterns over the past 20 years.

Among the changes in climatic conditions has been the more frequent occurrence of El Niño weather cycles, often characterized by lower rainfall and higher temperatures, threatening crop outputs. The last major El Niño event, in 2015 and 2016, reduced harvest yields by 4.5% and cut returns along the food production and processing chain.

To support new smart farm initiatives and help reduce the impact of climate change, government agencies and the private sector have been working with farmers to improve their understanding of sustainable farming practices.

The Department of Agriculture, through its Agricultural Training Institute, has partnered with the Social Institute for Poverty Alleviation and Governance to deliver courses teaching farmers in Central Luzon about climate-smart practices, including the use of modern technology, and crop and soil management.

Such education programs are vital to raising awareness of the potential benefits of technology in farming, according to Takashi Sumi, president and CEO of local firm Atlas Fertilizer.

“Agriculture technology exists in the country, but farmers must be better educated on how to use it and informed of the benefits,” he told Oxford Business Group (OBG). “Machines are generally viewed as too expensive for farmers to acquire, even though they would increase harvest efficiency significantly.”

In addition, the Philippine subsidiary of multinational agricultural firm Monsanto launched a smart farm initiative in February to provide training to corn growers.

The nationwide program will see farmers learn about how new technologies can improve corn planting and cultivation, including the use of high-yield and disease-resistant strains of corn. Taking place at 16 smart farm centers across the country, the program aims to reach 20,000 growers in its first year.

On top of efforts to increase yields and returns, the focus on sustainable farming techniques is also expected to generate a number of business opportunities for service providers in the agriculture sector.

The anticipated take up of new farming practices, including the deployment of machinery to ease the manual workload, should increase demand for farm equipment and support services in rural areas, while greater use of irrigation, greenhouses and a potential move towards organic production could bolster demand for related materials, technology supplies, and fertilizer and seed.

In addition to education and training, the successful transition to more sustainable practices will also require greater access to credit for farmers, according to some industry figures.

“Farmer cooperatives should receive more support from the government, particularly in terms of credit,” Fernando Malveda, chairman of LEADS Agricultural Products, told OBG. “They have plenty of land but very little money for necessary inputs.”

He added that adequate support could see the Philippines go from being a net agricultural importer to a net exporter.

Supporting the call for more finance, the Philippines Mindanao Jobs Report, released by the World Bank in June last year, stated that greater access to credit was key to improving the productivity of farmers on the Philippines’ second-largest island, and was essential to facilitating a shift towards high-yield and high-value crops.